How to Read Modern Myths

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How To Read Modern Myths

by Chong Li-Chuan
21 August 2018

"Modern Myths" by Clara Chow
(2018), Math Paper Press

First and foremost, I am not a classical scholar. As such, I wished my mother had also bought me an Usborne book of Greek mythology when I was seven as acknowledged in the back pages of Clara Chow’s Modern Myths (Math Paper Press, 2018). The extent of my Greek knowledge was informed by “Clash of the Titans” when I was six, and much later, in my heady undergraduate days overseas, “Xena: Warrior Princess”on Saturday afternoon TV; a spin-off series from “Hercules: The Legendary Journeys” in the mid ’90s. Now in my forties and a father-of-two and armed with such pop culture credentials, I am ready to read Chow’s 300-page tome of speculative fiction short stories, several of which deal explicitly with characters, names and archetypes from ancient times — Medea, Atalanta, and Ulysses — set in contemporary Singapore and elsewhere (as far as theAfterlife in one such case), and told from a Singaporean perspective? Am I ready for it? Will I ever be ready? Should I get my children a copy of that Usborne book to prepare them for a close reading of Chow’s text in time to come?

Nevertheless, with the aid of the Internet in my pocket and a rudimentary education, I managed to receive some ‘aha’ moments: achievement unlocked by getting that reference about a woman scorned, rejected by her husband Jason (name changed to protect your enjoyment; no spoilers, I promise) and seeking revenge in the bloodiest of ways. Also picking up tasty Greek morsels like “The shoes are Adidas; Nikes presents a potential conflict of sponsorship for her” (from Atalanta, the shortest in the collection) in the midst of a protracted fight for gender equality. Plenty of such one-liners to geek out on!
Strangely, or not so strangely, my penchant for the writings of Neil Gaiman, Will Self, and Cory Doctorow primed me to enjoy Chow’s varied styles of descriptive prose. Some are lucid and fast paced, some more languid and liminal, but all equally intriguing, especially in the use of flashbacks. I could imagine many of these scenes rendered in graphic novel glory by Sonny Liew. The individual short stories are richly detailed vignettes, observations of a rapidly changing Singapore landscape through the acute eyes of a Gen X’er, against a backdrop of material consumption, gentrification and nostalgia. However, to read Modern Myths from cover to cover, I found myself having to change gears at the beginning of every chapter, and shifting from one emotional pitch to another to accommodate the ever-expanding cast of characters.

Thus, in the course of reading this collection, I can strongly relate to “a Sisyphean task, emptying and filling a body in pursuit of a good time” (from DJ Fierce, signposted in the blurb on the back cover as “Orpheus is a club DJ.”). On the one hand, there is pleasure to be had revelling in Chow’s use of Greek mythology as a framing device for the disparate tales told; the book being divided into two unequal halves, labelled “Side A: Immortals”, and “Side B: Mortals”. I read anxiously, like flipping a cassette tape over and over in a Walkman from three decades ago, rewinding and pausing to discover the nonlinear connections on either side. And on the other hand, I felt like it was a futile attempt on my part to seek out every Greek reference and linkage between the stories for fear of missing out. Perhaps the best way to enjoy these psychological portraits of expats and locals, inhabiting entirely fictive and close to reality universes, is to allow Chow’s myths to work their magic on your imagination.

Listen to excerpts of Clara Chow’s Modern Myths:

Modern Myths is available at all leading bookstores and online.
And if you prefer to read about a world where original myths and dragons exist, check out this list: