In The Observation Ward
John Machado sits at the junction of alertness and expressiveness
By Toh Hsien Min
No Visitors Allowed
For some time now, the short story genre has taken a back seat to poetry in the arena of Singapore letters. The few releases that have emerged, such as Underground and Other Stories or News At Nine have generally been submerged by the deluge of poetry offerings. One could try any number of reasons for this: that it is all a matter of volume, that the poets are more marketing-savvy, even that the poets are (gasp!) better. While one is speculating, one might be tempted to point to the release by Landmark Books of a collection of short stories written by a late, Malaysian advertising bigshot as a sign of the times. Where are the live, Singaporean ones? But to do so would be to neglect the merit of what is indeed a beautiful, even poetic, short story collection.
It is a brief collection however. There are only three stories, revolving around the death of a father, a short spell of living in a haunted house and a Catholic confession respectively, and an extract from an unfinished novel set in an India moving towards independence after the Second World War. None of these are particularly plot driven – there is no twist in the tale in the style of Edgar Allan Poe or Guy de Maupassant. But it would be truly astonishing to find one from such an understated and gently observant writer.
As these stories demonstrate, Machado has a keen eye for detail across a range of categories. His architectural observation is almost fussily precise, to the point that he is able to build reasonable pathways for his narrative based on the layout of his narrators’ homes. The detail presented on rubber tapping or on an explosion reads with authenticity; in the latter case, there is close attention to all the senses:
When Machado describes “folds of hills bleeding off dark green to grey then blue”, it’s an image I recognize from cycling an endless series of crests on the road from Kota Tinggi to Mersing. When he renders heat and light, the tearing effect he highlights is painfully familiar to anyone from the tropics:
When Machado renders the maid’s message as simply “Sir take to hospital”, the unconsciousness of subject and object relations to the verb rings true as a syntactical feature of the speech of present-day maids. This piercing observation, harnessed to the ability to capture it and evoke it for the reader, is a primary driver of success for the stories. Occasionally, Machado’s descriptions are open to criticism: that their authenticity is built on an object-oriented database, as with the plums and beret of the least successful story, ‘The Confession’. But these objects also frequently carry a character and life of their own, as seen in the “wildly helmeted firemen” – anyone who has been through national service would tell you that in moments of panic your equipment bounces around you like Christmas tree decorations. And on a larger scale they come together – chapals, gharries and mango pickle – to create a sense of time and place as strong as any seen from writers from these parts.
Machado is more frequently less direct, however, as his account of shooting a tomcat, following on a vividly accurate description of shooting monkeys (“When you hit a monkey in the chest, its skin and fur flapped back over the entry wound. Sometimes there was a single fleck of red on the fur. Most times you couldn’t tell. Then you flipped him over and you were looking at a big black pumping hole in his back.”), shows. In skirting around the identity of the cat, reducing it to “green eyes”, Machado conceals the extreme cruelty of the moment, a cruelty founded on the narrator’s sense of helplessness in the face of what he already recognizes as his father’s impending death, in a similar manner, for example, to the dehumanizing of Iraqi civilians in the American press. Machado doesn’t always tell you what he’s on about, but leaves you to work it out.
This accounts for part of the book’s attraction. Machado doesn’t make it difficult for you to work out what’s going on, but there is enough for you to feel as though you had a workout. It’s easy to pick up the nuanced suspicion of doctors in the response to a doctor’s recommendation that the narrator’s father spent the night in hospital: “How’s that going to stop him losing his sense of balance?” It’s easy to see where Machado’s narrator slips seamlessly from the hospital ward into his memory, “Take me with you, Dad” following a neon signpost “Just like that”. When the narrator of ‘Monkey God’ senses the presence in his house for the first time, it’s easy to see where Machado sets up expectations and lets them down, in the process integrating rather elegantly the motifs of stabbing, light, cobra and woman. When Leon, in the novel extract, rationalizes as a game his father’s disguise of their ethnicity, the irony is doubled because of their Eurasian status; the conjunction of a well-handled child’s perspective and a cynical look at Indian nationalism bring in complexities in perspective that neither resolve themselves (at least not in this extract) nor tire the reader. Including a novel extract in a short story collection, while strictly speaking an editorial decision, heightens this effect, as the more diffuse novelistic structures invite comparison with what has gone before, making the book almost a study in these two prose modes. No Visitors Allowed is a California Fitness for the mind: you finish feeling good about yourself even though it hasn’t really done as much for you as it could have.
This is turn owes to the charm of Machado’s voice. It is an exceedingly sympathetic one, equipped with a dry sense of humour. Machado’s narrator recalls the real estate agent’s sell on “constant breeze” only to deadpan: “It was hot. And still.” When Leon discusses his family’s complexions with his minder Joseph, the latter is given an awful pun: “it only fair your brother look like Mummy.” There is the word adaptation of someone in thought (as when the narrator describes how a snake’s prey “lumped slowly down through the body”), perhaps not so much mirroring as catalysing the active thought of the reader, and therefore encouraging an identification with the narrator. It’s not by a long stretch the latest trick in the toolbox, but it is used effectively here. It’s how you are drawn into the “subsystem of beliefs” that governs the book. As a result, even if Machado sometimes over-reaches, as in the weak and unwieldy description of the Monkey God’s movements, it’s easy also not to fault him for that. When he describes the heaviness of his eyes as being like “two points of pressure”, one could wave off the unlikely feeling as being for effect. For the effect of this slim collection is that even as one recognises its limitations, one might just wish that Machado had a little more material out, material that one might be prepared to examine less forgivingly.QLRS Vol. 2 No. 4 Jul 2003