Building Castles In The Air
Architecture informs a conceptually ambitious but shaky debut
By Kevin Tan Kwan Wei
Seasoned journalist Clara Chow's debut short-story collection Dream Storeys is a celebration of artistic creativity. The collection attempts to find the intersection between architecture and literature, the visual and the literal. Through Dream Storeys, Chow hoped "to amass a version of my country that exists only on paper".
Dream Storeys leverages a lot on Chow's experience as a journalist. For instance, its creative stimulus largely stemmed from a series of interviews that Chow conducted with architects. According to Chow, the "dream buildings" of Singaporean architects inspired the 10 short stories in this collection. Each interview prefaces the respective short story it inspired.
Though the stories are derived from well-thought-out creative concepts, Chow seems to falter in her attempts to breathe literary life into those designs. The "dream buildings" are appropriated callously and do not add to the story. They are akin to the bombastic green-screen landscapes we see in Hollywood blockbusters, heavy on style but light on substance.
This occurs right from the outset with the first entry, 'The Mall'. Architect Yen Yen Wu had shared with Chow her idea of having a mall that is 'mortal'. Wu imagined a shopping mall building that "is being demolished as it is being used". Wu believed that questioning the "sanctity of old things or the need to record may cast a different perspective on how we view our own history". Such a thesis does bear artistic weight and complexity, but lacks practicality. A thought-provoking hypothetical concept, it does not lend itself well to inspiring creative writing.
Consequently, the story struggles to reconcile the imaginative nature of Wu's ideas with her attempts to tell a story. Wu's idea does not make any practical sense once you consider the safety lapses and risks such a building would pose to people. Would any government approve the construction of such a fragile structure?
However, Chow brushes aside such concerns, claiming that "there would be no neighbours to sue for collateral damage" as Tanglin Halt (where the mall is based) is a "ghost town". This is a rather flimsy excuse considering that even if there were no neighbouring buildings, the shopping mall would probably have occupants and customers working and shopping in it. This huge leap in logic is tough for the reader to swallow. Though Chow did state that she wanted to portray a Singapore "that exists only on paper", the complete rejection of realism makes the concept frivolous and pretentious.
Nonetheless, 'The Mall' (like many of the other entries) does feature a compelling protagonist. Jill is a single mother leading a restless existence, suffering from the social stigma of being a single mother as well as the admonitions of her own mother. Left with no outlet to vent her repressed frustrations, Jill begins to develop a habit of mutilating or destroying objects.
Near the tale's climax, Jill remains in the building despite its impending collapse. Her sanity has been completely shattered, and she is possessed by manic thoughts: "She had forgotten about the mannequins, abandoned by defunct department stores in their store rooms. Should she behead or spare them? The prospect of either thrilled her."
With this, one tries to imagine a version of "The Mall" that could have eschewed its architectural inspiration for psychological drama. This is seen vaguely in the story's ending, the vivid description of the shopping mall's destruction reminiscent of the nihilistic ending to the film Fight Club. Both deal with despair though 'The Mall' is impaired by its brevity. The rushed six pages that Chow packs 'The Mall' in robs the story of any space to explore the characters and themes it introduces. It could have benefited from a more sustained treatment.
The length of the stories (or the lack thereof) is not the collection's only weakness. In most cases, the stories lack focus. Chow seems to be overwhelmed by her creative impulses and those of the architects she interviewed. The result is overly convoluted stories that oscillate from one theme to the next.
In 'Tree House', Chow bases the story on a building thought up by Olivia Tang. Chow picks up on Tang's rather brilliant idea of combining elderly-care centres with orphanages. The story depicts the relationship between an orphan, Salim, and an ailing ex-literature professor, Selma. Later on, Selma's health worsens as she contracts cancer.
Yet, Chow seems unable to affect any form of intimacy or emotion between Salim and Selma as her death approaches. Chow's description of Selma's death is clinical and unfeeling: "Numbers start flashing on the screens around them, the screens that bathe them in blue-ish light. Selma no longer smells like cinnamon, but of frangipani. Night-blooming cereus and rotten eggs. The equipment clears its throat and launches into a series of frenzied beeps, vehement and piercing. Then a strident tone, drawing an emphatic line through the air, continuous, without end, accompanied by someone weeping."
The absence of any description of Selma's physical appearance or countenance is jarring and distracting. Though Chow may have thought that describing Selma's death in such a distanced manner helps emphasise the deafening silence and sense of loss that haunts the deceased's loved ones, here it feels disjointed. Chow's focus on detachment renders the death contrite and obligatory, rather than a meaningful turning point for our characters. It is such a waste considering how much Chow invests in building up Selma's character.
'Tree House' alludes to numerous works of literature, both Western and Singaporean. They include Orwell, and works such as "Adrian Tan's comic novels, Alfian Sa'at's angry poetry, Atwood's sci-fi lullabies". The vague suggestion that literature formed a seminal component of Selma and Salim's relationship is drowned out by Chow's need to focus on the architecture of the tree house and a sub-plot involving another foster child under Selma's charge. The story ends up buckling and stumbling under the weight of all these ideas. Nonetheless, there were some nuanced moments. For instance, Chow is able to use dialogue effectively to convey character traits quite well: '"When I grow up, I want to marry you, Selma," Salim declares seriously one night, as he is brushing his teeth.'
Though fleeting and brief, Chow is able to condense the innocence of childhood thought with the love and bond that has grown between Selma and Salim within her use of dialogue. This reminded me of James Hurst's short story 'The Scarlet Ibis', which captured children's thoughts and voices vividly. However, Chow lacks Hurst's disciplined focus and adept use of symbolism. The creative potential of 'Tree House' is stifled by the frenzied leaps it makes from one story element to another. We see brief flashes of brilliance — but that is it.
As one reaches the end of Dream Storeys, one starts to realise that all the stories largely feature dystopian landscapes or storylines. The destructive and depressing stories such as 'The Mall' and 'Tree House' appear completely out of sync with the optimistic ideals espoused by the architects in the interviews. The architects had hoped to inspire and enthral viewers with their ideas but Chow has appropriated their "dream buildings" for her nightmarish stories.
This was puzzling to this reviewer, who wondered about Chow's purpose for altering the slant of her original inspirations. More often than not, Dream Storeys plunders the architects' idealism. As such, Dream Storeys feels less like a collaborative work but a collection of intrusive, self-indulgent fan-fiction.
As its title suggests, most of the stories found in Dream Storeys inhabit the temporal space between lucidity and slumber. Plot and character seem to contradict each other, as Chow seems unsure as to who or what to focus on. This debut collection offers inklings of originality, with strongly developed characters. However, they are bogged down by distracted storylines and discordant ideas. Veering away from the architectural source of her inspirations and developing a stronger focus may have run counter to what Chow might have intended, but would have certainly made Dream Storeys more polished and cohesive.QLRS Vol. 16 No. 2 Apr 2017