Other Fish To Fry
Good writing needs to lose the other follies
By Toh Hsien Min
The Secret Goldfish and Other Follies
One of the things about going to university in Oxford is that you sometimes feel as though you are a student in a tourist attraction (in my case, I could have been a tourist in a studying attraction, given how little work I used to do). But whenever a friend or relative comes visiting, the roles change. You feel obliged to play the tour guide, to bring them through to the cupola of the Sheldonian, to Duke Humphrey's Library, through Christ Church College, and not forgetting the special delights of your own college. It's a role most students play very well, having picked up a range of trivia about various nooks and crannies in the university town just by living there, but at the same time, most students do it with a sense of irony that however strange the collegiate system might seem to an outsider and however quaint this custom of going to examinations fully suited, gowned and mortarboarded might be, it's really something we are part of and do. Yes, the Radcliffe Camera is one of the most photographed sites in Oxford, but it's also where I eventually put in long hard hours slogging for Finals.
That's why I think the average reader might come away from Tan Teck Howe's new novel The Secret Goldfish and Other Follies with a sense of fascination. All these things that Oxford students / British students / Singaporean students in Oxford get up to. How intriguing. Is it true that "Lectures are not compulsory, sometimes irrelevant and useless"? (Yes.) Do they really leave soapsuds on dishes without rinsing them off? (Yes.) Are there Singaporeans who go up there and mix exclusively with Singaporeans? (Yes.) Do they throw flour on candidates who have finished exams? (Yes.) Are there no French people at Oxford? (Y... ah, no. Every Easter half the French school-going population descends upon Oxford.) In the same way a Singaporean novelist writing about Singapore often has to explain what bak kut teh is and why there is a ban on chewing gum that is at present only partially relaxed by the US-Singapore FTA, Tan plays tour guide very often, in passages such as this:
Surely all these bits of random Oxford trivia only form the backdrop for a much more urgent story? Well yes, sort of. Coming back to the fictitious Percival College in his second year, Tong Jin Wei gets to share a tutorial with Claire Chang Kaye, a girl of mixed African-European-Chinese descent from Trinidad and Tobago. Being the typical student, he falls in love, and tries to win her heart whilst efficiently dispatching pints of lager, playing in a band and watching movies at the Phoenix. There is a rival for her affections, and so he spends a lot of the book moping, hanging out with his housemates and playing chess with a mathematician from Queen's, before the academic year runs out on him.
I say "sort of" because all the scrapes described in the book are, again, par for the course. They're nothing that the typical student, or at the least, the typical student's best friend, hasn't done. It's one thing to write "Of course, there're the stereotypes", it's another thing to then wheel them out to populate the book. At one stage, Tan even points explicitly to the stereotyping:
The extreme case of this is that what is meant to be a shock close to the end is entirely predictable for anyone who has been through Oxford. I could identify what was going to happen and which character it was going to happen to as early as a little more than halfway through, not so much because of telling clues left by the author but because the character fit another unfortunate Oxonian stereotype.
Another danger about this is that stand-alone Oxford clichιs often serve little purpose other than to try to push the flavour. It's like adding MSG. At one point, the tour guide situation even comes to the narrative fore in a snippet with virtually no link to what comes before or after:
Had Tan written this snippet, perhaps early in his writing of the novel, and then looked to fit it in somewhere so as not to waste the effort? In a similar vein, there are long passages of filler conversation in which random Oxford students mumble to one another on random student concerns. Although these are indeed passably real, passably real conversation is frequently dull.
I say all this with the full awareness that someone who hasn't studied at Oxford might enjoy the book rather a lot more than I did. This is not only because large chunks of the book read like a rehash of the Oxford Student, but because curiously enough Tan writes very well, or rather, it is possible to see enough talent peeking through the stereotypes to look forward to Tan writing a stylish and important book once he leaves easy shortcuts behind him. Take for example this passage, which comes after the protagonist Tong has been accused by his best friend of being closed-up:
Leaving aside minor quibbles such as the loose use of the word "tragedy", the delicacy of this passage showing the protagonist exploring his own psyche through the agency of a memory promises an epiphanic lift for the novel, which is a positive, even if the promised development doesn't happen and Tong ends the novel pretty much the same character he began it as. As the novel stands, populated by cardboard cut-outs ready-made in a vibrant town just over fifty miles north-west of London, it's hard not to be left a little cold by the evidence of creative laziness. Maybe, with thousands of Singaporeans going overseas to study every year, The Secret Goldfish is a book that had to be written, and if Tan had not set it in Oxford, someone would have eventually written it for Harvard or Fenland Poly instead. Nevertheless, I cannot help but be reminded, given the role the river Isis plays in Tan's novel, that the definitive Oxford student novel has in my opinion already been written, and Max Beerbohm's Zuleika Dobson brings much more verve and farce to a town that sometimes takes itself too seriously:
This, of course, is the famous scene in which the entire male population of Oxford throws itself into the river for love for Zuleika. If Oxford students are exactly the characters that populate The Secret Goldfish, then come back Zuleika, all is forgiven!QLRS Vol. 5 No. 1 Oct 2005