Reviews / February 2010 (Issue 10)

Fragile Moments: The Emotional Precision in O Thiam Chin's Never Been Better

by Moira Moody


O Thiam Chin, Never Been Better, MPH, 2009. 242 pgs.

O Thiam Chin's second collection of stories is set primarily in the town of Ang Mo Kio, Singapore, and follows people whose lives do not intersect but whose dreams do; people bound by their shared human longings, griefs and discoveries. O takes us into the lives of people who might never speak to one another but might spend years shopping in the same market, buying the same brand of oranges— who might even be lost in the same dreams.

O's great gift is presenting universal themes of grief and loss minutely rendered within very specific environments and very strong (and sometimes oppressive) families. In one of the earlier stories in his collection, "Moth," O demonstrates this gift by creating a sense of interchangeability among the characters while at the same time maintaining a very specific sense of place. O describes the setting in vivid detail, naming the Paya Lebar MRT subway stop and the lalang stalks, while he leaves the two central characters, the narrator and his cousin, unnamed.

The dream-like quality of "Moth" likewise heightens the sense of interchangeability and cyclicality associated with the characters. The narrator states that "memory is such a pliable, slippery thing that it changes its nature each time you bring it up in your head afresh," and the story is pushed forward less by action and more by the memories that the action triggers. The narrator's task is to look after his young cousin, who is coming to terms with own father's illness and death. However, playing "big brother" to his cousin reminds him of the loss of his real brother, who was sold off at a young age. The fusion and interchangeability of the characters is represented well by a moth fluttering into the apartment where the narrator is caring for his cousin. O descibes the moth as "instinctively attracted to the death scent of the recently-deceased," the lingering soul. The momentary, fragile nature of the insect has the same texture as the narrator's memories of his mother and brother. Both are there and then gone, just as the narrator's young cousin is "for a fleeting moment … a young boy seemingly untouched by grief or loss." O is serious but never heavy-handed; the repetition of sad themes feels inevitable but also creates the expectation that the cycle will eventually finish with some measure of hope.

Although the stories in Never Been Better explore similar themes, each piece feels original. The recurring motifs in O's work include grief, sexual awakening and Chinese mythology or folklore. There is a danger of too much repetition here, but in each story the same motifs are brought together in singular characters. Each piece also includes at least one technique that is a significant departure from the stories that came before it. For instance, most of O's tales are written in ruminating, first-person or third-person narration focalized around one main character. However, in "Peach" the point-of-view character is silent, and listens to the main character, who is his grandmother. This listener uses the smallest references to create the frame to the story: "It was a very scary thought, my grandmother said, putting the joss sticks into the ceramic urn in front of my grandfather's black-and-white portrait, to know that we were doing it for real, that this was the right thing to do." This one sentence is the only time we see the vantage point of the silent narrator, for whom the joss sticks, the portrait, the sound of the grandmother become a memory, as does the story itself. At the same time, the retrospective character of the narrator allows the grandmother to have a great deal of insight into herself. At one point in the story the grandmother relates a dream in which she is threatened by the Monkey King, who menaces her with his "bobbing manhood," which "made [her] feel strange, as if [she] were initiated into an unknown world, where being a woman was a vulnerability and a weapon at the same time." Much of this tale is yarn-like, but her aside imparts a sense of gravity to the story. With it, we understand the sense of selfhood that leads her to marry the man of her choosing and to leave her small town even though it represents everything she has ever known.

The title of the collection, Never Been Better, comes from the first story in O's collection, but I felt the full meaning of the phrase in his last story, "Silence". Silence is a 40-page piece that shows O's ability to follow his characters into their most painful interior spaces and bring them out. This story centers on a woman who has lost her sister, Lee Fen, to suicide. Lee Fen travels the world in search of love, while the narrator stays in Singapore and wonders what she is missing. Their conflict is predicated on the narrator's own discomfort with her sexuality, and it is implicit that the sister's suicide is linked to the narrator's romantic involvement with Lee Fen's girlfriend. However, although the story seems to build towards a flashback of this dramatic scene, O deftly chooses not include it. The exclusion of the suicide from the narrative relects the narrator's own repression of the event.

For the narrator, it is a secondary character, Priscilla, who represents another chance at healing. At the end of the story, the narrator has a cathartic moment when she sees Lee Fen in a dream. The melodrama is high, but O softens and deepens the moment by having Priscilla rationalize it. When the narrator asks why anyone would have a vision like this, Priscilla answers, "Maybe it's because we wanted it so badly, we would die for it." As the narrator gradually accepts her sister's death, she allows herself to accept her own way of loving. There is no guarantee that the love is requited, but this small flash of hope at the end is very much like the smile on the boy's face at the end of "Moth": after all of this is over, there is the chance for something better.

O is a talented writer who has a great gift for writing about the Hokkien-speaking Chinese Singaporeans within the neighborhood of Ang Mo Kio. In "Moth" the narrator's bus ride through the neighborhood is just as important as the Chinese mythology within the piece. In "Silence" the comfortable way a young woman wrings water out of her hair is as revealing as her cathartic dream at the end. O writes about people with very different concerns, and he is able to write about them confidently because he has taken the time to understand and evoke their environment.

Editors' note: O Thiam Chin's short fiction "Pebbles" was published in issue #8 of Cha.

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