How to build a book out of short stories
By Toh Hsien Min
Poets are sprinters. In the Parnassian Games, poetry would be the 100m sprint. You'd watch the Jamaican streak across your screen in considerably under ten seconds. Paul Muldoon would win the 400m, and it's hard to see beyond Geoffrey Hill for the 1,600. But when it comes to the marathon, you're out of poetry altogether. The marathon belongs to the novelists. Simply finishing one is an achievement of will, regardless of what goes down in the record books.
This is especially so in Singapore, where writers do not generally write full-time; all the more so if one were to count stringing for the mass media as a separate activity. While the founding fathers may have called poetry a luxury we could not afford, as things turned out, modern Singapore with its competitive pressures has poetry as the only literary luxury we can afford. This makes it interesting to observe how our prose writers work to make their marathons fit.
Colin Cheong is a case in point. Already one of Singapore's most prolific prose writers besides having done every job under the tropical sun it is possible to do Cheong had to rely on a National Arts Council grant to write his latest novel. To hear him say it, he went to Japan, the hotel kicked him out every day for a couple of hours either side of midday, and the rest of the two weeks or so he was there he hunkered down and wrote the pieces that would eventually become Polite Fiction. It sounded as if every day he got through one chapter, each loosely themed after a well-loved fairy tale.
That mode of working, while admirably productive, is also at the root of the trouble with Cheong's novel. At all too many points, the book does not read like a novel. Cheong is skilled enough that it does not fall on the other side to resemble a series of writing workshop exercises, but a number of his sections carry the sense of a writer working because he has to. The clearest indication of this comes early in the book in 'The Emperor's New Clothes', when Cheong expends much elbow grease to flesh out a character, Heathcliff Lee, who seems to have so much distance to run in the book, but who is then tossed aside for the remainder of the text. Heathcliff's function apparently is to be a curtain-raiser for the female lead, Yuki Moh, and a peripheral reference to Wuthering Heights in an awkward diminuendo to the book, by which time the reader has all but forgotten his existence. Similarly, the chapter titled 'Little Mermaid' feels episodic, short story-like, opportunistic, even, in the summoning of two characters who barely appear elsewhere. 'The Frog Prince' and 'The Prince and the Pauper' neither properly make use of their references nor advance the story. As it stands, it is difficult even to summarise the story without either editing out large chunks of the book ("angsty girl screws up everybody's lives") or getting lost in the periphery ("did I forget to mention there were three guys in the bar, one of whom was called Mama?").
Cheong is, I think, aware of the demands of his structure. He takes pains to insert links all over the book for instance, having his insurance agent mention Heathcliff and linking many of the disparate characters in the book through their being Yuki's lovers plus one or two more love affairs besides yet all these different directions, when yoked together, do not pull together as one. The narrative only really kicks off in a ten-page sequence near the end of the book with without giving too much away a second death on the same day, which tellingly springs off the previous narrative thread that had promised to go anywhere the rape of Yuki's best friend by three rich and well-connected young beasts, which in a year where underage prostitution has filled headlines in Singapore seems more than usually prescient; certainly the sexual episodes are perverse enough without the backdrop of fairytale.
Perhaps if the book had been allowed to ferment for a longer time it might have become more of a whole, but in its published form it is epitomised by the frequent switches in perspective:
One may be forgiven for thinking the following two paragraphs could not have been next to each other:
Or in 'The Clever Tailor', when Uncle Chua progresses from selling Hell Bank notes for people to burn for their deceased kin to selling Hell Exchange stocks "unlike cash, they earned dividends in the other world, which would make their owners even wealthier. And which filial child would not want that for their parents?" there comes this magnificently ambiguous switch (emphasis mine):
It is possible to make that work, just about, by the arm-twist of imagining modern-day grown-up children who don't believe in burning paper for their parents or the shoulder dislocation of dementia. But perhaps the moral of the story is as with the Emperor's New Clothes: change your perspective and everything looks different.
When it comes to burning offerings to the dead, Stephanie Ye's dιbut short story collection The Billion Shop has reversed the usual order.
It's almost the keynote of a Stephanie Ye story that something in there is not quite the same as one's mental image of it, yet the stories are all anchored in a steadfast reality that Ye evokes with painterly care. The latter is easy enough to account for; there are beautiful descriptions of "fingers vibrat[ing] on the neck of the cello like flower petals under the weight of raindrops" or else "tugging at the white plastic bag sheet that served as the tablecloth, stretching a small bit of the material until it became a translucent membrane" spread over the various stories. The former, I think, works in subtleties hidden below the waterline. In the extract above, what catches my eye is neither the way Ye enables a firm visualisation of the braziers scattered around public housing estates with just three words, nor the adroit juxtaposition of kids alive and kicking up sand with the cardboard shoe offering, but the choice of the words "care package". A couple of pages prior, Ye had set the stage for this payoff, notwithstanding an uncharacteristic lapse into the wrong tense in reported speech, with the character Sam describing how "every few months my parents send me care packages of things they think I might miss: oil-drenched bakkwa, tins of Milo, ginger tea sachets and peipakoa for sore throats, though I'd told them I could get most of that stuff in Chinatown". Inserting "care package" into the sentence in the extract then lifts it beyond the pale, erecting facing mirrors between the emotions of the living and the mythologies of the dead indeed, pulling in resonances of JJ in an earlier story, expressing his desire to study in Cardiff.
The strategy in that sequence is clever, yet the origin of the sequence is not structure, I would guess, but psychological insight. When JJ, in a story rather daringly written in the second person, asks, "Are we that bad, Mrs Williams?" during a sexual liaison with his literature teacher, she smacks him on the head. "'I told you not to call me that when we're here,' she says evenly", which simultaneously conveys her having to dissociate the misbehaviour from her school persona and from her marital status, and yet through such means being able to maintain a cool equanimity about her actions. Sam's entrance at JJ's wake in the next story is greeted by a bunch of "the usual questions", and this he took to be "Rather banal stuff, especially given the circumstances, but this time the call-and-response felt strangely comforting, the recital of dates, places, names signalling a world where everything was in its right place." Sam's ability to understand his welcome as being both misplaced and reassuring succinctly paints how people really do think, in which contradictions are not necessarily terminal. His anxieties are all the more real for not being articulable: "It's not like I suddenly felt all buddy-buddy with my old classmates, but it felt like I'd passed some kind of test."
I hope that Ye feels like she has passed some kind of test with this first collection, because although the arc of the four stories isn't always clear ('Cardiff' seems to occur in a time enclosed by 'City in C Minor', for instance), the arc of her career seems to be. When in 'Astoria' Emma visits Sam on the Pacific Northwest, they take a walk to the seaside:
The closing two paragraphs of 'Astoria' are as moving a piece of writing as any I have seen in Singapore literature. Without quoting these so as to keep the experience intact for the reader, I will say that Emma's thought that she will "bring them home" links to "the vast distance she has travelled from home" in 'City in C Minor', while (leaving aside the presage of death) "Otherworldly markers for the passage of time, in a city on the edge of the equator" in 'Cardiff' ties to the "city now so distant from me in space and time" in 'The Billion Shop'. This is not only a collection of love songs to Singapore, nor one in which its constituent stories merely share common themes; rather, one reads across the four stories for an enriched depth of meaning in fact, the individual stories have an episodic structure and resemble miniature versions of what the whole book is. The characters inhabit more than one short story, and the events in any one story are allowed to develop in the next. In this way, the stories are close enough that they can still hear one another but far enough that anyone looking at them might wonder if it was just chance they were all out there.
Unlike Polite Fiction, a novel strung together by short stories, Ye identifies her book unambiguously as a short story collection, yet the presence in her book of the kind of links between the stories that Cheong has results in a fuzzy motion-capture line between what Cheong and Ye are respectively doing. While it is possible to examine this from either direction, I'm more interested in knowing what it would take to push Ye's collection over the line. I'm hoping she will show us.QLRS Vol. 11 No. 4 Oct 2012