Reviews / March 2013 (Issue 20)

The Pause: Dave Chua's The Beating and Other Stories

by Grant Hamilton


Dave Chua, The Beating and Other Stories, Ethos Books, 2011. 209 pgs.

In early 2012, the Filipino author Vicente García Groyón conducted an interview with the Malaysian-born, Singaporean writer Dave Chua. Always interested in the mechanics of the literary plot, Groyón asked Chua to explain the motivation for the sudden disappearance of one of the characters in his well-received debut novel, Gone Case.[i] Chua replied:

I think in Singapore, friendships and relationships are shuffled away. From personal experience, once one leaves a school or workplace, there's little reason to keep in touch…People went their separate ways after the various exams that partition a young Singaporean's life.

This brief reflection on the transient nature of human social connection in Singapore is important because, in one way or another, all of the short stories collected in his most recent book, The Beating and Other Stories, are an exploration of this theme. Without exception, the characters introduced to the reader are lonely individuals who live their lives with an almost crushing sense of solitude—the mother who takes up waitressing in order to lessen the weight of the realisation that the daughter she has put through the American college system has effectively abandoned her ("The Man Who Came Alone to Eat"); the father who works as a late-night security guard following the collapse of his marriage and the resultant distancing from his daughter ("Fireworks"); the husband and wife who live separate lives to the extent that they cannot even be reconciled through the event of the suspected death of their only son ("The Drowning"); the daughter who…the son who…

Indeed, in the light of such a litany of solitude, to talk of Chua's characters living their lives is somewhat erroneous. Perhaps to talk of characters who endure their lives is more precise. Certainly, "to endure" captures the sense of a hardening persistence towards life that Chua works into the fabric of his tales.

Given the ceaseless narration of such endurance, the reader might begin to suspect that Chua has taken to heart Anaïs Nin's hedgerow philosophy that "life is truly known only to those who suffer, lose, or endure adversity as they stumble from defeat to defeat." After all, it is hard to deny the resonance between the affect of Chua's writing and Nin's assertion: that life is misery. But, if there is any element of significance to Nin's aphorism then the ability to reduce life to wretchedness is not it. Rather, it is found in the fact that a sense of "loss" or "defeat" can only ever crystallise through the act of retrospection—the act of looking backward over a life lived. Put another way, it is not the defeat itself but rather the ways and means by which one finally realises the defeat that is important. It is clear from Nin's writing that she understood this. For all the recitations of failure, sorrow and disgrace, hers is a literature of passion, of tracking and satiating desire, of abandonment to immediacy. Chua's is not. This collection of short stories is only interested in the notion of a completed life—particularly the defeated life—and the result is an unremittingly ashen, lifeless climate.

Undoubtedly, some readers will feel as though they need something more from this collection of short stories—that repeated tales of alienation and solitude tell us precious little that either we didn't already know or didn't already suspect about modern urban life. For those readers, "The Tiger of 142B" will be a welcome glimmer of vitality. However, other readers will thrive in the dun environment of these stories, an environment that Gwee Li Sui has characterised as "the pause."[ii] In the moment of stillness that seems to describe the contours of each story, there is a real sense that Chua has produced gritty urban tales that reveal an unacknowledged and embarrassing effect of modern Singaporean life. If only for apprehending this, the collection is worth reading.

[i] Gone Case received the commendation award at the Singapore Literature Prize, 1996.

[ii] Foreword to The Beating, p. 15.

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