Drowning in Nostalgia
Michelle Lim's stories flounder but stay afloat
By Wilson Goh
Sense of the Inevitable
From the preface to this collection of short stories, Michelle Lim already shows an eagerness to share these eight stories she has collected from “everyday life, from memories, from sitting at and observing of people in kopitiams or neighbourhood coffeeshops, from the stories that my friends or loved ones have shared”. What follows is a series of short stories that appeal with their simplicity and clarity; qualities that, however, render some of these self-same stories as sterile as English Composition model essays.
According to Robert DiYanni in Literature: Reading Fiction, Poetry and Drama, modern realistic short stories tend to possess these typical features: firstly, plots are based on probability, illustrating a sequence of casually related incidents; secondly, the characters are recognisably human, and are motivated by identifiable social and psychological factors; thirdly, time and place are clearly established, with realistic rather than fantastic settings; and lastly, the elements – plot, character, setting, style, point of view, irony, symbol and theme – work toward a single effect, unifying the story.
These four points are unmistakeably present in all of Lim’s stories. For example, in ‘Wedding Dress’, Lynn searches for the perfect dress for a wedding dinner, arrives at the dinner, meets the groom Kelvin, who used to be her boyfriend, and his bride, gets drunk and is escorted back home.
Lynn’s search is a reaction motivated by her need to seek redress for her break-up with Kelvin:
The story takes place over just two days and in only two settings: the shopping centre where Lynn conducts her search for a dress, and the hotel where the wedding dinner is held. The elements of the story all work toward showing Lynn’s coming to terms with her need for something more than a superficial form of love, and this is obviously implied by the use of the perfect dress as a metaphor.
DiYanni elaborates further that the plot of a story consists of an arrangement of events which make up the story. He notes that typical fictional plots always begin with an exposition which provides the background for the events that unfold, describes the setting, and introduces the major characters. A conflict is subsequently introduced, which then leads to a crisis or moment of great tension. This conflict may reach a climax or turning point that determines the outcome through which the plot’s complications are sorted out and resolved.
This structure is evident throughout the book. Returning to ‘Wedding Dress’, the exposition introduces the main persona, Lynn, and her hunt for a dress in a shopping centre. The conflict in the story stems from Lynn’s having to attend her ex-boyfriend’s wedding and confront her feelings arising from being part of the event. It is this conflict which builds up to a moment of dramatic tension when she actually faces the newly-wed couple. Resolution comes after copious drinks and during the ride home, where Lynn finally comes to a new and stable understanding about the situation.
This pattern of building tension followed by resolution recurs in ‘Kitchen’, where the conflict reaches a peak when the mother-in-law has a heart attack, but which is resolved with her acceptance of daughter-in-law Sue’s style of managing the household.
This clarity of structure does well by not distracting from the key themes of the stories. The title of the book refers to the struggles of adapting to change, and these eight stories are linked by a common thread of dealing with loss.
The sentiment expressed in the above quote is captured in ‘Demolishing Bekka Market’, where a traditional wet market has to make way for air-conditioned supermarkets:
While the stories are strengthened by their shared theme, they leave much to be desired, coming off at times like school essays.
Lim’s characters, while effective in their representation of a range of archetypes from the Chinese community in Singapore, are still lacking. These archetypes unfortunately never go beyond stereotypes, and suffer from the simplicity and flatness of their presentation:
Lim’s sentences are also awkward at times, with a quaint use of syntax which betrays an adherence to direct translations of Chinese turns of phrase:
Lim takes a melancholy pleasure in these narratives from the past, but at such moments it feels as if she has soaked them in too much nostalgia:
Overall, Lim’s approach does not really add anything new to the genre. Still, she possesses a well-schooled technique, and the stories can be said to be heartfelt, albeit clichéd. Some readers, however, might well take comfort in the fact that the older Lim, Catherine, has a potential successor waiting in the wings.QLRS Vol. 4 No. 4 Jul 2005