Finely wrought short stories illuminate life's lacunae
By Cyril Wong
Is there a significant reason — one pertaining to the state of reading and publishing in our increasingly claustrophobic nation-state — that more novelists and poets have turned to producing short stories since the early 2000s? From Daren Shiau's poetic flash-fictions, Velouria, to Suchen Christine Lim's The Lies that Build a Marriage to now, more recently, Dave Chua's The Beating and Other Stories and Felix Cheong's Vanishing Point, I have begun to wonder if this growing trend of short-story writing stems from two main considerations: the novel form takes too long to say what a short story can convey in fewer pages; and the optimistic belief that Singaporeans are more likely to read shorter writings than sprawling (often historical to cross-generational) narratives or poems (since, as Alfian Sa'at was once quoted, general readers are terrified of line-breaks — they allow too much meaning in). I say 'optimistic' because I suspect most Singaporeans do not read well, regardless of the length or nature of the writing, going by a past report in The Straits Times about how the most popular local books being borrowed from our public libraries were shoddily written ghost stories.
I doubt that quality readership for strong local books will grow exponentially anytime soon, which is a waste because of the growing appearance of books like Cheong's latest collection on our shelves. About Chua's The Beating, which appeared a short time before Cheong's book, containing poignant and succinctly composed stories about Singaporeans navigating within moments of their alienated existence, the critic Gwee Li Sui (and arguably our most rigorous reader of everything Singaporean) wrote about alienation (particularly the Singaporean version of this condition) as resulting from the surrender of private autonomies to prescribed social roles and external conditioning, as well as the hyper-version of such conditioning through the rising distractions of digital media and new technologies in smartphone-/iPad-mad Singapore. Melancholy to tragic, sometimes darkly humorous and sharply satirical, even bordering on magic realism, Chua's book is a great companion piece to Cheong's new work — both capture Singaporeans lost or trapped inside lives usually not of their own conscious design; both capture the 'Singaporean-ness' of Singapore — urban, materialistic, callously forward-looking—in an overt-to-offhand way to drum home the inexhaustible point that living here can be an existentially barren endeavour (which explains the endless proliferation of entertainment-filled gadgets or the country's mounting religiosity). Very rarely do characters find a glint in the authors' stories through which one might glimpse an escape out of abjection, a more positive way of living, or an unexpected source of lasting happiness. But the similarities more or less end here, as Cheong's stories possess a unique whimsicality that spreads a pleasurable gloss over more depressing or satirical undertones.
More Saramago (with regard to the Portuguese author's lucid, compassionate attention to human psychology and his ability to make the fantastic seem perfectly commonplace) than Murakami (whose writings I have always thought are a hodgepodge of Raymond Carver's evocative minimalism and Kafka's mind-bending, elliptical style, but intellectually dialled down for the more conventional reader), Cheong extends the linguistic playfulness of his poetry and inserts it everywhere inside his prose. The spirit of playfulness is also in the almost surreal, yet convincingly everyday, scenarios that Cheong conjures up, a point that is significant as it makes his narratives potentially more refreshing than most Singaporean fiction that gets carried away with establishing socio-historical elements or the 'Singaporean-ness' of their context. The evident digs at our society are all there in Cheong's skilfully defined worlds, but they do not overshadow the emotionality or internal developments of his protagonists and the twists and turns in his plotlines.
The connected point in the stories about Singaporeans or objects — real or imagined — that have gone missing signals something simultaneously literal and richly metaphorical, pointing to the idea of 'missing' as synonymous with being alienated or estranged through diverse ways. The opening story, 'In The Dark', introduces a man with a peculiar optic dysfunction (he sees everything in white) whose wife has gone missing, but who misses the point about the intrinsic emptiness of his own fastidious and loveless life, in which the loss of his partner matters far less to him than whether he has cleaned his flat well. One could read countless analogies into this short, unsettling narrative: such 'whiteness' as reminiscent of a dominant political party that has brought up a nation to become fastidious and paranoid in maintaining order through endless wealth accumulation and social renewal; whiteness at the more universal level, alluding to a general preoccupation with order that represses feelings of insecurity and self-doubt threatening to unseat one's sanity — the interpretive possibilities are endless. The story is also reminiscent of José Saramago's novel, Blindness, in which an entire city is struck by "white blindness" that ironically exposes hypocrisies, inherent selfishness and inclinations towards violence in all of us — a novel which might or might not have inspired Cheong's opening story.
The emptiness within that is not properly acknowledged by the characters pours out to fill their lives and the narratives that describe them, energised by loss, alienation and dysfunctional relationships — a recurrent dimension of the characters' lives as depicted in both Cheong's and Dave Chua's stories — founded on self-deluded preconceptions or bloodless pragmatism. But this emptiness, in Cheong's portrayal, is also balanced out by a linguistic sensibility that is poetically exuberant but is able to restrain itself to augment implicit emotions and atmosphere in effective ways. In 'The Little Drummer Boy', for example, a story about a promiscuous drummer, this fine sense of balance is conveyed in the following lines which sum up precisely a protagonist's dilemma and sudden self-hatred: "How much pleasure does a man need before it claims him? How much pleasure is he built to contain before he brims, caves in? I could not stand myself. I could not stand still. I could not stand." Many of such moments occur in all the stories, in which language-play allows for reflections on powerful feelings to be depicted without melodrama or cheesy indulgence. It is like a grimace barely hidden by a knowing, mischievous grin.
But Cheong's language also knows when to tell it as it is, as when the protagonist of 'Life Sentence' — a prison guard, Ah Pin, cleaning up after prisoners who have just been hanged — ponders the harshly banal finality of life: "Everything you were, had achieved or were capable of, broke down when your body gave itself over to death. All that remained...as he...sprayed the hose hard on Tiger Long's naked body, was this: faeces finding its way to the nearest drain hole." What vanishes in the character's life is an earlier idealism, and what replaces it is a narrower realisation about his mortality and how a person should be remembered. The focal point at the end is a photograph of Ah Pin that he took with his wife for a future obituary, but the final "epiphany" is not quite the dramatic revelation he needs to believe it to be. The reader does not actually learn what Ah Pin thinks his own portrait tells him — a picture with "eyes so opaque not even his soul could shine through" — but, if one is to guess, it has something to do with watching Long's brutal end and how it has inspired him to treasure dwindling moments of bodily autonomy more preciously. But the final realisation does not speak about resolving "[old] wounds, calcified differences...[that] only end in grief" between his wife and himself; it also does not fully explain how a life "with no major illness" and perfunctory parenting abilities automatically mean that his children would remember him the way he needs to be remembered after death. Ah Pin is desperate to be happy, and maybe we should not begrudge his willingness to be easily contented, but as alert readers we should not be too quick to trust his complete self-belief either. The story is subtle in pointing out the easy deceptions that a Singaporean like Ah Pin is quick to slip into in order to function.
Cheong ventures into metafictional territory with a work like 'Melanie & Molly', in which a story-within-a-story device conflates plotlines (one about Melanie, the writer, and another about Molly, a book-editor/character in her novel) in hyper-self-reflexive ways, compounded further by how the writer in the "main" storyline literally loses words in a fictional novel that she has already published, particularly the word "strange". In the end, Melanie learns she has to admit to herself that her protagonist, Molly, is "real" in the author's own mind, truly "a lie worth telling", before words stop vanishing and Melanie comes fully into her own as a confident writer. Here, Cheong's literary ambitions get a little ahead of him, as when, for example, he feels the need to state at the end of the story (regarding Melanie's self-revelation): "There is only one word to describe this: strange." It is an unnecessary overstatement or Idiot's Guide summary of the story's central theme about the paradoxical demands of being an authentic writer, and coupled with the repeated italicisation of the word "strange" throughout Cheong's prose, the protracted use of the story-in-a-story device, dilutes the impact of the layered narrative's comment on the self-redemptive power of the writerly imagination.
But the stories return quickly to their usual stylistic potency with stories like 'The 10th Floor', in which an embezzler coming clean about his crimes encounters people looking for a non-existent 10th floor in his building (a floor envisioned only in dreams) and 'True Singapore Ghost Story', an ironic parable about a man whose death shades from the figurative (after the global recession, then being retrenched and ignored by people around him) to the literal, such that he ends up a ghost at a bus stop. Such stories show Cheong at his imaginative finest, when what vanishes in the stories is more than just objects or people but also mental projections of what should have been; the vanishing point in these cases becomes a pointless grasping after things that are not quite real or do not necessarily add profound fulfilment to a person's life, whether such things be money, status, superficial attention from others, or an illusory 10th floor symbolic of unspoken hopes and dreams.
Cheong's imaginative whimsicality takes over nearly completely, sans an acute sense of the tragic, in the final two stories, one about a boy who dies while computer-gaming, and the other about a time warp or wormhole that appears somewhere in Singapore, leading somehow to a presumed alien abduction of an opposition politician (during which time the dissident enters memories of his girlfriend, who happens to be the prime minister's daughter). The last story, 'Remember the Wormhole of 2030', even makes a tired jibe about how the abduction could be a brainwashing attempt by an "Interior Ministry", as imagined by the political dissident. But such winks and nudges do not drag on, and the stories succeed in exploring what-ifs in lively, lightly humorous, and engaging scenarios. My only grouse would have been that I wished the last two stories had swapped places with the earlier pair of strange tales instead. This would have ended the book with a greater sense of pathos and a stronger connection between the author's poignant consciousness of the local and his flights of fancy and propensity for the macabre. It is such a balance struck between these aspects of Cheong's imagination that has made this collection of stories one of the most unique publications by a local author to appear on our shelves in a long time.QLRS Vol. 12 No. 1 Jan 2013