Selected By Cyril Wong
This one comes from the Straits Times's Life!, 29 Sep 2002.
The latest publication by Ethos Books proves to leave little positive impression on Felix Cheong, going by his review of Effie Chuang’s first collection of short stories. Cheong begins his review like this, supplying a context by which Chuang’s book is to be panned:
At some point, a writer in Singapore must face up to, and test his worth against, two temptations. One is to go for the jugular, the big, broad themes, the international flavour, in a language that could have leaked from any pen in the English-speaking world. The other is to remain steadfast and rooted, playing the god of small things, using a local idiom that radiates from the tip of tongue to the edge of our island. Neither one approach is preferable or superior to the other, although there are supporters and ammunition aplenty from both sides. It is ultimately a creative choice, validated by what the writer has to say and how he says it.
After all of that have been nicely said, Cheong jumps right into it:
Effie Chuang, however, seems to have succumbed to both temptations at once. Her maiden collection, Underground and Other Stories, oscillates between trying to please an imagined international audience and a local readership. The result is a wavering work ill at ease at times with itself.
But at this point, Cheong decides that some praise should be included to balance out the criticism, although the line he quotes from one of her stories at the end is unspectacular and clichéd:
The book begins forcefully with two crisp and cutting stories... of self-deception, of unexploded violence. The next story, “Redemption”, picks up this scent of violence, exploring its source in the horror of schoolyard massacres. The first person voice is again unleashed to good use – a teenaged loser on the loose, with a gun cocked and ready to earn a measure of respect from his teachers and peers:
But let's get down to the real juice of the review:
Chuang prefers to portray life on the other side of the fence (probably because she herself has spent a number of years abroad, finishing her law degree)... This is well and fine; as long as the fictionist manages to evoke a sense of place and is consistent with it…What comes across as jarring though is when Chuang switches tack abruptly mid-way... tries her hand at depicting local life and does it without re-orientating her approach, without shedding her Western middle-class layering to the story. What results is reported speech that rings false...
For instance, Min, the mother in the HDB heartland story “Ordinary Lives” (and Chuang makes it a point to stress that Min comes from a lower middle-class family), uses quaint words like “dinner banquet” and constructs unlikely sentences like “you folks kept rushing me”. You would sooner hear an English dictionary drop in a crowded, noisy Bedok hawker centre than such words being uttered by a lower middle-class Singaporean. Even with “The Robber”, a story perched and propped up somewhere in America, the dialogue appears to have been intellectualised rather than actualised. Although we do not expect Quentin Tarantino-style exchanges, there should at least be enough realism, enough punch punctuating the dialogue to help us suspend our disbelief.
But conversations such as this – between two small-time crooks – fall really flat, fast: “Don’t tell me you’re not interested to be part of this exciting enterprise?” Jay asked...“You’re such incorrigible rogues,” he said, shaking his head. Chuang’s main failing as a writer, therefore, is her ear for dialogue; it needs to train itself to what her characters are actually saying, not what she imagines or wants them to say. That is the difference in solidity, in imparting a third dimension to 2-D characterisation.
I would like to take a moment here to emphasise the point: Can anyone who believes that “incorrigible rogues” constitutes part of realistic dialogue be considered a true writer? Cheong goes on:
Another weakness... is a fondness for clichéd expressions and images. These often make themselves a home in her sentences without first being made to account for their presence. A case in point, from “Crossing Borders”: “She had finally hit the bottom and the fear bottled within her evaporated.”
Two clichés plastered together by a conjunction do not good writing make.
Furthermore, in the title story – another first-person account – Chuang’s narrator uses a word that can no longer be perceived as innocent: “Life cannot be gay unless we can have our cups of coffee and pastries at the café every morning.”
No one has used “gay” to mean “merry” for a long, long time (except at Christmas time when everyone sings “Don we now our gay apparel”)... Tighter editing should have seen to it that such gaffes are evicted without notice.
After all that, Cheong attempts to end the review on a positive note, albeit unconvincingly:
Although Underground and Other Stories falters on style, it is nevertheless big on ambition. And so, for the rest of the world.
Where is Ethos Books headed? Drip acid in the Forum!
'The Acid Tongue' is a column that celebrates acerbic reviewing. Mail us if you know of any examples.
QLRS Vol. 2 No. 2 Jan 2003