by Kevin Tan Kwan Wei
O Thiam Chin, Now That It's Over, Epigram Books, 2016, 272 pgs.
Now That It's Over, the winning entry of the inaugural Epigram Books Fiction Prize (2015), melds creative and episodic writing. In its slim 272 pages, Singaporean author O Thiam Chin manages to provide vivid literary portraits of his four main characters.
Although Now That It's Over is O's debut novel, he is already well known in Singapore's literary circles for his short stories. His works have appeared in several literary anthologies, journals and online publications including Cha, The Jakarta Post and Esquire.
O's work often features local culture and familial and romantic relationships, presented in simple, clear language, short sentences and alternating timelines. In Now That It's Over, readers are treated to the culmination of these same storytelling techniques and thematic interests.
The novel centres around two couples—one heterosexual (Wei Xiang and Ai Ling) and one homosexual (Chee Seng and Cody)—who are close friends. While Wei Xiang and Ai Ling have been married for seven years, an incommunicable barrier has grown between them, as Ai Ling seems to be keeping a secret from his wife. Chee Seng and Cody are likewise undergoing relationship issues. Although they have been together for roughly ten years, their individual histories and differing values have started to push them apart despite their best efforts to maintain their connection.
As fate would have it, the couples agree to take a vacation to Phuket during the Christmas holidays of 2004. Here, O weaves together reality and fiction, as the Boxing Day Tsunami plays a major role in the novel. The calamity that ensues separates the couples. Alone and divided from their partner, each character attempts to find catharsis amidst current events and memories.
Do not be mistaken. O is not interested in writing a conventional disaster novel—he is more concerned with investigating the human drama that takes place prior to and after the tsunami. In fact, the tragedy is only described in detail on page 238, near the end of the book.
O's focus on human drama can be seen in the unique way he structures Now That It's Over. Each chapter is told from a single character's perspective, alternating in what at first seems to be a random pattern between Ai Ling, Wei Xiang, Cody and Chee Seng. But there is a cadence to the presentation of events. For instance, in Chapter 9, Chee Seng appears to take his relationship with Cody for granted by having a brief tryst with a man he meets in a bar. Yet this is contrasted immediately in Chapter 10, when we read about Cody's affection for Chee Seng being renewed by reading the text messages they have exchanged over the years.
The chapters alternate across timelines as well. O blurs the line between past and present as he strives to create dramatic tension and develop his characters. For example, some chapters are set early on in their lives, and we learn about their childhoods and past relationships. Their parents and relatives make sporadic appearances as well. Of course, this narrative technique is not wholly original, and others have employed it before. O seems conscious of this fact and even makes a reference to the Canadian author, Alice Munro, whose short stories are famous for moving forward and backward in time.
Our initial impression of each character warps and changes as we gradually learn more about their lives. Through his hook up in Chapter 9, we are made to think that Chee Seng is the unfaithful partner in their relationship, an impression which is sustained in later chapters when we learn of how he carried on a sexual relationship with another man when first dating Cody. In Chapter 26, however, O retells the events in Chapter 9 from Cody's perspective. It is only then that we learn that he has been flirting with other men online, and that it is Chee Seng's discovery of this fact that pushes him into undertaking the tryst in the first place.
The unsettling, shifting manner in which the story unfolds is reminiscent of a mystery novel. Like an onion having its layers peeled away, readers are slowly made privy to further twists and turns. O's characters are complex—at times, exhibiting contradictory behaviors—and his novel focusses on exploring these intricacies. Interactions between characters are often restrained and uneasy, especially as they all harbour secrets that make them withdraw into themselves.
When one starts Now That It's Over, these disparate elements come off as incoherent and conflicting—both the reader and novel require time to warm up. That is when things start to come together. As one reaches the midpoint of the novel, it becomes apparent that O has intended to tie these various elements together into one central question.
In Chapter 16, O, through Ai Ling, raises this question:
Actually it doesn't matter how long a couple has been together, to show the kind of love they have. Though of course, the longer you know someone, the more you know about him, what makes him tick, what makes him happy. But is that all we can know about him? How can we claim to know anyone, a lover, a husband or a boyfriend, fully, completely, when there's always a part that is hidden from us, maybe a side of him that even he is not aware of? Every man is a mystery, to himself, to others.
Later on, Ai Ling tries to pass off this statement as nothing more than drunken ramblings, yet there is something cogent and meaningful to it. The alternating perspectives and timelines can be seen as O's attempt to put us, readers, through what Ai Ling has described—that nobody truly knows his or her partner fully. Readers often expect a novel to offer an omniscient perspective on the story and characters. In Now That It's Over, however, they, like the characters, are kept in the dark and only slowly uncover the truth.
One element of the novel that felt particularly jarring was O's attempt to introduce supernatural forces into the narrative. In particular, Wei Xiang's sporadic encounters with a child from Phuket are rather coincidental and forceful, and it is hard to discern whether the child is real or a ghost. O does not seem to care. Is the child a symbol of Wei Xiang's lost parenthood? Or a benevolent spirit trying to help him? We later learn that Ai Ling has also met the youth, but even then, the truth about the child never becomes clear.
Similarly, Chee Seng is rescued and tended to by a mysterious old woman following the tsunami. Later on, both of them bury a deceased boy who has started to haunt Chee Seng's memory. The boy seems to reappear as Chee Seng heads back to the hotel. Yet, O does not make it clear whether it is the same boy or a different child, leaving the reader to wonder about the purpose of this recurring motif.
This ambiguity is probably intentional, but it detracts from what O is trying to achieve. The intense human drama that typifies most of the novel is rendered pretentious with the sudden inclusion of the boy. I would have preferred if the narrative had stuck to the human drama alone, as the supernatural elements, though riveting in their own right, do not suit the overall atmosphere the novel has created.
On the whole, Now That It's Over is an engaging debut novel from an up and coming author, and O succeeds in drawing his readers in and making them invested in his characters, warts and all. The book also marks a transition for O as he moves from writing short stories to novels. In fact, most of the themes in Now That It's Over echo those in his short story collection Love, Or Something Like Love. I would recommend reading the two together, as they complement each other as a prototype and final product respectively.
Unfortunately, the transition from short story to novel is not entirely successful, perhaps because in Now That It's Over O tries to split the difference by composing the book as a series of interconnected short stories. O has explained that he "structured each chapter in the novel as a short story, in episodic form and taking turns with each of the main characters"[i]. When this structure succeeds, we are treated to a rewarding revelation of a character's secrets. When it stumbles, the tale is turned into a disjointed medley of events.
At present, O's writing is more potent in the small doses of the short story. Nonetheless, I look forward to reading more of his novels, as he continues to perfect and hone his craft.