Reviews / October 2017 (Issue 37)


Wearing Its Heart On Its Sleeves: Imran Hashim's Annabelle Thong

by Kevin Tan Kwan Wei

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Imran Hashim, Annabelle Thong, Epigram Books, 2016. 344 pgs

 

Imran Hashim's debut novel Annabelle Thong is an unabashed exploration of the chick lit genre with a Singaporean spin. The book relishes the genre's humorous tone with playfulness. Reading Annabelle Thong is much like watching a feel-good romantic comedy. You do not consume such works for artistic complexity. You feast on them for the atmosphere they provide and the feelings that emanate from them.

The novel chronicles the misadventures of Annabelle, a Singaporean history teacher who decides to pursue her master's degree in political science at the Sorbonne. The novel's vivid descriptions of France are derived from Hashim's personal experiences. Hashim himself pursued postgraduate studies at the Sorbonne and at Sciences Po Paris. His experiences and understanding of French culture inform his debut novel.

The novel is not plot-driven. Instead it attempts to draw readers in with the sassy personality of the protagonist, Annabelle. From the outset, humour and laughter is elicited through Annabelle's self-awareness:

I share my first name with Singapore's world-famous (and only) porn star and my Chinese surname with a piece of lingerie, but I've only been on five dates my entire life, none of them sexy. I've been in love once when I was 17; he never knew and is now married to my best friend.

The humour that Hashim presents can be seen as a subtle attempt to break the fourth wall. Like Marvel's Deadpool, Hashim's Annabelle rattles off thoughts and rants at rapid pace, at times highlighting unflattering aspects of herself. This tone is maintained across the novel as Hashim applies the same acid tongue to the other characters that Annabelle encounters: "It's as if he couldn't decide between being the Lion King or a werewolf, got greedy and went for both."

The use of blunt, piercing commentary helps provide most of the novel's humour though not all attempts succeed. The approach can falter, especially when Hashim relies on trite clichés for laughs: "'Bonjour, my name is Ursula Andersson and I'm from Sweden,' says this blonde, blue-eyed bombshell."

The alliterative "blond, blue-eyed bombshell" may seem creative, but it is far too brief as characterisation. Hashim does not expend any more effort to describe or develop Ursula as a character. Considering the fact that Andersson serves as a foil to Annabelle, readers are left to speculate and imagine how beautiful she must be. Even then, we remain unaware of her personality besides her physical appearance. Though Hashim may have intended to present Ursula as a source of envy for Annabelle, he deprives readers of having any understanding of the novel's characters aside from Annabelle.

In Annabelle Thong, Hashim is fond of using lists to highlight Annabelle's thirst for social acceptance, as well as her tendency to over-think. Take for example his presentation of Annabelle's choice of a DJ moniker:

I, on the other hand, am going to be DJ Bell(e) (pronounced bel-le). This is a very conceptual persona for a DJ because:

a)     The parentheses give it a Po-Mo edge.

b)     The separation of the 'e' from my name is a subtle feminist statement.

c)     A bell is, of course, a musical instrument.

Though such presentation is creative in how it apes the way one would converse with a friend, the fact that Hashim uses the same trick multiple times strips the method of its freshness, and it began to feel like lazy writing as Hashim eschewed proper paragraphing and phrasing in favour of bullet points. The novel is not built on plot, and as such relies on style alone.

This is my main issue with Annabelle Thong. Its rambunctious style is polarising as it is built entirely on a girl's neurotic impulses. It provides a stream-of-consciousness narrative, brimming with uncensored madness. This does at times make for irritating reading because it feels like a volatile tweet storm with no end in sight. Though this approach creates intimacy with Annabelle's thoughts, it becomes overbearing:

I'm really looking forward to the conversation date, which of course, is not a real date (am not delusional) but still, it's kind of a date. So I have legitimate reason to be happy. Can't wait to practice my foreign tongue on him (just joking, God!)

Hashim is probably adhering to the genre's prescriptions whilst milking the situation for laughs. Nonetheless, I found the overbearing, brusque tone distasteful as it made the novel crude and irritating at times. This stifles the book's ability to make social commentary, which is unfortunate as there were moments when a much different, much more thoughtful version of the novel seemed to lurk. For example, through Annabelle's thoughts and statements, Hashim makes several critical statements on Singapore society by contrasting Singaporeans with the French:

My parents obviously don't get it. They don't understand that it's perfectly respectable to be a plumber, or a gardener, or a banker, or a waiter. And I don't blame them. I can't. I mean, when I first met Thierry, wasn't I just as quick to judge him, to pigeonhole him based on social manners? We come from a society that doesn't value the contributions of 'the little people', an elitist meritocracy where you need to flash a degree—and not just any degree, but a degree from a good university—to get any respect.

These pointed criticisms are sprinkled intermittently across the book as Annabelle gains a deeper understanding of French society. They manifest themselves as cathartic conclusions when Annabelle realises the flaws of Singaporean society and how it has affected her prejudices. Sadly, such moments are few and far between. The novel remains loyal to the chick lit genre and refuses to embrace its potential to contemplate and criticise Singapore's prejudices and misgivings.

Perhaps, Hashim was afraid that the novel's audience would be bored or turned off by his moralistic diatribes. Personally, I felt that the social commentary provided relief and contrast to the overall reading experience. They alleviated the novel's blaring neuroses by providing much needed perspective and sensible reflection.

However, it is only fair to appraise the novel based on what Hashim intended it to be. Annabelle is less like the risqué adult film actress she shares her name with, and more like a witty stand-up comedian desperate for our laughs and adulation. Her wisecracking and sarcasm occasionally casts a critical eye at society.

Annabelle Thong is essentially an exercise in prizing style over substance. Hashim's attempt to rewrite his own experiences and recreate the allure of Paris through the novel is uneven but nonetheless maintains tonal consistency. The novel successfully fashions a creative voice that exudes angst and insecurity, much like modern Singaporean. Aside from wearing its heart on its sleeves, one wishes that Annabelle Thong would flaunt its brain as well.

 

 
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