How A Novel Disappeared
By Toh Hsien Min
How We Disappeared
Longtime readers might remember that one of my favourite words is tsundoku, that extraordinarily specific Japanese term for buying and piling up too many books on the shelf aspirationally and never actually getting around to them at a rapid enough clip to shrink the mountain. Since mentioning the word in an editorial of half a decade ago, my pile of unread books has grown. If I ponder why this might be, I would have to admit much of the reason is the ease of buying books – there seems scarcely any impediment to the act of flashing a credit card and emerging from Blackwell's or Kinokuniya with another five stones for the cairn. But the other face of that cliff must surely involve a reluctance to actually start reading these new and glossy volumes. Until I start Alice Oswald's Memorial, I can simply imagine the glorious energy promised by the review that had prompted me to order it at once, but upon thumbing open the first page I won't be able to ignore its moles and pimples. And then once I start a book, I am compelled to finish it – abandoning it halfway seems as poor form as walking out of a symphony because the orchestra hasn't got its balance right – which of course adds to the dawdling over starting.
Jing-Jing Lee's debut novel, How We Disappeared, tunnelled through all these stages of book-grief in classical proportions. My anticipation owed to it being put out by Oneworld, whose reputation is burgeoning on the back of a handful of canny acquisitions. I had to get through a few things before starting the book, but once I did it didn't take long before the promise of stylistic detail gave way to the start of the novel already managing to feel draggy and contrived in red-flagging the closed-door closets of "What he had done. Not done." The plot is simple enough: a seventeen-year-old girl in wartime Singapore, Wang Di, is forced to become a comfort woman, survives the trauma but has a child who vanishes. An older man, Chia Soon Wei, survives a Japanese attack on his village but loses his family, except that he suspects his son has (coincidentally) been stolen away; disconsolate, he takes Wang Di as his wife after the war. In the year 2000, a myopic school outcast, Kevin, hears his dying grandmother confess to something that she had done, and sets about investigating, so that by the end of the book at least two of the strands tie themselves together in entirely predictable fashion. When ten pages on from the earlier quote we are told "This was how she started", it feels like Lee herself hasn't quite got started, and given the orthodox story arc, I got through a hundred pages before my flagging momentum stalled and I had to put the book aside for a fortnight to build up enough stamina to push through to the end. I then decided that I wouldn't review the book, because of having nothing really urgent to say. However, a couple of weeks ago, a discussion of some urgency about the state of critical reviewing in Singapore (as described in fuller detail in this issue's Acid Tongue) made me reconsider. If it is important to call out a book as it is, how does one call out how a book disappears in a manner that doesn't read like a reviewer being paid to complete a task?
I suppose the answer must consist in not dallying any further and taking the scalpel to exactly this ambivalence. What is its cause?
One of the objective observations in Singapore literature in the late 2010s has been the slew of Singaporean female novelists getting their chance with international publishing powerhouses based in London and New York: Sharlene Teo kicked things off not by actually being first to print but first to collect acclaim prior publication, and she was followed in rapid succession by the likes of Kirstin Chen, Balli Kaur Jaswal with her post-Epigram Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows, Clarissa Goenawan, Rachel Heng, Thea Lim, Amanda Lee Koe, and of course Jing-Jing Lee herself. Each of these have had to consider her strategy to gaining relevance for the international market, where simply mentioning the HDB has no effect whatsoever. Many of these novelists answered the question by escaping from Singapore imaginatively (as well as in some cases physically): Heng and Lim lighted on dystopian North Americas, Clarissa Goenawan found modern Japan more interesting than modern Singapore, Amanda Lee Koe hopscotched between the two sides of the Atlantic, Chen took to Cultural Revolution China, and Jaswal latched on to the Asian diasphora in London. In Lee's case, relevance has got to come from something other than geography and culture, and her choice just happens to be arguably the only thing interesting to happen to Singapore from the perspective of north of La Manche when they're not thinking about Singapore-on-the-Thames. Indeed, reminding the British of the time they were strategically more willing to surrender Singapore than to surrender Malta might have its use in eliciting latent guilt. From the perspective of Dhoby Ghaut however, wartime Singapore feels overdone (cf Breaking the Tongue, A Different Sky, even City of Small Blessings, and of course The Singapore Grip and Tanamera), and if Lee has an interest in the Singapore market she needs to shape something original from her setting. For me at least, she doesn't (notwithstanding that Wang Di being the Cardboard Auntie in her previous collection of HDB short stories disguised as a novella If I Could Tell You is a kind of wormhole in intertextual space-time), and therefore I sense very quickly that I am not the audience for this cultural arbitrage.
A second consequence of her choice is that wartime Singapore is difficult to depict convincingly because of having to interpolate from the circumstantially asymmetric historical record. Imagination has to fill in, of course, but imagination brings its own distortions. For example, upon the onset of war,
Now, face identification falls very quickly with distance – there is no accuracy from 150 feet, the eyes are not visible at 200 feet, and one can't even make out a face at all at 500 feet. So if the pilot's face was "starkly visible" and "serene", the distance has to be generously in the range of 250 feet. From my schooling years, I have both a scale model of a Zero fighter plane and a protractor. Measuring line of sight, I can establish that the maximum angle of elevation at which one can possibly see the face of a Zero fighter pilot in his cockpit from below is about 30°, assuming the plane is not landing, flying upside-down or banking tightly. Elementary trigonometry tells us the plane has to be around 220 feet distant and 125 feet above ground. Now I have had trouble establishing WWII-era lowest safe altitudes, but contemporary LSALTs are 500 feet in an aggressive jurisdiction and even the infamous German Stuka dive bombers in the western theatre of WWII looked to release their bombs by about 2,000 feet in order to pull up with their altimeters showing 1,000 feet. All of which, without even adding the speed and direction of flight ("crossed overhead") makes a ground observer catching sight of a pilot's face extremely improbable.
Or else, consider the sums involved in "twenty- to thirty-minute segments" for "thirty men a day. On weekends and festival days, the numbers went up. Forty, fifty." Fifty men times twenty minutes equals not enough time for meals and sleep (never mind fifty times thirty), which in turn means that verisimilitude suffers. All this is a pity because the elements of skill are there. Lee can turn a phrase:
although in the survey preceding this review I was reminded that the tendency is towards competence. Even the comfort women scenes are functional, in that they serve the plot. As such, I am left in what in wartime would be known as no man's land, neither convinced by the scenes Lee is trying to paint for me nor repulsed by clumsiness.
A third reason it is hard to care for the book is that I find it hard to care for the characters, which in large part traces back to how the narrative is structured such that two main characters share three points of view (Wang Di has first-person and third-person modes, separated by time), cycling through the Kevin / late Wang Di / early Wang Di sequences occurs so quickly as to preclude any sustained time with each of them, and, as if these choices are insufficiently disruptive, within each strand of narrative Lee cannot resist the siren call of time travel.
Assuming the first example isn't quite the gift of the gab, and acknowledging that in explicit narration it is possible to refer to other points of time, these instances still create a structural problem in that a novelist should select a cotemporaneous or a transtemporal convention, and stick to it. When you the reader are constantly zipped between 1935, 1941, 1942, 1946 and 2000 to retrieve trivial details, and yet when it comes to the briefcase containing the folder stamped 'Top Secret' in bright red ink time for you proceeds as if nothing has been found out yet, it is hard not to feel that the characters are deliberately withholding information from you, and therefore as with anyone who in real life withholds something of value from you, you tend to not like them so much. Moreover, this makes the impetus of the novel not so much uncovering a secret as the considerably less compelling activity of waiting for someone to get back to you.
Putting it all together, this is how a novel that promised to be exciting ended up disappearing into a fog of ambivalence. It doesn't mean that there is nothing to learn from it, only that whenever a novel is neither outstanding nor terrible it might be actually harder to extract its lessons, and yet perhaps this is where the greatest need is.QLRS Vol. 19 No. 1 Jan 2020