By Joyce Er (15A01A) and Myko Balbuena (15A01B)
Things in Singapore have certainly been heating up recently. Debates on topics such as homosexuality, and on perennial concerns such as race and religion, and elitism and equality, are increasingly commonplace. Jolene Tan’s A Certain Exposure comes then at a very colourful juncture and ambitiously attempts to grapple with a whole smorgasbord of issues. In her debut novel, larger socio-political issues as used a basis of the exploration of the personal, in particular, it offers an incisive look at the nature of friendship and the evolving meaning of family in this highly judgmental and competitive city state.
Given that the book is just 213 pages long, the eclectic range of topics she decided to tackle are consequently crammed tightly together and jockey with each other. The resulting concentration of Jolene’s debut novel echoes that of the place it is set in: dense, where everything is inextricably wound up together. Ultimately though, when taken in its entirety, the book is a gripping read that delivers an unflinching and unapologetic sucker punch to the gut.
At the heart of the story are the twins, Andrew and Brian, and how Brian comes to terms with Andrew’s sudden death. The first sentence plunges us straight into this theme:
‘Brian organised for the body to be flown back.’
Starting in 1998 and weaving back and forth through time, it is principally a story of how Andrew and Brian grow up to lead very divergent lives. They are almost entirely removed from each other despite living in the same house. This distance is eventually compounded by the fact that Andrew moves to Cambridge, England.
Much in the same way Leo Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich begins with death but spends most of its pages talking about Ivan Ilyich’s life, we know that Andrew’s death is the inevitable end, and spend most of our time working through the morass that is his life, trying to find out how this end came about. At a void deck funeral a few days after Andrew’s passing, Brian ruminates:
‘It was hopeless. Nothing could be made of the material. And if Andrew was so partially imagined in life, it seemed to Brian grotesque to fill in the blanks in death. This went too for the biggest blank of all. There was no suicide note. Speculation was inevitable, repulsive. My brother killed himself because. Because of a photograph, because of a prank, because of malice, because of his nature, because of a panic, because of a misunderstanding (on his part, or everyone else’s), because of all of the above, because of none of the above. My brother killed himself because. Brian would not fill in the blank. My brother killed himself.’
Perhaps, in that sense, we are like the bereaved Brian, the brother left behind, trying desperately to restore to completeness the scattered fragments of a loved one’s life, but nevertheless too afraid to fill in the blanks and confront it for what it really is.
A Certain Exposure is a potent poultice of social issues, especially sensitive to readers at a point when difficult questions about race, gender and identity are finally, tentatively, being surfaced in society.
The title references Jolene’s intent to peel away the thin veneer of social niceties and expose the unspoken biases underpinning our psyches. Her characters are the vessels for this goal, and indeed one might be tempted to question the realism of her Singapore—it is a story of the death of a straight-A scholar with homosexual tendencies, told through the eyes of his twin brother with a history of biracial romantic involvement.
Throw an aunt involved in a stable biracial lesbian Trelationship into the picture, and you have what seems an all-too-convenient condensation of every taboo that till recently has undergirded social interaction in Singapore. Add to the implausible cocktail of social trespasses some brief polemical commentary on the author’s part, and the book seems to be less a book than a 200-page long political pamphlet. For example, consider the following paragraph about the Gifted Education Programme:
‘This crowning apex of the Singaporean taxonomy of young human capital devoted especial resources to only the brainiest half of a hundredth children—though its strictly scientific process lighted remarkably often, statistically speaking, upon the affluent.’
A little less than kind, scathingly envenomed, and perhaps not terribly subtle.
Nevertheless, her intent is clear: her novel intends to confront unspoken norms head-on. From page one, the novel launches you into the thick of a complex tangle of chronic problems that have plagued Andrew and Brian throughout their upbringing and arguably orchestrated Andrew’s eventual, tragic death. In doing so, the novel makes the point that prevalent pernicious discriminatory attitudes can eventually be the undoing of anyone. Nobody, not even those who appear to have it all, is spared, and in this way Jolene makes the simple problem of wanting to belong everyone’s business, conclusively demonstrating that the status quo is not something that we can continue to passively accept.
Harsh and forthright though she may be, and while the authorial voice may sometimes give way to that of the political commentator, this novel works because of two things: firstly, her criticisms are not only valid but also desperately wanting remedy. To this end, her book is a successful wake-up call for us to look at the less-than-desirable attitudes underpinning the veneer of success that is modern Singapore. Secondly, the emotional power of her scenes nevertheless brings the novel back into what is originally was: a novel. She is an author who knows how to pull heartstrings.
‘My brother killed himself because. Brian would not fill in the blank. My brother killed himself.’
The language’s comfort with being frank lends itself to Jolene Tan’s deliberated expose; she proves herself to be a master of the ironic voice and sentiment, a modern-day Dickens in training. Although at first glance none too subtle, what makes the book is the surgical positioning of details that speak for themselves. Innocuous, unassuming facts are strewn everywhere and sit there quietly while convincingly building up the scene. There is no stuttering approximation of what a thing looks like: it is put there for what it is, and immediately a mine of associations and memories are accessed.
Consider the funeral at the void deck mentioned above:
‘He moved onto a chair. These were laid out in rows, bright red plastic under the white lights that hurt his eyes.’
Two sentences that don’t draw a lot of attention to themselves but are nonetheless effective: it is hard not to see the grey concrete floors with cracks like rivers scampering wildly across, to feel the heat that slumbers peacefully but is still palpable. In the way Proust conjures an entire town from the taste of a madeleine dipped into tea, so Jolene Tan constructs for us with these accurate details a pre-bimillennial Singapore.
Slightly later on in the novel:
‘But even so, Brian felt a loss greater than simple nostalgia, as these weathered playground structures in their kingdoms of sand were replaced in almost every housing estate—grey columns, giant birds and stony dragons giving way to open metal frames and plastic squares on rubbery foam.’
Again, there is no attempt to describe with what John Updike calls ‘fuzzy précis’ what these things might be; the birds and dragons and sand are put there and allowed to speak for themselves. Other curious details that complete the picture are referenced: the quintessential ixora bush, the green rails of storm drains, plastic drawstring bags full of Milo or teh, and, especially, the cassette, which firmly places us in a Singapore still stuck in the late ’80s and ’90s. Like the scene in F Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, where a man is surprised to find that all the books in Gatsby’s library are real, Jolene Tan’s canvas is convincingly filled.