A literary stalwart looks a little too deeply inwards
By Andrea Yew
An Equal Joy: Reflections on God, Death and Belonging
Catherine Lim's latest collection, An Equal Joy: Reflections on God, Death and Belonging, is a memento mori of sorts, a collection of essays written in response to Lim's realisation of her own mortality. Across a series of twenty-two essays, Lim explores questions of religion, death and science. In her collection, Lim sets out to answer her own questions that she has accumulated through life. As such, this collection charts a personal journey for Lim through the medium of narrative.
From the outset, Lim opens up her collection with an unabashed admission of the solipsistic nature of this collection. As she states:
On one hand, the admission that it is a "self-absorbed book" can be off-putting as it rings of indulgence and suggests that the book is premised on Lim's existing popularity as an award-winning writer for its readership. As Lim herself states: "It consists of short chapters in no particular order of chronology or significance, with no overall connecting theme or tone." Indeed, the collection jumps between essays about science, early humans, and speculations on the private life of religious figures with seemingly no connection whatsoever. While it may chart Lim's personal treasure trove of knowledge, the jumps are jarring, making the collection seem like a random mishmash of thought. As such, at times, the collection can seem like the indulgent, solipsistic presentation of Lim's personal headspace. Even within each essay, the meandering prose makes it difficult to follow Lim's train of thought at times and, hence, the argument she puts forth, if any, is unclear. For instance, in 'Guilt', Lim begins her essay by describing the gods of her childhood, "the Taoist Tee Kong" and "the Christian God of her adult years". The essay describes the guilt she felt as a child for seemingly having caused misfortune to befall others through her own perceived blessings she has received in life. However, the essay mysteriously brings in Galileo at the end, the only connection of Galileo with her childhood guilt encapsulated in the sentence: "I wonder whether, in the case of Galileo, it was guilt or fear that finally left him a broken man." The link between Galileo and Lim is puzzling and thus comes across as quite a leap. Furthermore, the essay concludes with an even more puzzling link to Adam and Eve, as she remarks: "The story about our first parents Adam and Eve should have had a happy ending…the apple of knowledge should not have been forbidden in the first place, but readily available to all who sought it." The original portrayal of guilt is long lost at this point. Although each essay, like this, is characteristically bookended by Lim's conclusion, the essay seems to be governed by an internal logic that eludes the reader.
Nevertheless, the collection is arguably Lim's final answer to the fear of death, which is the collection's central preoccupation. As the collection concludes with the final essay, 'An Equal Joy', the collection's namesake: "I have loved and lived life richly and deeply, and I embrace its closure with an equal joy." On one hand, it foregrounds the notion that the collection is very much a presentation of Lim's answers to the questions she has accumulated through life, the closing statement to a rich life. However, it is striking as the line is also intended to be Lim's own obituary. Art, represented through this collection, will always stand the test of time, and is Lim's response to the transience of life. As such, the collection is also a meditation on the relationship between art and mortality.
An Equal Joy is very much a personal narrative space for Lim. As she states in her introductory essay: "This book is about the long and intense spiritual journey I have undertaken, with its many conflicts of head and heart, logic and feeling, joy and pain, certitude and doubt". True to her introduction, the collection is a working through of conflict as Lim answers the questions she presents herself. The collection is a space for catharsis, which is reflected in both its content and structure. Lim titles her essays with a mix of questions and personal conclusions. For instance, there are essays questioning 'Did the Neanderthals Have Souls?' to doctrinal essays such as 'My Holy/ Holistic Trinity' or 'The Right To Die'.
In Lim's collection, narratives are presented as a means of working through conflict. For instance, in 'A Bondmaid named Hoon', Lim responds to her own questions about her original work, The Bondmaid, in which a reader had asked "Why did you have to make Han die in the end? Why couldn't she have had a happy life after all that terrible suffering?" In response, Lim wrote 'A Bondmaid Named Hoon', an alternative parallel to The Bondmaid, in which Hoon exacts the justice her original protagonist did not. However, she had her own misgivings even after the story was finished. As Lim states: "And I certainly was not at all comfortable about Hoon. Why? I didn't know then, and I'm not sure I know now." Lim goes on to summarise the story of Hoon. However, what is significant is that through the retelling of the narrative, Lim also resolves some of her personal misgivings. As she states even before she summarises her story: "A summary of the abandoned story of the bondmaid Hoon may explain the reason for the abandonment of a novel that I had begun with such gusto." The choice of 'may explain' suggests that the author herself does not know what answers she might find, and hence points to a working through of conflict. And it is by the end of the essay that we see Lim's coming to terms with her own questions, finding the answer to her own question. As she states: "My discomfort with this character was, I think, due to a strong discomfort with myself for having created her" and, subsequently: "I had no choice but to admit to something that was worse than a mistake — malice, small-mindedness and a pettiness unworthy of the serious business of writing". The shift in language from 'I think' to 'I had no choice but to admit' reflects Lim's working through of her own questions through narratives on multiple levels. At the first level, narrative is used as an emotional response to a question. We see this similarly reflected in Lim's speculations on the private life of Jesus as well, most aptly seen in 'Did Jesus Have A Sense of Humor?'. However, on another level, it is also through the medium of narrative or, rather, reflecting upon an alternative narrative that Lim also works through her own personal conflicts, moving from particular questions to more general answers about her views on writing. In this sense, the collection's structure can also be interpreted similarly. Lim's essays, whilst on one hand a direct emotional response to questions, also reflect a summation of her life philosophies, a compilation of her experiences and a synthesis of a lifetime of accumulated knowledge.
However, while Lim's collection may have provided personal catharsis, it can isolate the reader at times, given that her answers are very specific to a set of questions she has defined, dictated by her idiosyncratic interests, such as her interest in the private lives of public or religious figures. For instance, the essay 'A Tale of Princess Diana' presents an alternate narrative predicated upon the idea of cloning princess Diana, and its social and legal implications. As Lim states:
However, given that the story is published as part of the collection, this sets up the reader's expectation that some conclusion is to be derived from it. This is not to say that all narratives must end on a conclusive note but, rather, there must be a point to the narrative that extends beyond the 'whim' of the writer, as to do otherwise seems rather arrogant and presumptuous. The merit of this collection should not depend on Lim's fame alone rather than its contribution to a body of literature. While the collection provides answers for Lim, as a work of art, it needs to go beyond the writer to resonate with the reader. Concluding a narrative spawned from a peculiar interest in the private life of Princess Diana with even more unanswered questions is frustrating at best for the reader. Even Lim's fascination with Princess Diana is puzzling. Perhaps something within Princess Diana's glamorous life resonated with Lim's colourful one, as she admits to being 'intrigued by the paradoxes in the princess's life'. Perhaps Lim's alternative narrative surrounding the implications of cloning is an exploration of the possibility and implications of immortality. This becomes an especially pertinent question, especially if Lim found parallels between her literary renown and Princess Diana's fame and, hence, Princess Diana's death is viewed as a timely reminder of Lim's own mortality. However, the reader can only speculate. The link between Lim, Princess Diana and cloning is tentative at best and frustrating at worst. Perhaps it is in the nature of the objective of this collection that comes across as a swansong of Lim's life experiences, consisting of both questions answered and unanswered. However, as a literary work, it leaves the reader expecting more.
All in all, Lim's collection brings to mind Plato's wise words: "An unexamined life is not worth living." In the face of her own mortality, Lim's collection brings together a lifetime of experience and knowledge to present her own personal life philosophy, providing a sense of closure for a life well-lived. However, it is very much a collection written for herself.QLRS Vol. 16 No. 3 Jul 2017