[Book Review] Void by Frank Passani

Void 

Frank Passani

Notion Press (2020) / 219 pp.

To purchase the book, click here.

Passani’s cerebral novel revolves around Melpomene Lau, a Spanish literature professor teaching at the Singapore University of Literary Studies in 2032.

Through a series of vignettes presented in various literary forms (diary entries, dialogues, flash-back, flash-forward, reversals, speculative imaginings of utopia and dystopia), we see Lau dealing with the void that she feels, triggered by a suicide of a friend and the general ennui induced by the demands of modern life.

As hinted by the Lau addressing her diary as Transcendental Ego, we get more of an intellectual rather than an emotional exploration of this void. Initially, it might be difficult for most readers to have a handle on this as it is full of academic terms and references. However, Passani does leave some clues as to what he is doing towards the latter half of the novel.

Those who have any training in philology or literary studies will have a field day as Passani is unafraid to reveal the breadth and depth of his academic background through his protagonist. This book could easily double up as a reading list for anyone who wants to delve deeper into literary studies or world literature.

Lau would eventually go on to write a novel, Void. These and other self-reflexive elements in the novel seem to express Passani’s views on academia, literature, and even aspects of Singaporean society. However, rather than exploiting his protagonist to be a mere mouthpiece of his views, care is taken to weave that into the story.

A couple of areas in which I wished Passani would delve a little more into are Lau’s identity and the setting of Singapore in the near future.

In the novel, it is established that Lau’s father hails from Hong Kong, while her mother hails from Madrid. Her parents decided to settle in Brighton, which lends her sort of a triple identity. Add to the fact that her name is due to her mother specialising in Ancient Greek philology, and we get an interesting melange. With Singapore priding itself on being a multicultural society, it would be fascinating to see how someone with such a complex identity exist within that society.

Placing the novel in Singapore 12 years ahead from the present day allows Passani some leeway to invent certain elements, such as the university Lau is teaching at. That said, apart from mentioning COVID-27, I would love to see how he imagines other areas of Singapore—as a foreigner who has lived in Singapore for a decade—based on current trajectories.

On the whole, this novel requires a patient reader as one has to scale the mountain of academic references. However, Passani makes the journey a little less arduous with an engaging narrative and a thinly veiled explanation later on. If anything, it has sparked an interest in me to explore world literature to find out what inspired him to structure the novel that he did.

[Book Review] A Single Man by Christopher Isherwood

A Single Man

Christopher Isherwood

University of Minnesota Press (2001) / 186 pp.

To purchase the book, click here

[Transcript]

Hello and welcome to Isaac Encounters! Today, I’ll be encountering A Single Man by Christopher Isherwood. I have to admit that I picked up the book after watching the beautiful film version by Tom Ford starring Colin Firth as George. However, as there was quite a gap between watching the film and reading the book, I will only be reviewing the book today.

A Single Man follows a day in the life of George, an English professor, after he found out that his partner, Jim, was killed in an accident. I hesitate to say “a day in the life of” because rather than giving it a full-blown naturalist treatment, Isherwood presents us with a portrait of grief in three facets. George has to deal with everyday happenings, his friend, and his student with memories of Jim looming in the background.

From the first paragraph, one understands why Ford would be compelled to make a film based on the book. Isherwood’s ability to describe a mundane activity—such as George waking up—in such a refreshing way and at a micro level is akin to a camera close-up on a part of the actor’s body. Isherwood’s dexterity in language treats us to writing that is humorous, poignant, and enlightening.

This is complemented by telling it through a third-person perspective which allows us to see the juxtaposition between his inner and outer reality. This mind-body dualism indicates the profound disconnect George has with his life and he copes by merely performing what is expected of him. The thing about grief or depression is that the most difficult thing to handle is not the surge of feelings but the mundane.

The zipping in and out between George’s thoughts and how others react to him sheds light on his sardonic interpretation of things. From feeling that he might as well be a talking head on a tray while lecturing to observing a quarrelsome couple who would die in their “beer-stained bed,” he keeps the happenings of the world at arm’s length. If they are distant, he does not need to deal with them.

This sense of melancholy is amplified by his tendency to indulge in fantasy fuelled by his misanthropy. He imagines punishing everyone in various ways for being part of the hetero-normative culture or being straight-out homophobic. In his anger for what happened, he blames them for causing Jim’s death. And the times that he is alive—the sexual or human longing that he experiences—makes him painfully aware of Jim’s absence which makes it incredibly heart-wrenching.

Of all the interactions George has, the one with his student, Kenny has to be the most interesting. The relationship is of a teacher-student, father-son, and two men in a bar all rolled into one. Kenny represents what George has just lost and a vicarious second chance in life. Isherwood balances ambiguity with tenderness and beautifully explores love, lost and everything in between.

It is easy to sum up this novel as a man grieving about the lost of a loved one. However, it is important that we see it as a gay man grieving for his partner. The openness in the treatment of George’s sexuality has led many critics to tout this novel as laying the foundations for gay liberation in literature.

However, critics like Octavio Gonzalez disagree and argue that there is an ascetic element of self-abnegation in George. By doing so, he offers an alternative to the identity politics of being a synecdoche for gay liberation. I am sympathetic to this view as there is more evidence in the text to support this stand.

Yet, one should also be careful not to read too much into it because the detachment of George could very well be part of a private grieving process. If you’re interested in reading about the debate, I’ve left a citation in the description below.

Thank you for joining me on this encounter. If you’ve read the book or have watched the movie, tell me what you thought about it. If you like what I’m doing, please subscribe and tell your friends. With that, till the next book.

References

Gonzalez, Octavio R. “Isherwood’s Impersonality: Ascetic Self-Divestiture and Queer Relationality in A Single Man.” MFS Modern Fiction Studies 59.4 (Winter 2013): 758-89. Print.

[Book Review] Beyond The Village Gate by Tan Mei Ching

Beyond The Village Gate

Mei Ching Tan

Ethos Books (2012, 2nd ed.)/ 148 pp.

SGD 20.01 (local)/ 18.70 + shipping costs (overseas)

To purchase the book, click here

[Transcript]

Hello and welcome to Isaac Encounters! Today I’ll be encountering Beyond The Village Gate by Mei Ching Tan, published by Ethos Books.

When I was on my usual visit to the bookshop, the cover of this book caught my eye and I thought it was a new novel by a local writer. I was surprised to find out that this novel was awarded the commendation award in the 1992 Singapore Literature Prize and was first published in 1994. The copy I have is a recent reprint under the Ethos Evergreen series. Considering that it received some attention when it first came out and a publisher would take the risk of reprinting it as an evergreen title, I decided to give it a shot and was rewarded in a few ways.

The story is set in a fictional village in China and revolves around an orphan, Shi Ying (which translates as Lost Child) who was abandoned as a baby, found by a villager, and was given to a family of fisherfolk. Growing up, she has always felt distant from her adoptive family and wonders who her biological parents are. An incident with a village outcast, who was pregnant out of wedlock, led Shi Ying to form a bond with her. This interaction sparked off her journey in search of her identity.

The novel excels in dealing with the theme of escape in a nuanced manner while telling the story through the child’s perspective. To give you a sense of the effort and sensitivity that goes into developing this theme, here are a few things that really struck me.

Names play a big role in the book. We can easily understand why the protagonist is named 失婴 shī yīng (“Lost Child”). But the name is also a pun on something else that symbolises freedom and escape. As Tan chooses to disclose this intended pun towards the end, you’ll have to read the book to find out.

Another pun, which I’m unsure if Tan intended it or not, is 适应 shì yìng (getting used to something). The conflicts between these puns encapsulate the main thrust of the plot beautifully. It is because she’s not used to her situation and feels isolated that she dreams of escape. Names come into play yet again when she asks her friend to give her a new name; a new identity.

One of the key features of the story is how myths and legends make up the cultural fabric of society. Shi Ying is very taken with such stories because her own origin is a legend which keeps changing every time it’s retold. Her unknown origin gives her the possibility of rewriting it and determining how her future will unfold.

They also capture Shi Ying’s child-like wonderment which gives the novel hints of magical realism. Whenever she’s out in the fields working or running away, the lines between reality and fantasy are often blurred. While we may disregard it as childish hopes and fears, that is the reality of her experience. Tan did well to maintain that and not let the adults correct that or offer the “truth” as such.

Tan cleverly uses myths and legends to give Shi Ying complexity as well. It presents her desire for escape not simply as running away or waiting for her parents to take her away. Escape can also be a form of transcendence. Shi Ying often wish that the wind would take her away or she could ride on the back of a wild creature.

As with myths and legends, the supernatural and death loom in the background. Death can also be a form of transcendence as Shi Ying would even welcome it if it provided her an avenue of escape. This reveals the extent of her desire to be somewhere else and someone else. One should not paint it with a broad stroke and view it as depression or having suicidal thoughts.

I love how Xiao Ling, the outcast of the village who is pregnant out of wedlock, complements Shi Ying. Her tragic situation is a counterpoint to that of Shi Ying as she has to deal with her child while Shi Ying wonders about her biological parents and deals with her adopted ones. The strange bond that both characters form allows Tan to showcase her sensitivity of language as she develops certain metaphors throughout the whole novel to great effect. I shan’t cite any examples now for it’ll give away too much of the plot.

Speaking of other characters, I can see why most of them are less developed. This is how Shi Ying views them which explain her loneliness and isolation. The only exception was when she had to take care of her father and she bonded with him when he talked about his love for his wife. It is unfortunate that it was only a chapter long as I often wondered why the couple agreed to adopt her in the first place. Having extra help on the farm is hardly a strong incentive as compared to the large responsibility one has to shoulder to bring up a child.  I sometimes wished Tan could leave a couple of hints for the readers without Shi Ying knowing. I would definitely enjoy this novel even more if it were a couple of chapters longer.

That said, I’m surprised how Beyond The Village Gate has so little mention and I would have missed it had it not been the chanced encounter at the bookstore. To end this review, I shall read the last paragraph of the first chapter just to give you a taste of all the points I’ve mentioned thus far. This paragraph really sets the stage for the novel and it’s worth noting that this is not even the best passage.