Reviews / February 2011 (Issue 13)

Reading Under the Sun

by Abigail Licad


O Thiam Chin, Under the Sun, MPH, 2010. 199 pgs.

If aliens wanted to understand what it is like to be human, to learn about our preoccupations, the complexity of our thoughts and feelings, our need for love and meaning in our lives, our potential for evil and kindness and our great resilience amidst the most formidable of circumstances, then these aliens should get their hands on O Thiam Chin's collection of flash fiction Under the Sun.

Contained in this collection of 50 short-short stories is a far-reaching range of the emotional, psychological and physical experiences that human beings' real and imagined worlds have to offer. Whether writing from the perspective of a mother preparing to abandon her children ("Playground"), a man possessed by a girl-demon ("Deliverance"), an unfeeling homosexual lover ("Boy"), a suicidal teenage girl ("Cigarette") or even baby killers ("Pacifier"), O displays his sublime ability to inhabit different lives and psyches with so much believability that it's sometimes difficult to fathom that all the stories came from the same imagination.

At its best, O's deft storytelling reawakens readers to the exuberance of existence by lifting characters out of the complacency of their everyday lives. In "Garoupa," two siblings having their usual family dinner initially recoil at the thought that the fish they're eating ingested the scattered ashes of their recently deceased grandfather. But after further remembrance of their Gong Gong and the significances of his sea burial, their repulsion turns into celebration: "We ate the garoupa to the bones, not forgetting for once that life always goes on, fierily, stubbornly, even beyond death." In "Dying," a speaker tells a dying friend a story told to him by his grandfather, about how the grandfather had once seized a dead baby crow away from its nest and mother. The speaker realizes the ultimate of moral lessons in the re-telling: "The mother crow, in her grief and confusion, desperately wanting to protect her offspring, had given up its life blindly, fully, to do what was the right, crazy thing to do. To love." That death exists in the backdrop of O's best stories is likely no coincidence. He leads us to appreciate that life is exuberant precisely because it is ephemeral, and how to reflect upon even the smallest of meanings, is to harvest each moment of its countless blessings.

Elsewhere, stories foreshadow larger, untold narratives that could span volumes. Straightforward speech and commonplace details build to a pivotal moment right before possible collapse, upheaval, brutality, release or some other form of life-altering change. "Desire," for example, charts a sexual adventurer's reproving inner monologue yet ends with the dramatic moment of the character ringing the doorbell of his or her next conquest. "Shadow," about a reporter who consults a spiritualist for career success, ends with the menacing approach of inexplicable lifelike shadows. While O brings dialogue and details to a crescendo as the stories progress, rarely do they reach an ultimate climax. Developments mostly remain within the zone of grave uncertainty. The resulting effect calls upon the reader's imaginative participation to write the next proverbial chapter. O trusts and relies upon us to not only fill in characters' histories, preferences and inclinations, but also to decide their destinies, the fitting results of their moral decisions.

While O's writing may lack figurative flourishes or striking imagery ("unpretentious" would perhaps best describe it), he makes effective use of other devices. His opening sentences—which often astonish, probe or perplex—imperceptibly attune the reader to the myriad possibilities of narrative development. For example, 'Lamp' begins with this captivating line, which immediately pulls you into the story: "My ex-wife, Jessie, had escaped from the genie's lamp and refused to go back in." Further, O's efficient sentences move the story's action seamlessly, not a single statement or description is wasted. The results can be quite exquisite. For example, the mythical tale (and delightful work of imagination) "Moon," about the woman on the Moon who sacrificed mortal life for the chance to be with her true love, assumes a timeless feel thanks to O's simple and direct syntax. The absent distraction of stylistic acrobatics highlights the story itself and will help assure its appeal and relevance regardless of future shifts in literary fashion.

O's stories expand our awareness of the vast choices in life and suggest that our ultimate inability to fully live out all possibilities is perhaps what makes us fallible beings. But while actual outcomes will be limited, the capacity to imagine them will not, as the expansiveness of O's writing demonstrates. In the end, his stories enact one character's conception of a "free mind": "Was it something about having no boundaries, no limits, or was it about the biggest universe you could ever have inside you?" O's creative power leaves us wondering, marveling, questioning, imagining, long after the story has ended.

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