Use of rock songs injects work into readers' experience
By Lauren Mills
The use of pop culture references in Claire Tham's short story, 'Driving Sideways' (from The Gunpowder Trail and Other Stories, 2003), creates a hypertexual level of meaning, building upon Tham's work by drawing in the themes and messages of the songs. Tham's protagonist, Russell, is seduced by a mysterious woman, Jun Leng, a drug dealer who uses him to smuggle drugs into Malaysia. Jun and her partner, Jek, live outside the norms of society and their lifestyle may be hard for readers to comprehend. Through references to pop culture, like rock songs and television shows, Tham brings her work into the readers' own sphere of experience.
The story's title references the song 'Driving Sideways' by Aimee Mann, taken from her Bachelor No. 2 album (2000), and readers with knowledge of the song can use Mann's lyrics to gain a fuller understanding of the characters and their relationships. The primary themes of the song – veering from the mainstream, the bamboozlement of the male and the inevitability of destruction – all further develop the characters and meaning of Tham's work. Another song mentioned in the story is Pink Floyd's 'Another Brick in the Wall' (from 1979's The Wall album), which provides insight into Jun and Jek's philosophies and how they have grown out of the conflicts in Singaporean society. Although the two songs sound very different, both deal with the feelings of dissatisfaction stemming from a restrictive modern society, which reflects one of the main themes in Tham's short story.
Mann's song can help readers navigate and understand the relationship between Russell – the Columbia graduate student and societal ideal – and Jun – who flouts the laws, morality and expectations of society. The song opens by addressing an unknown "you", but in the context of Tham's story, this "you" can be interpreted as Russell. Mann croons that "At least you know / you were taken by a pro /… She talked a perfect game." Tham echoes these lyrics, portraying Jun as an experienced con artist who successfully dupes and ensnares the travelling graduate student, Russell. Tham describes Jun as "nonchalant", "detached" and "as devoid of curiosity as an android". These descriptions combine to create a phlegmatic personality with a business-like detachment from the world.
When she and Russell cross the Thai-Malaysian border, she fakes a seizure, leading the guards to forget to check their bags because they are too busy grilling Russell. Then, as if nothing out of the ordinary has happened, she wakes up and walks out, taking up her backpack "with the expert, military heave of a little sabra." The term, sabra, has many different meanings. One comes from the prickly pear, a sweet cactus fruit with sharp spines on the exterior. This could also refer to an idea developed in Mann's song, in which the woman, Jun, is outwardly cold and detached but carries a secret fear inside, because she is afraid of being "wrong". The term, sabra, also refers to Jewish people born in Israeli territory, which gives the phrase some of its militaristic qualities. Both meanings build upon Jun's characterisation as a cool-headed "pro", unlikely to make personal attachments or be influenced by sentiment, although the first meaning hints at a softer interior.
Sabra also has another meaning, which stems from a hypertextual, pop culture reference: the television series Andromeda, which includes a race called the Nietzscheans. Within the Nietzschean race is a clan called the sabras, a treacherous group that is responsible for a series of betrayals and wars. The Nietzscheans consider themselves a homo sapiens invictus, undefeatable man, a better species than the humans. This comparison works well to describe Jun, who places herself above the laws and whom Russell repeatedly describes as "callous". Jek speaks for both himself and Jun when he says they have "always been lucky" and plan to continue to be lucky. They are a type of "homo sapiens invictus", impervious to attempts by law enforcement to punish their wrongdoing.
Jun also shows herself to be treacherous, like the sabras. When Russell "walk[s] out" on her, she retaliates by framing him with bags of what seems to be heroin but turns out to be baking soda. Just as in Mann's song, Jun uses her flawed philosophy to "deflect all the blame" onto Russell instead of herself. By deciding to live unhindered by society's morality, she believes she can break moral codes without consequence. However, as is made clear by her punishment of Russell, she does hold others to the moral code of loyalty. This code is contradictory because she does not follow it herself. In her own life, she believes power trumps everything.
This ties into the pop culture definition of Nietzsche's philosophies – as pointed out by Eugene Newman in his essay, 'The Meta-Moralism of Nietzsche', in Journal of Value and Inquiry 16 (1982) – which promotes the "misconception that Nietzsche was merely an advocate of any and all types of antisocial or criminal behaviour" for individual promotion. The television show promotes this pop cultural view, as do Jun and Jek. Jun argues that the wasted youth, who are destroyed by the drugs she sells, are not her responsiblity because, as she doesn't "create the demand. [She] just feed[s] it." This argument adheres closely to the misconceptions of Nietzsche's philosophies. Russell notes this philosophical misconception, saying that "somewhere the argument was flawed," but he was drawn in by the seductiveness of her moral ambiguity, which he describes as a "landscape she painted in pastel, soothing colours." As Mann's song says, Russell is "taken in by the scenery." Physical attraction and desire outweigh his morality and powers of logic, and he is unable to resist the mirage Jun creates.
The reader's frustration with Russell for his inability to stand up for himself or his moral ideals is amplified by the content of the song. Mann sings of inevitable destruction, but the words are undermined by a deceptively upbeat tune that parallels the woman's seductiveness. The singer tries to warn the man, but the woman "hit[s] scan on the radio," effectively cutting off the warnings. This is analogous to the reader's inability to reveal the flaw in Jun's philosophy due to the barrier of ink and paper. There is also a sense of inevitability in the song, which suggests that that Russell is doomed to continue "driving sideways" until disaster strikes. Readers know the relationship will not end well because the song foreshadows its destruction. They simply watch the train wreck unfold. This predetermination also appears in the story itself, where Russell describes his feelings for Jun more as a "paralysing compulsion" than love or lust. He says following her out of the Malaysian customs shed "was not an act of will but of predestination." When read together, the two texts build upon each other, foreshadowing Russell's inescapable fall.
Russell does appear to find satisfaction for some need, although this satisfaction is likely illusory. As Mann's song says, he is "powered by / the hopeful lie" that buying into Jun's lifestyle will solve his problem of "experiencing life through a pane of glass". Russell also hopes to find acceptance by joining Jun and Jek, saying he "always suffered the shy person's need for any kind of social inclusion." However, the characters exist separate from the world and the rules that govern it. Therefore, any sense of breaking through that "pane of glass" and entering into the world is an illusion. Additionally, Jun and Jek's selfish characters suggest that Russell's need for acceptance won't be met. The story is ambiguous about the outcome of this relationship between Russell and Jun. In the last few sentences, Jun turns and walks away, leaving Russell standing in the hotel lobby, waiting until "she disappeared" and then breaking into a run. The reader is not told whether or not he joins her or if she has left him behind and only returned to leave him with a burning, unsatisfied desire for her. However, by reading the story as a hypertextual work that includes Mann's song, the reader can interpret the conclusion with greater certainty.
Mann notes that "this, by default / comes screeching to a halt." "This", in terms of the story, refers to both the relationship between Russell and Jun and to their ability to live beyond the laws and mores of society. The two are "driving sideways", violating both the laws of traffic and the laws of physics. That status is too unstable to endure. Russell notices this same doom, calling Jun and Jek "hubristic" and sordid, predicting that they will both go "off the rails". However, when he is in their presence, he is unable to raise any moral objections. He only feels a small "twinge of fear" when he begins to recognise the "seductiveness of their philosophy". Although the story contains subtle hints of doom, reading the text alongside Mann's song makes it clear that the relationship and lifestyle cannot survive because it is based upon the inherently flawed philosophy of "driving sideways".
The relationship is also flawed because of the unbalanced power structure between the two people. Russell repeatedly feels as though he is being used by Jun, complaining of a growing "sensation that he was being taken for a ride." This ties in with the concept of the song in which the "you" character, Russell, is literally trapped in the woman's vehicle. Mann's song suggests that the woman's professional seduction blinds him to the fact that he doesn't belong in the car, in the relationship. Mann says that if he were to "roll down the window," letting the outside world in, he would notice this. But Russell doesn't let the world in, and the distortion of his thoughts is clear when he says that "home seemed increasingly unreal, like the falsely upbeat American sitcoms…[T]he only reality was the girl."
In the airport, when he figures out he's been set up, he prays Jun wasn't responsible because "his faith in the universe depend[s] on it." Jun's character, however, is entirely focused on promoting her own success and well-being, evidenced by her framing Russell. As Mann's song explains, Russell's "companion / will not help [him] navigate." Instead, she will use him for as long as he is helpful, likely abandoning him if he becomes a liability. This reliance on Russell to navigate for himself is problematic because it sets him up to fail. Jun is the only one with full knowledge of what is going on. Russell is kept in the dark for most of the story and is never fully informed of the details of Jun's smuggling operation. Russell describes the hotels Jun leads him to as a series of "featureless backpacker's lodging[s]" located in "featureless border town[s]". Because Russell is lost and lacks landmarks to mark his movements, he is likely to "say / that [he's] making headway /…and never even notic[e] / [he] never do[es] arrive." This also builds upon the argument that the relationship is an illusion and Russell's needs won't be met.
Russell travelled to Asia in the hopes of resolving his sense of "irresolution", another need. Russell says he felt "out-of kilter, schizophrenic and [like an] inhabitant of dual worlds" due to the gap between his Cantonese heritage and American citizenship. Jun says Russell came to Asia because "he's finding himself" and it is possible that he seeks the approval of the two Singaporeans in order to fill this gap. As Mann's song points out, Russell is "mistaking speed / for getting what [he] need[s]." Speed, the instant gratification of accepting Jun and Jek as friends, blinds Russell to the fact that they are using him. Additionally, this false speed parallels Jek's statement when he says smuggling drugs is "a rush. Knowing you didn't get caught." This rush comes from power – the power of fooling authorities, of wielding control over the addicts who need the dealers more than dealers need them, of living free from the social mores. Both rushes are deceptive, mere "speed" without direction. Russell is, however, the only one of the group capable of noticing this mirage and calling out their flawed philosophy. Mann's lyrics reveal Russell's power to readers when she ends her song singing about how Jun will "sit / thinking [Russell's] going to handle it / until she's proven wrong / Until [he] prove[s] her wrong." Jun thinks she can control Russell through his attraction to her. But, in an ultimate twist, it is the seduced that will prove the seducer wrong. One day, the seductive spell will break and Russell will prove that Jun cannot control everything or everyone, destroying the illusion of power.
The hypertextual nature of the story is further developed by another song reference, this time one that illuminates the psychology and history of Jek, a minor character. Jek, brings in a punk rock reference when he tells Russell he "agree[s] with Pink Floyd. We don't need no education." Tham's story reveals very little about Jek's character, but it is clear he has a special connection to Jun, as their affair sparked her transition from her bank job and "hundred hour work weeks" to drug dealing. Tham further develops this connection through Russell's observations that Jek and Jun finished each other's sentences and "knew the body rhythms and pace of the other by heart." Jek, like Russell, is more dependent upon Jun than she is upon him, and Jek knows "someday she [will] cut him off." However, their strong connection and common past suggests Jek is important to an understanding of Jun's character.
Jek's mention of Pink Floyd's song is appropriate to his history, especially the line that he quotes, "we don't need no education." Jek dropped out of law school and criticises Russell's role as the "eternal graduate student" who is out of touch with the world and working on a worthless thesis. Jek also denigrates his brother, Jun's former husband, as an "old family dog" for "having spent his life doing exactly what was expected of him." In contrast with his brother, the narrator describes Jek as "the natural loner" who "didn't see the sense in being a cog in a seamless powerful machine." This fits in perfectly with the chorus of Pink Floyd's song, which protests against being "just another brick in the wall." Jek's dislike of being part of society counters many of the Chinese ideals of society.
In cultural research, collectivism – which places greater importance on the collective, like the family, state, ethnic or religious group – rates highly in China and Malaysia (according to Harry Triandis' essay 'Collectivism and Individualism as Cultural Syndromes' in Cross-Cultural Research 27.3, 1993). Singapore is strongly influenced by both the Chinese and Malaysian traditions, which suggests Singapore, too, would rank higher on the collectivism scale. However, Singapore is also a nation colonised and ruled by the British for many years, forming a direct confrontation between the Western ideal of the individual and the ideal of collectivism. This tension may explain why Jek and Jun were pushed to extremism in their philosophy. There was no outlet between the two opposing ideals except a complete rejection of both. The conflict between the two ideals created a Frankenstein in the form of Jek and Jun, the Ying and Yang, male and female components of a new world order that follows a hedonistic philosophy but has also adopted warped elements of Western individualist beliefs in which the good of the individual is promoted above all else.
Pink Floyd's song directly addresses this confrontation between the individual and the collective and the violence incurred when society attempts to impose too much control. The song especially focuses on issues of British education, which are similar to the educational problems in Singapore and many other former British colonies. Learning in the Singaporean system is confined to the test material, with little deviation from the established curriculum and little room for individual thought. This is precisely the same impersonal, restrictive education Pink Floyd rebels against, when he sings:
The phrase "thought control" links in to what Jek and Jun are rebelling against: the ideals of the Singaporean society that are imposed upon the society – graduate from a top school, find a job and purchase status symbols. Jek sums up his dreams when he was 16 as becoming a lawyer, purchasing a Mercedes, living in a bungalow and buying koi fish. These dreams demonstrate the extent to which Jek had been indoctrinated by his schooling and by Singaporean society. They also demonstrate the extent to which he has rebelled, as he now occupies backpackers' hotels and his whole purpose is to fly under the radar.
In the music video to Pink Floyd's song, the schools attempt a similar indoctrination in an effort to homogenise the children. The kids are shown standing on conveyor belts, all wearing uniforms and featureless masks. The uniforms are vaguely reminiscent of the scene from Tham's novel in which Jek describes meeting Jun while waiting in line at the moneychanger's – the line being a similar conveyor belt image. Jun wore a grey suit and had her hair in a bun, leading Jek to say she "looked desexed, packaged." Both Pink Floyd's music video and Tham's short story focus on the colour grey and the lack of personality, even the lack of humanity, uniforms bring. The kids fall off the end of the conveyor belt, one by one, and the camera flashes to an image of a meat-grinding machine, suggesting the kids are not human so much as a collection of bone and flesh to be processed and consumed. In the same way, Jun's humanity is taken away when she is "desexed". Destroying the gender and reproductive drive of an individual upsets our concept of people as living, breathing humans. The reference to the song, along with the short scene in the corporate world of Singapore, builds up the idea that Jun and Jek might be justified in their rebellion against society.
Just as the strict Singaporean society cannot constrain the two drug dealers, the dark, brutal boarding school in Pink Floyd's song is not able to subjugate the kids. The teacher's voice comes over the soundtrack yelling at students to "stand still", but the yelling is inadequate, and he has to repeat himself later on. Then there is a mass movement of the students, represented by the chorus of children's voices. The lone teacher proves insufficient against this uprising and his voice disappears from the song. In the music video to the song, the kids are shown destroying the desks and classrooms, tearing down the brick walls of the building, driven to rebel by the industrialised brutality of their education. Arguably, the suffocating restrictions of Jun's job and Jek's schooling pushed them down a path they would not otherwise have taken. Society, then, may bear part of the blame for the modern violence of rebellion and protest.
Pink Floyd's song also contains a third part, which is less frequently heard, and which emphasises this element of violence. In Pink Floyd's film The Wall, which puts the song to image, rioters throw Molotov cocktails at police officers and a musician destroys a television set with his guitar. However, this violence doesn't appear to serve any purpose and the song ends with the statements:
These lyrics are key because they demonstrate that, even when the characters believe they are escaping the machine, they are not. Society is too entrenched. Their philosophy is flawed and any appearance of speed or movement or escape is pure illusion. Central to this flaw is their inability to escape one of the most powerful symbols of modern society: money. Jek says money is the primary reason he got into dealing drugs; and Jun tells Russell the drugs are worth "several hundred thousand US dollars". But flawed or not, Pink Floyd's song shows that their philosophy is a reaction to a very real problem in society. The conflict of ideals, between individualism and collectivism, and the effort by the Singaporean government to meld the different ethnicities of Singapore into one nation, all raise significant psychological conflicts, which erupt into violence and rebellion. The existence of these problems does not justify their actions, but it does provide the reader with greater insight into their characters.
Both of the songs incorporated into Tham's story give greater meaning to the piece. Mann's song not only lends the main theme and title to the work, 'Driving Sideways', but also builds the readers' understanding of the relationship between Russell and Jun and provides insights into their characters. The song, 'Another Brick in the Wall', expands upon the social context of the novel, describing the restrictive environment of the school system and demonstrating the atmosphere that gave rise to Jun and Jek's philosophy of hedonistic nihilism, in which the pleasure gained from the rush of drug smuggling outweighs any social costs.
Although Tham does not go into detail on the songs, by merely mentioning them, she creates a hypertextual level to her story. Both songs are likely to be familiar to readers. According to Teresa Wilz's 2001 Washington Post article, 'Her Own Mann: Independent-minded Singer Sheds Labels', the 'Driving Sideways' album, Bachelor No. 2, sold over 150,000 copies in less than a year and Mann herself made headlines for breaking from her record label to produce the album independently. Pink Floyd's album sold roughly 8 million copies in the decade after its release (as mentioned in David Browne's 1992 article, 'Top Album Sales: From Thriller to The Wall, Bestselling Albums of All Time', in Entertainment Weekly). Although the work presents a complete picture on its own, the pop culture references give readers a greater understanding of the text. The story also becomes more alive for the reader as the characters leave the fictive world and interact with the familiar, communal realm of pop culture.QLRS Vol. 11 No. 2 Apr 2012