[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.

Flawed Review Yields Unexpected Insights

I am pleasantly surprised that my review of Peter Brook’s Battlefield, an adaptation of the Mahabharata, is cited in an essay contained in The Methuen Drama Handbook of Interculturalism and Performance (2020).

Initially, I was slightly confused as to why my review was cited, especially when I was a novice back then, and have provided links to reviews written by reviewers from mainstream publications. While I did not have access to the full essay, I was amused to find out that Dr Tan is a Singaporean theatre academic, and his concerns in the essay is about sound design. That is certainly not my forte and my review did not cover sound design at all.

Upon closer reading of the excerpt and my review, I realised that my review detailed four reactions by different audience members, and it served as an indication of the audience members’ reactions to the performance. Hence, it allowed Dr Tan to cite that as anecdotal evidence that the audience was “uninspired and bored”.

At the time of writing, I knew that the review would ruffle many feathers had it gained a wider readership. It was a special review to me because I uncharacteristically privileged reportage over anything else.

Personally, I am not in favour of providing too much reportage. It spoils the show for those who are about to watch it, and it takes the space away from wider analysis, which differentiates one critic from another. Reportage should be in the form of examples to substantiate a wider point.

In that review, I made such a deliberate but uncharacteristic choice in response to the widespread adoration of the show, which seemed to be earned due to Brook’s reputation rather than the direction or performance itself.

I wanted to show that the drama in the stalls is much more interesting that what was happening on stage. And I have used this technique several times since.

That said, if I were to receive that review now, I would still stand by the writer’s decision, but advise him to add a little more context and details of the show.

At that time, I was quite a stickler for keeping to the word count as I believed that most people would not read beyond 500 words. While I am still of that opinion to a large extent, a clear and exciting review would put the readers in a forgiving mood.

Taking It To The Next Level

My career as a theatre critic started in university when I chanced upon Kent Ridge Common, an online student-run publication, which offered ample opportunities to review shows.

Two years later, I signed up for a module on theatre criticism offered by the theatre studies department at the National University of Singapore (NUS). Being equipped with certain theoretical frameworks, challenged to write reviews for different media, and having to read them aloud to approximately thirty people really forced me to consider my voice as a critic, who my reader was, and what my functions are.

The course led me to convert this website to solely focus on the arts and to sign up as a citizen reviewer for Centre 42 from 2014 till today.

In the past five years, I have gained more confidence and am increasingly aware of my artistic tastes and the sort of critic that I want to be. Having practised this craft for half a decade, it is time to take it further—it is time to be a professional independent theatre critic.

What Does This Mean?

The fundamental change would be to strive to turn this craft into a source of revenue amongst other artistic pursuits. Your support will enable me to broaden my coverage to include more long-form interviews and profiles, dance reviews, and even book reviews.

My reviews will always be public and free for all to read. Your support will determine the breadth and depth of my coverage, and supporters will receive bonus content.

Editorially, I will be stricter on developing a house style. I will take my cue from Mr Hart by referring to New Hart’s Rules. I will depart from a few of his recommendations purely out of personal preference.

In terms of work flow, I will try to publish my review within a week of watching the show. I have no intention of being the first, for there are many others who are adept at that. Rather, I shall follow the footsteps of Mr Kenneth Tynan and “write for posterity” as much as it is meant for the present.

Why Does It Matter?

Arts criticism is part of the arts ecology. Artists aim to inspire, provoke, comfort, or entertain their audience. Criticism is thus an articulated response to the work. It is the opening salvo; the first hand in the air.

With arts funding in Singapore still largely reliant on state funding, the perennial question is, What do the people want or need? Artists and authorities have been justifying their aims in response to this question without answering a more fundamental one: Who constitutes “the people?”

Hence, my reviews seek to be a platform from which theatre-goers can respond to and articulate their opinions. After all, in an incredibly realistic country such as Singapore, for someone to invest time and money into something counts a lot.

I also seek to document these debates as one indicator of what the people want.

How Can I Support You?

Regardless of who you are, there are several ways that you can support me. All the details can be found on this page.

Apart from doing this as a regular gig, the ultimate goal is to be able to commission other writers on a regular basis and pay them at market rates. While much have been said about the need for arts criticism, proper opportunities are very few and far between.

But beyond financial or in-kind support, an equally important contribution is to really respond to my reviews. Tell me your opinions about the show. Even if it is a response to a particular point I made, it is very helpful for all involved.

I look forward to having you on this new journey with me.