Monday, August 16

Book Review: Clutch, Brake, Sellerator and other stories

I finally made it to Kinokuniya yesterday (I rarely go to KLCC now that I'm working at H. Selayang), and found a collection of Malaysian-English books displayed near the main entrance. Much to my delight, I found Clutch, Brake, Sellerator and Other Stories there (was dreading I would only find it at MPH). So, what's so special about this book? MPH and Alliance Bank collaborated in a national English short story competition held between October 2008 and April 2009 (or something like that; I can't remember the exact dates). I submitted two stories, but I don't think they even made the longlist. So, when the winners were announced in July 2009, I wanted so bad to read the winning entries -- there were 2 grand prize winners, and 4 shortlisted stories. At first all I wanted to know was how those stories could win when mine didn't. Even though the stories I submitted were the first two I wrote after 4 years of silence, I know for a fact they didn't suck. Maybe they weren't literary enough, but, whenever I pick them up for a re-read, I know they're quite good. That was then. Now, with 7 stories published and quite a few more under consideration for publication, I know that my stories likely didn't make it because they didn't suit the judges' taste, and not because of my lack of competency as a writer. So when I sat down with this book in my hands, I read for the pleasure of reading. There's not a hint of bitterness, honest. So I wrote this review both as a reader and as an editor (I edit, review and tear apart my writing group members' works, most of which are now published). Tan Twan Eng, in his story Some Things Will Remain, tells a poignant tale about the extent a mother is willing to go through to save her relationship with her only child, and of the repercussions of her decisions. While the story is beautifully told, the prose is a tad overblown. The narrative and dialogue voices of the main character, told from the first person perspective, are inconsistent and differ greatly. Had the story been narrated in the third person, it would be much more believable. Ivan Yeo's Clutch, Break, Sellarator is a refreshing read. A coming-of-age story, it serves as a warning to those who have just earned their driver's license. Using Manglish definitely lends color to the story, but what I like the most is the distinct narrator's voice, which is full of character. However, Ivan manages to jumble up his tenses -- not in a good way -- throughout the story, and the piece is littered with style/formatting issues. But I don't mind them that much. What's really disappointing is the ending. With the easy, conversational pace throughout the story, the end feels rushed and anti-climatic. He certainly could have played with the ending more. Still, it's an enjoyable read and I won't mind a re-read. I like reading Shih-Li Kow's Pilling Time. She has opted for omnipresent third-person narration, told in a fairytale-like style. Reading the story reminds me of the game The Sims, where the player can stop time and that particular community will go on, leading their lives blissfully unaware that for them, time has frozen. That is, until the player gets bored and reactivates the age button. A clean story, with good, constant pacing. Unlike the rest of the winning entries, the story doesn't have that Malaysian feel to it. However -- and I agree with her statement -- in her very own words: "Is a story recognisably Malaysian only because it is populated with local names, or because of the way dialogue is written, or because of references to teh tarik, nasi lemak, roti canai and all those staples we employ to colour a story?" I do, however, question the judges' decision with Vincent Foo's The Cobra's Mate. The story violates at least half of the basic rules on writing. It seems to have been told from limited third person Point of View, but perspectives are changed with reckless abandon from one character to the next (including a cobra's). Passive voice dominates the story, and the dialogues are stilted and far from believable. Some dialogue-paragraphs taken from the story:
"I have my suspicions about that also. I overheard several people saying that my father died after drinking a bottle of tuak Banang had given him. From the manner of his death, it was obvious it had been laced with poison, most probably the juice of a poisonous tuber. My father hadn't known whether it was day or night for a long time. Alcohol was his weakness. He couldn't have resisted accepting the rice wine even if he had known it was from an enemy. No one dared to testify that they saw Banang giving the liquor to my father." "How horrible! Banang scares me, 'king." "I'm afraid of him, too. I have been, in fact, for the last ten years ever since he saw me vomiting my stomach out."
The storytelling style may have been popular in early 1900s, but it has long since been discarded. The dialogues are filled with expositions; one character explains to another things that they should likely know, what with sharing the same rumah panjang and all. They also seem to control a vocabulary incongruous with their education level (the story takes place during the time of the White Rajahs). There is nothing fresh about the storyline. There must be something in the story that I still fail to see, as it made the shortlist. The interaction between the protagonist's family members in Lee Eeleen's The Englishman at Table 19 certainly is familiar, and wholesomely Malaysian. She uses proper English and not Manglish, but the dialogues are believable and again, very Malaysian. However, the protagonist doesn't really grow, and her encounters with David Niven's apparition do not gel with the rest of the tale, making me wonder what his purpose in the story is. Of all the stories in the collection, my favorite, without a doubt, is Zed Adam Idris's The Hunter and the Tigress. Not because it's speculative fiction, but because of the beautiful storytelling. Here is a story I can truly look up to. Zed manages to captivate me from the very beginning, and I empathize with the protagonist, Kulim. Good characterization and story arc, constant voice and pace, and the mental images the story invokes are vivid. If there is only one story that makes buying this anthology worth the RM21.90 price tag, this is it. 1 Fantasy, 1 ghost story (sort of), and 1 pseudo-SF made the shortlist. Impressive, as I have always thought Malaysian publishers much prefer mainstream stories with a literary bent as opposed to speculative fiction. Maybe there is a place for speculative fiction here in Malaysia. Having written 2 horror stories, 2 SF, and plenty more stories, all set in Malaysia, reading this book gives me hope. So should you buy this book? For the pleasure of reading, for the sake of encouraging more writing competitions, and to support Malaysian-English writers, I say go for it.