An unflinching eye is cast across the barren landscapes of family life
By Thow Xin Wei
The Beating and Other Stories
This edition of The Beating and Other Stories published by Ethos books comes with a formidably erudite foreword by Gwee Li Sui that deftly introduces the themes and style of Chua's work. This, together with footnotes to some of the Singlish terms and vulgarities (kah nee na, for instance, is described as "A Hokkien expletive, which literally means 'fuck your mother'") used in the book, lend it an aura of seriousness: It appears packaged as a work of 'Singapore Literature' for a critical, perhaps even academic, international audience.
These 13 short stories revolve around human relationships and family, mostly containing them within clearly delineated interiors: apartments, corridors, offices, a restaurant, a hotel room, and, in the one work of historical fiction, a penal colony. Throughout the collection, Chua treats his subject matter with a resolute perhaps even wilful cynicism, which makes The Beating firmly opposed to the celebratory and/or inspiring messages presented by National Day Parade (NDP) music videos and campaigns such as 'Perfectly Imperfect' or 'The Singaporean Fairytale'.
Certainly, if anything gets a beating here, it's the Ministry of Social and Family Development the families within these pages are almost always broken or breaking, marked by separation and loss that echoes through the generations: in the titular story, Yong is estranged from his abusive, alcoholic father, yet 'becomes' him with his own wife and daughter, causing the breakup of his family. 'Chute' opens with the abandonment of the narrator's father and ends with her and her brother deviating from the life envisioned for them by their mother. And in 'Fireworks', the 14-year-old protagonist goes through an evening with her divorced father and a socially awkward classmate.
Since we enter many of these family narratives after the initial point of fracture, what unfolds within each story carries a certain sense of inevitability: it's like watching sailors bail water out of a gradually sinking ship. In 'The Drowning', for instance, Chan and his wife fly to Phuket to find their son, Thomas, missing in the aftermath of the 2004 tsunami. The mission is a failure: Chan's wife remains in Thailand desperately looking for images of Thomas in footage shot for an advertisement, while Chan himself returns to Singapore to manage his son's personal belongings. As they uncover more fragments of their son, it's suggested to the reader that Thomas was gay it's left unclear whether this is something his parents realise, or come to realise.
The narration keeps Chan as the protagonist: it is from his perspective that we learn that the marriage was a "charade", and how Thomas' "creation" was "mechanical and necessary". The story closes with a memory of Thomas' 14th-birthday celebration with his parents, a moment which is described as Thomas' "great departure, the last moment where he might view his parents as being part of his circle", a moment that aspires to photo-perfect family happiness, but is recognised by Chan as ultimately hollow. The alienation, therefore, runs deep and from the very beginning: the tsunami doesn't so much cause their family's dissolution than catalyse it: without it there would be, one suspects, the same story, only drawn out over years, perhaps, or left unresolved. There's no point where things could be different, no revelation truly surprising nor relevant, no change in mindset nor government incentive that could rescue them.
But it's not that family itself creates alienation; rather, alienation and isolation is portrayed as something fundamental to human relationships. As Gwee points out:
This is not to say his characters don't try, but rather, their efforts take place against a backdrop of larger, more powerful forces keeping them apart; death itself, even, in 'The Drowning' and '36'. The moments of happiness are transient at best and hollow at worst, and what makes this more poignant is the characters' awareness of these facts (either at the moment or in retrospect), and their acceptance of it as something natural or inevitable. In this way, they aren't deluded, but neither are they heroic; perhaps their biggest flaw is a lack of imagination: pruning their destiny to the physical and societal landscape confining them.
In 'Senang', a foray into historical fiction that temporally breaks with the other stories, Chua extends the notion of alienation to relations between ethnic communities through his retelling of the riot that broke out on Pulau Senang's penal colony just before Singapore's independence. The story follows Khong, a Chinese political prisoner who befriends the Malay Aziz and has a privileged relationship with Dalton the English camp supervisor due to his knowledge of English. But these two friendships estrange him from the other Chinese inmates, leaving him isolated from his community; by the end of the story Khong is alone in a different, newly independent country, following the voices of children singing "what could only be an" anthem not with any sense of victory nor joy, but rather out of resignation and helplessness. By choosing this historical moment, Chua's story seems to call into question the rosy multiracial vision of Singaporeans coming together to forge a new country and identity, taking elements central to the official history of our imagined community and casting on them a cynical eye, while simultaneously foregrounding violence and inter-racial strife: it extends the themes of the collection from the domestic to the national.
In his foreword, Gwee aptly describes Chua's style as "cinematic":
Reading these stories, one doesn't feel "still": events and details unfold and present themselves at a steady 24 frames per second, even in climactic or emotional moments such as the prisoner's revolt in 'Senang' or Yong recalling himself beating his family in 'The Beating'. On the other hand, introductions and epilogues the Chan family's history in 'The Drowning' and the closing of 'Chute', for example sketch out telling details with a brisk efficiency that brings to mind a film montage. The longer stories are built in scenes that generally feel self-contained: again, there is a cinematic feel in how they cut from event to event or present to memory, and vice versa. At their most vivid, these scenes evoke a strong emotional response while keeping their meaning opaque to the reader sometimes even to the protagonists themselves.
This technique seems to work better with the longer stories, where characters and situations can be thoroughly explored in detail. On the other hand, the shorter stories like 'The Vanishing', '36', 'The Piano Player', 'Taxi Driver' and 'On Being an Artist' seem rather perfunctory and feel like a storyboard or a synopsis, intriguing but incomplete. Of these, the least satisfying to me is 'The Vanishing' where an entire HDB block's worth of inhabitants suddenly disappears. The premise I find potentially productive it reminded me of Murakami but the story itself never seems to rise above a fast-forward through the aftermath of the vanishing. At the end, the narrator suddenly breaks from third person to first and expresses regret and self-criticism, but since his appearance is as abrupt as the others' disappearance, it's hard to regard these sentiments as sincere: they feel, unfortunately, like mawkish additions to drive home a moral.
By and large however, Chua's style, coupled with his considerable though not infallible skill at rendering Singlish on the page, enable the stories to evoke a familiarity that allows their insistent cynicism to seep into our reality. This makes for a rather heavy-going read: at times the melancholy feels as oppressive as the optimism of an NDP video. I'd advise a reader new to Chua's work to begin with his earlier novel, Gone Case, which has the same stylistic strengths as this work, while remaining resolutely real rather than resolutely jaded.
That being said, the collection ends on a relatively positive note: the penultimate 'Taxi', is a sketch of a man who has reached "a perfect state of contentment" in his life of "contained flux", while the protagonist in 'On Being an Artist' achieves a reasonably happy reunion with his parents after a failed attempt at being an artist. But these stories are short barely five pages in total and feel lightweight against the more substantial ones that came before. My favourite is 'The Man Who Came Alone to Eat', where Jing, to cope with the sense of emptiness after her daughter moves to study overseas, takes up a job waitressing at a small restaurant in a "rundown shopping centre". Here, she encounters a grotesque figure: a large man eats the same set of dishes on his own every time. By the end of the story, Jing feels a surge of sympathy and curiosity towards him, expressed in a barrage of questions to herself (and the reader):
Unlike many of the others in the book, who seal themselves shut with regret or hopelessness, here there is a hint of openness and possibility, unclear and ambiguous though it may be. And although Jing feels unsettled by this, unable to articulate her feelings to her daughter on the phone, anyone on the verge of something new in life would say it's a realistic description, rather than a pessimistic one. The Beating, on the whole, is a collection that takes a hard, unflinching look at the themes it explores, to the point where this reviewer wished for a softer gaze.QLRS Vol. 12 No. 2 Apr 2013