Tradition and Anti-Realist Fiction

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Tradition and Anti-Realist Fiction

by Wong Wen Pu

Yeo Wei Wei, These Foolish Things (2015), Ethos Books.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez once remarked that when writers are “capable of saying the most atrocious things, the most fantastic things, with a completely straight face”, they can “get away with anything”. For Marquez, discontinuity between the reality we familiarly encounter and the divergent reality we find in a story is bridged by the author’s unflinching insistence that she is telling the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. Readers’ suspension of disbelief rests on the author’s credibility as a storyteller: the more outrageous the story, the more credible the author and her narrator need to appear to be.

However, this rhetorical strategy is largely nongermane in Singapore’s literary tradition, which is dominated by social realism. From Goh Poh Seng to Philip Jeyaretnam, many local writers have aimed to render their setting, situations, and social critiques faithfully Singaporean. Little effort is required of the imagination to find such recognisable portrayals of Singapore – and Singapore’s often very material concerns – convincing. Yeo Wei Wei’s These Foolish Things thus comes as a pleasant surprise: it sensitively meditates on our emotional existence, while steering us through the collection’s polymorphic and often anti-realistic world with a steadfast, assuring authorial hand.

Yeo’s characters inhabit a world which is mostly alike ours, only being slightly but unapologetically different at crucial junctures. For example, in “Here Comes The Sun”, a mynah sings the songs of Teresa Teng and The Beatles to an audience of old-timers in a nursing home. The polyglot bird unfazes none of the residents, who would “sometimes cla[p] along as the mynah sang”. This uncanny divergence from the familiar is no cause for incredulity in Yeo’s fabricated world: the author authoritatively rules that birds singing “English song[s] with English words” are a norm in her world, and we accept it on her terms. The strange is rendered commonplace by the author’s unwavering sincerity and her characters’ nonchalance.

Elsewhere, many of Yeo’s stories delve deeply into the interiority of her characters, engendering a layered emotional complexity in them. “Beer in Fukoka” begins in the present with the unfortunate postponement of Hwee Min’s honeymoon, but the thought of Fukoka and/or the smell of autumnal leaves, like Marcel’s tea-time madeleine, involuntarily trigger flashback. Hwee Min quickly finds her present world invaded and consumed by the memories of an ex-boyfriend. Senji’s jilting represents, to Hwee Min, not merely the end of a relationship, but the “sum of all that had [seemed to have] become irrelevant or closed off” in her life. For Yeo, the remembrance of a single event in the past expands to evoke the regrets of a lifetime, compelling her characters into introspection, soul-searching, and eventually self-understanding. Yeo thus superbly charts nuanced explorations of identity as the sum of the memories an individual holds on to, and the stories he/she tells himself/herself.

For this reader, Yeo is weakest when she tries to engage in social critique à la Catherine Lim. In these instances, Yeo deals in tired clichés: checked are the bleary-eyed civil servants and the old lady dying in the nursing home, the neglected schoolboy, the “fine city”. Some of the griping is demurely stated, but at other times Yeo takes a cudgel to the point. In “Beauty in the Eye”, the narrator goes on a blind date with a writer he had met online, to find that his date plans to turn him into a character in her next story: 

I’m … trying to finish a collection of short stories. I have nine stories and I need one more … after meeting you today I know I will finish it very soon”.

The premise is interesting as it self-reflexively lays out Yeo’s compositional process for the ten-storied These Foolish Things. But I wonder if the story really had to begin with the obligatory spiel about Singapore as a “crazy fast-paced society” where “names and numbers call the shots”, or if the subsequent pages of critique towards Singaporean materialism is necessary. Yeo’s extensive social commentary has little truck to do with the metafictional heart of the story, or the experimental voice of the collection, and only reveals a lack of original things to say about Singapore. Given the scant plot, flat characters, and at various points the unnecessary perpetuation of the sarong party girl stereotype, one must wonder if this little metafictional game was worth the while. Personally, one has a sense that this story had blundered its way into the collection by the very same drive for Singaporean expediency it had so ardently criticised.

If there is tension in These Foolish Things between the need to enact social critique and the exigency of exploring writing about new things in new ways, it is perhaps because a strong Singaporean tradition of social materialist writing precedes this collection. These Foolish Things treads a difficult line in its attempt to respond to earlier Singaporean writing while still speaking in a different voice from her literary predecessors. It is precisely this tension that makes the work original and important, because it points to the nascent growth of anti-realistic techniques and an inward emotional turn in local writing. Yeo’s subjects and techniques are fledgling steps in a new direction in Singaporean writing. To see this development in local print gives us reason to hope for so much more.

These Foolish Things is available online from Ethos Books.