Excerpts from Singular Acts of Endearment II
By Desmond Kon
Uncle Han lives in the flat next door. He's more than happy to have our garden spill over to his side of the corridor. It'll be a magnificent two rows of plants, and we may even hang some from the top. The closest thing to a garden after Uncle Han sold off his semi-detached unit was a sand garden in his living room. He covered it with a large glass cake cover. There was a tiny rake beside the garden, and two pebbles resembling granite rocks in a real Zen garden.
Today started out as a blue Thursday, so Jeremiah stayed in. We lounged around in his room. He let me have the bed. I liked the smell of his head pillow. He was on the floor, reading a book, when I asked him if he could be any historical or mythic figure, who would he be?
"A sort of transhistorical albeit transcoded Narcissus with an anamorphic mirror," Jeremiah said. Those were his exact words. I made him repeat it, so I could write it down. It sounded like something eminently unreadable. It was such a mouthful, and he actually repeated it, word for word. I didn't even know what it meant, this kind of Narcissus, but Jeremiah said he'd like that because he'd see Aristophanes in it, and freeze this inward-looking navel-gazing. "Or someone who gets Leonardo Sbaraglia or Jeremy Irons or Charlotte Rampling or Monica Bellucci or Benoξt Magimel their coffee. And an easy chair." Now Jeremiah was riffing, and having fun with his own thoughts.
Auntie is looking at Jeremiah comb his hair. I find this somewhat unnerving. Not uncomfortable, just awkward. He doesn't need the mirror. He's simply cross-legged on Ma's armchair, his back erect, both hands sweeping across the curve of his scalp. He unconsciously holds his breath. His chest broadens. There's soft hair running down the middle. "I'm wearing a button-down shirt to school," he says. "So I don't have to worry about putting it on first." Auntie thinks Jeremiah will age nicely, and look like Greg Kinnear. "I'd do Greg Kinnear any day of the week," Auntie says, touching her face and neck as she confesses this. There isn't an ounce of shame. Micah echoes her sentiment. They're both still looking at him, as if he's posing for an infomercial, and they're waiting for him to say the right thing.
Purest of Bastards
Another book for the sonnet exercise. This is a dense read. I'm still plowing through it. But the man's a genius. Derrida, that is. Prof too, because this exercise is really helping me understand hybridity, how genres may collapse into each other. The book is David F. Krell's Purest of Bastards: Works of Mourning, Art, and Affirmation in the Thought of Jacques Derrida.
It seemed proper to choose something so sobering given Ah Gong's condition. The doctor says he has months to live, maybe a year. How could the father of deconstruction look at death and remain evasive about it? It'd be cruel to read an eternal irony into it the phenomenon of death, that is. The book is rich fodder for someone who likes critical and cultural theory. I can't read it at bedtime because it keeps me awake. It keeps me questioning, bewildered, more reasonable. There, another three words, for the love and hell of it.
Hanging around Jeremiah brings out a duality in me. He lets me be completely silly and juvenile, and I actually enjoy slipping into those funny-faced muppet slippers. At the same time, his mood can shift dramatically, and quite unexpectedly. The topics shift gears too, and we find ourselves talking about super-sized subjects. Like whether there's extraterrestrial life on that star two thumbs away from Orion. Or whether God is truly omniscient and omnipotent, and if that were so, why all the horrors and atrocities we see on the news every other day?
We're letting the music play randomly. It's nice losing control over what sounds come to us. The song that's playing now is "Holiday in Spain" by Counting Crows. A moment ago, it was the title track from the film The English Patient. That was performed by Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields. It's a haunting piece, so delicate. Like water tripping over small rocks in a brook, and a dislodged water lily is going downstream, going the way of the current.
Jeremiah looks like Robert Kazinsky from True Blood. Kazinsky had a supporting role in Pacific Rim. He was also in some Brit ad about daylight savings the director was clearly exploiting his sex appeal. They got him to take off his clothes and climb into the bath. Anyway, Jeremiah has those same tired eyes that brighten when he smiles. He looks like he's just woken up at any time of the day. He has three pairs of jeans in the same colour, and several home-made t-shirts he wears tucked out. He's never in a dress shirt. Sometimes he puts on the vest I gave him for his birthday last year. It's grey with pinstripes, made of soft cotton. He ripped the seam on the side to make it look old. He likes that look grungy, worn, abandoned.
He agrees with me and 99.999% of the planet that Derrida would comfortably fit into the pantheon of authors known to be eminently unreadable.
The 'S' Bus
Nothing makes sense. Nothing makes sense. Nothing makes sense. Nothing makes sense. Nothing makes sense. Nothing makes sense. Nothing makes sense. Nothing makes sense. Nothing makes sense. Nothing makes sense. Nothing makes sense. Nothing makes sense. Nothing makes sense. Nothing makes sense. Nothing makes sense. Nothing makes sense. Nothing makes sense. Nothing makes sense. Nothing makes sense. Nothing makes sense. Nothing makes sense. Nothing makes sense. Nothing makes sense. Nothing makes sense. Nothing makes sense. Nothing makes sense. Nothing makes sense. Nothing makes sense. Nothing makes sense. Nothing makes sense. Nothing makes sense. Nothing makes sense. Nothing makes sense. Nothing makes sense. Nothing makes sense. Nothing makes sense. Nothing makes sense. Nothing makes sense. Nothing makes sense.
Nothing makes sense. Nothing of these narratives even when they do. Nothing of the books I'm asked to read, the academic books that obsess and deeply invest in their own literary scholarship, just to unravel the secrets of a small tract or a suite of poems, or a writer's larger oeuvre.
Nothing like Paul Friedrich's The Language Parallax: Linguistic Relativism and Poetic Indeterminacy. Nothing of the chapter that discusses the sonnet and its evolution. Nothing of how the excerpt Prof copied has stayed with me: "But the language of the sonnet almost as a converse to the language of dreams can illustrate the fissures and even the breakdown of order and convention in several ways. Beneath even the apparently rigid paradigms of the Petrarchan sonnet we find a set of formal principles that actually allow for unexpected freedoms of choice and mode freedoms refreshingly realised by formative sonneteers such as Petrarch himself and Thomas Wyatt. In historical terms again, the premises and potential of the sonnet have recently been loosened up sometimes exploded so that today the scope of poetic indeterminacy in the sonnet outweighs the limitations of form; the sonnet actually can open into realms of chaos and indeterminacy while at the same time the individual poems are ordered in diversified and often novel ways."
Maybe nothing makes sense. Maybe maybe. Maybe everything makes better sense after the nothing. Maybe the moments in between exist just to exist, with nothing in between, nothing to make sense of. Nothing wants to make sense. Nothing has that desire. Nothing of sense, nothing of sensibility, but for the words and the language we allow ourselves. And if nothing is where we intend for the ending, only to circle back to the various beginnings altercating right through, then nothing must be said even as it's said. That the nothing must undo itself, even the illusion of the somethings and anythings and everythings. Nothing makes sense of our walks. Nothing makes sense of the writing out of our walks. Nothing makes sense in death.
Nothing makes sense in the life before it. Nothing except the ineffable, and the inversion and the inhabitation of such an awareness. That's the nothingness, the eventuality that gives hope, a hope that moves against the wave of moments, and establishes a still point. The nothing of yet another nothing that seems more distilled but achieves only more of the negation, more of the loss, more of the receding into invisibility and rarity and our collective sense of brokenness.
Nothing of Beckett reverting to an earlier story as if it was written after the fact. Nothing of Beckett at dinner with Malone both are reciting a litany of sonnets in a chant and sharing a rare steak doused in a Bιarnaise with too much yolk and peppercorn. Nothing makes sense of their feeling equally helpless and sad and fearful and angry and resigned. At the table is Joyce, having a cheese sandwich, with ham for the added taste of meat. Nothing of their really being at a table near the border, and nothing will come of their journey together on the 'S' Bus, where they'll join Raymond Queneau to take the hundredth trip to nowhere, already another nothing always waiting.
Uncle Han had duck rice at AMK Hub. He said it reminded him of life as a student at NUS. Hostelites would go for nasi lemak nearby where you could pile on the otak, ngoh hiang and chicken wings. If someone could drive out, they'd opt for the duck rice at the coffee shop. Holland Village had a great hawker centre too. On weekends, they'd make a trip to MPH Bookstore at Stamford Road. It would be so crowded, people had to squeeze their way through the staircases. The basement was sprawling. Uncle Han also remembers C. K. Tang's old staircase. It had that old towkay charm, and now that ambience has gone.
"In this narrative is the destiny of your characters," Jeremiah said, thrusting my papers as if in a lurch. "It's a supreme responsibility, I hope you know that." I didn't extend my hand to reach for them, so they fell, lightly onto the stone table. There was a chessboard, carved into the stone. They were white lines, a deep pearl in the rough granite or cement. My papers looked like a placemat, covering half of it. I can't remember what my face looked like at that moment. It must have been a sort of sadness or that dreaded look of dejection. My stories seemed to find themselves halfway into the action, as if all the parts and facets were perambulating a centre that would surface only later. "It is meant to teeter on the side of the unreadable," I thought to myself.
I had followed Jeremiah to this course, on the pretext of not getting into Business Studies. His love for reading fuelled my love for reading, and if school ever became an interminable bore, we would have each other. But there was no such obligation from where he was standing, no obligation like the obligation of the storyteller towards her readers.
Is the storyteller weighted down by such a burden? Or is it the narrator's, in which case there's no real culpability for any real human being. Jeremiah and I are alike this way. We like to think our ways out of things and ways, almost as if we need to create labyrinths to cut our paths through them. Ah Gong has asked us to buy more plants to line the corridor. It's a bizarre request since he rarely asks for anything. I need to ask Ma if the neighbours will mind.
People say you can't predict how someone diagnosed with cancer is going to react. When Ah Gong found out about it, he registered little emotion. He just wanted to be taken home. Auntie tried to talk to him about it, to see if he was in shock or in denial, or whether he was hiding some deep-seated fear of what kind of life would ensue. But Ah Gong resumed his life. He continued to smoke, even though he cut down. Auntie educated herself on cancer, thanks to cancer associations with online resources.
It became a pop quiz sometimes. And Uncle Han would get in on it. There was a running joke. Uncle mock-punched Auntie on her shoulder, and she feigned shock, said she was suffering from myalgias. When she needed to go to the loo, she said she was incontinent, and needed to Kegel-exercise. When she was itching from a mosquito bite, Uncle Han said dengue, and she retorted: "No, pruritus."
Oh Lord, I've betrayed Dad. And it didn't even take that long. No one should ever be put in such a position. It's a morally ambiguous position. I feel morally violated to have become a keeper of secrets. I know if I tell Micah, he'd be all over it and start lecturing me on the fine difference between personal morality, ethics and what's legal. And which of the three I subscribe to Micah uses 'subscription' when he talks about ideology as if people's decisions were no more than signing up for a year of Esquire or The Atlantic.
Beckett again. I'm obsessed with Beckett, and what I'm coming to understand as the eminently unreadable. The Unnamable is perfect. It's not verbiage. It's not loquacity. It's a veritable verbal world constructed on the deepest of philosophical questions about human nature. All rendered in a large metaphor. I reached this sweet sense of gratification or epiphany at Toa Payoh Town Park. Ah Gong's love for nature has rubbed off on me.
I now visit these places on my own, just to check them out for myself. I return and tell Ah Gong about my escapade. He usually has a lot to say, which helps his mood. Sometimes, we plan a trip to a park in the heartlands. These represent a different kind of pulse for the people who live in these housing estates. These parks offer people some respite a much-needed breathing space and a radical re-engagement with the natural environment. I don't think people here actually feel disconnected from nature until they immerse themselves in it. It's as if the desire can recede and dissipate, to disappear altogether but that desire can be rekindled with communion. It's like a radical intervention. A quick-fix.
Toa Payoh Town Park has a gorgeous lake. Ah Gong identified the trees around it as The Bottlebrush. There are ponds too, and these are linked by bridges which distinguish themselves with their hexagonal motifs. This architecture is like the temple garden Ah Gong talked about the other day. "Good to catch dragonflies there," Ah Gong said. "The Common Scarlet is the easiest to spot because its body is bright red. It's huge. It's practically luminous. You'll see it everywhere in mid-morning when the sun's out. It likes the sun's warmth."
I swear when I finished reading Beckett, I was taking it all in in deep breaths. I felt my body and self had sunk into the text, and now I embodied it. That speech and identity had become one, and true to text, the feeling dissipated very quickly, and I was left bereft of emotion. It was the same silence Prof talked about. It was a good silence. I caught myself when I said that. It was a good silence, as if silence needed a kind of affirming valuation.QLRS Vol. 13 No. 3 Jul 2014