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Vol. 2 No. 4 Jul 2003

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Ponderous Puns and Meandering Metaphors
The ordinary world of The Manic Memoirs of Terry Ho

By Ng Wei Chian

The Manic Memoirs of Terry Ho
Terry Ho
SNP Editions (2003) / 104 pages / SGD 11.00

Mondegreens. This word succinctly describes and sums up the funniest episode in Terry Ho’s Manic Memoirs. In the opening pages, Ho recounts his childhood as spent with his aptly nicknamed older sister Bosscat and younger brother Ferak. Bosscat is the originator of the mondegreen ‘the heart’s natural smart’ (the correct line being ‘the heart’s not so smart’), only to come round to a full epiphany ten years after the event when her faulty and no doubt selective memory attributes the mondegreen to poor old Terry Ho himself. This and Bosscat’s insistence that Narainia was Lewis’ intended term for Narnia manage to convey the angst and helplessness of the then-four year-old Terry in the face of his infinitely “superior” elder sibling. After this fairly promising start to the book, however, the rest of Ho’s reminiscences start floundering.

The Memoirs are framed by the main events of Ho’s life, most of which would be familiar to the local reader. They are recounted in strict chronological order and detail his life beginning from the time of his birth right up to the present moment. In the space of 104 pages, he manages to run through some minutiae of the above-mentioned main events with space left over for a final chapter titled “Vignettes”, where he notes down a random mix of either mundane events (his exploits in karaoke and his aversion to foul odours) or the slightly less credible (his brother’s baffling an entire McDonald’s crew in France with his request for a Sprite). While brevity might be the main reason for the often flat humour of this chapter, one wishes that Ho had devoted the time spent on the Vignettes editing the earlier pages or omitting the chapter altogether. “Vignettes” finds Terry Ho squeezed a tad dry for a joke and smells like filler material, the scenarios unconvincing to start with and the dialogue poorly scripted.

The rest of the Memoirs finds Terry taking potshots at the various institutions and their denizens that he has passed through: prestigious schools, an even more prestigious university and the army. His teenage years in school are shaped by the school principal’s (or rather, Headmaster’s) institutional Anglophilia (with, as Ho notes, delusions of turning the school into an ‘Eton of the East’). The junior college years are passed over quickly, with Ho finding the science camp he attended some time during those two years worthier of note. The beginning of his army years, then, find him struggling to exact arrears from active gangsters and getting acquainted with the bawdier songs and turns of phrase so crucial to military communication. For a true child of the ‘80s, the peak of local humour for me is still The Teenage Textbook and Workbook and Army Daze, all of which cover more elaborately than the Memoirs these particular years in a Singaporean male’s life. The Memoirs fall short against these classics: Ho seems to have a strange knack for picking out premises that lack comic potential, and then diving into descriptions that fail to make up for the lack of inherent humour. The above-mentioned books were winning combinations of unabashedly slapstick humour and pure irreverence, such that more than a decade after the first reading, scenes and lines still come easily to mind. The Memoirs, unfortunately, contain little that is as memorable, the only instance coming close being the mondegreen as previously mentioned.

The same problems are at work in Ho’s chapter about life at Cambridge, where two of the more remarkable points of university life include a Pizza Hut binge and the elevated status of the ducks that populate the town’s main waterway. Ho attempts to make up for the absence of any genuinely humorous anecdotes by belabouring each one that he does present. Examples include his musings about how the swans that end up as portions of roast on a particular college’s dinner-table actually survive at all in the swamp-like conditions of the river, his recounting of a top politician’s hob-nobbery with the Singaporeans at Cambridge, and his late-night encounter with a fugitive from college law. The disclaimer in the book states that the Memoirs are an embellished version of the facts – perhaps Ho would have done better with more embellishment in parts. In Ho’s account, his unexpected dormitory visitor merely rushes into his room for cover before being diplomatically expelled by Ho for fingering his belongings. This whole episode is related in decidedly unspectacular and unfunny terms, and it is this same lack of pointed description and inability to capture the essence of comedy in a situation that plagues the book as a whole. It suffers from an excess of stereotypically (un)amusing scenes, such as Ho’s being locked out a number of times from his hostel room during the science camp and his valiant attempts to procure himself a ticket to Florida in the wake an air traffic control system failure.

The airport fiasco also gives plenty of room for Ho’s abuse of the extended metaphor: Ho fancies himself a marathon runner with the ticket to Florida as the prize. A well-executed metaphor is always a boon, but Ho drags it out for too long here and at various other points in the Memoirs. Three paragraphs’ worth of this and one is left gasping for air.

Puns also abound throughout the book, and while Ho might well have been ‘honoured to don the socks of such a venerable don’, this reviewer was left cringing and ducking for cover. The quotidian nature of Ho’s defining experiences seems to indicate a willingness to be a little too true to life: what has appeared in the Memoirs might well have happened to many others in the same circumstances. The life depicted in the Memoirs does not inscribe itself well upon the memory. In his epilogue Ho notes that he is at the moment primed and ready for the world of work, having just completed his stint in the army. Hopefully the years to come will provide Ho with more substantial material as well as a sharper pen with which to write.

QLRS Vol. 2 No. 4 Jul 2003


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  Other Criticism in this Issue

Monsoon Reading
Cyril Wong reviews City of Rain.

In the Observation Ward
Toh Hsien Min reviews No Visitors Allowed.

Don’t Judge An Anthology By Its Introduction aka Things That You Cannot Help But Notice
Anne Seah reviews Don't Judge A Book By Its Cover.

If It Ain't Spoilt...
Jeremy Samuel reviews PIE to SPOILT.

Related Links

Terry Ho profile
External link to the writers.net.

The Manic Memoirs of Terry Ho
External link to Select Books.

Terry Ho juggling profile
External link.


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