Rubik's Cube

From the archives (April 18, 2017):

Review of The Adopted: Stories from Angkor by HENG Siok Tian, PHAN Ming Yen, YEOW Kai Chai, and YONG Shu Hoong (Singapore: Ethos Books, 2015)
by Stewart Dorward

 

HENG Siok Tian, PHAN Ming Yen, YEOW Kai Chai, and YONG Shu Hoong are four prize-winning Singaporean editors and writers of narrative fiction and poetry. For the purposes of this volume under review, they are four friends who went on a five-day trip to Angkor Wat: sight-seeing, eating, shopping, and socializing. They cannot agree on how or why this communal writing project arose but they agreed on some clear ground rules. They were to write a story for each day of the visit, for which there would be a set theme, a “stimulus,” and a quotation. Finally, each story would have to contain a particular type of flawed character. The volume collects five stories by four writers each, so the twenty short pieces, linked by a singular challenge, twist and interconnect in surprising ways.

After reading the first story of each author’s set, no one can tell if each cycle of stories will be resolved in some satisfying manner or if it will be a series of random moves. By the end of the fifth story of each set, it becomes clear that Heng and Yong are in the latter group. They follow the rules but seem to want to be telling other stories free of constraints. This is especially true of Heng. In one of her stories, the Amsterdam-based Cambodian drug dealer and his girlfriend are interesting characters in their own right, but they do not belong in a story arc closely tied to Angkor Wat, even if they grew up near the ruins. In contrast, Yeow grabs hold of the parameters and squeezes every last drop of fun out of them. His vampires, aliens, and shape-shifting monkeys coalesce into a fully connected group of stories. Yeow solves the puzzle and we enjoy watching him do it.

First Day

The parameters for the first day are that the story must be set in Cambodia, on the theme of loss. The stimulus is the West Gallery of Angkor Wat, which depicts The Battle of Kurukshetra from the Hindu epic Mahabharata, and the quotation to be incorporated is “There are questions that cannot be answered.”

Heng, Yong, and Yeow all set their stories in the ruins with the main character doing the usual tourist sightseeing. Phan twists things slightly by having the narrator, a landlady, stay in Singapore but another character, her tenant, visit Cambodia. All the stories have characters that are flawed in some sense. They range from a severely disabled teenage boy, through a one-eyed street urchin, to a human with alien technology implanted in him, and these characters all remain through the whole sets of stories. The flaws are moral too. Humans are described as “indecisive, quarrelsome and unreliable” by the alien foster parents of Yeow’s human narrator. Phan’s lost tenant seems a good example of what the aliens are concerned about. His unexplained dreams of the West Gallery lead him to leave Singapore suddenly for Angkor Wat. His journal reveals neither a real reason for his departure from Singapore nor a clear explanation for the human skull under his bed. This all leaves the landlady narrator flummoxed, unable to answer her son’s or the police’s questions, so ending the tale with the set quotation for the day.

In Yong’s story, a sad tourist, who has suffered some unexplained medical loss, arrives at the temple complex and feels the need to unburden herself by speaking her secrets to a hole in the wall. Heng only lightly touches on the narrative prompts. The loss is in failing to buy postcards from a street vendor and the narrator is unable to explain why she didn’t buy them as she wanders through the West Gallery. In contrast, Yeow makes exuberant use of the narrative restrictions. The narrator’s loss is of his family in a Khmer Rouge massacre from which he is plucked, as a baby, by an alien researcher. The mode of travel is the question beyond an answer. The West Gallery becomes the setting for the most important plot twist. While the narrator is looking at the frieze of the War, a street boy takes his wallet. The subsequent chase reveals that the thief wants to bring the narrator to meet his father. At their meeting, the boy asks the narrator a question: ‘Who U. U look like my father.’ The two men look at each other and instantly note the similarity. The reader’s mind flips back to the opening massacre with the alien taking one baby and the Khmer Rouge soldier another. So, the reader is left at this point with the unanswered question, ‘Are these men brothers?’

Second Day

The second day is a transition in all the story sets. Both Yong and Phan use dreams to draw together the different parameters: the theme of ruins, the stimulus of joss sticks burning in a stone, and the quotation “Don’t tempt the spirits.” For both of them, an imagined face fades out in a cloud of incense smoke. In Yong’s story, it is the face of a remembered tourist being superimposed on that of the narrator’s lover. In Phan’s story, it is a possible ghost appearing in a nearby apartment bought by a soon-to-be-wed couple. Again Heng only lightly touches on the narrative prompts by having the word “ruin” pop into a character’s mind from an old English lesson, the girlfriend worrying about placating spirits and the boyfriend bringing home a stone burner for her to use. These different elements do not gel in Heng’s story. The idea of a triad drug dealer carrying home a large stone he found on an abandoned lot is improbable. The possible damage to his clothing and image would be a bar to that happening, no matter how much he might care for his girlfriend.

Yeow takes on the prompts and gives us a section about human-to-monkey shape-shifters living in the temple ruins. The alien who appeared in the first story features in the monkeys’ story, though only as an unsettling presence they cannot explain. The real focus is on the grandmother from a group of quarreling humans. She walks away from them and towards an area of dangerous spirit activity that is marked by incense burning in the rocks. The monkeys shriek to scare her away but fail. While the first story runs parallel to this incident, small parts of it are woven into the tale that the monkeys relate. These connections make Yeow’s story feel stronger than the others.

Third Day

For the third day, the theme is guilt, the stimulus is a girl selling joss sticks in the temple, and the quotation is “There are no mirrors in the bathroom.” All four story sets include a convincing example of guilt. Yong shows white racism in Singapore, Heng the abandonment of a much younger sister by an older one, Phan a ghost regretting scaring an old lady, and Yeow the recurring regrets of a vampire for feeding on its victims. Beyond that, Yong only gives token mentions of the other two parameters, which could both be deleted and not change the story in any way. Heng fails to include the joss stick seller at all.

In contrast, both Phan’s and Yeow’s stories really take off as their third installment builds on the earlier ones. Yeow’s vampire has good reason to welcome the absence of mirrors in the massage parlor where he feeds on the masseurs. Even if he could see himself in a mirror, contra the myth, he would not want to exacerbate his guilt by seeing himself feed. Also, the unexpected meeting with the joss stick girl severely jolts him because of the acid scars on her face. The sight shocks him into a deeper self-awareness.

Phan’s story makes even more imaginative use of the narrative restrictions. His joss stick seller is a ghost girl in an old-fashioned dress, who spooks an elderly neighbor. The old lady does not understand who or what her supernatural visitor is, despite all the clues. The reader, though, remembers the earlier break-in; the dried beans arranged to spell the Chinese characters for “welcome” on the floor; the fiancée seeing the burned face in the non-existent mirror and then falling sick. This is a serious haunting, but the old lady cannot even work out who is switching off her TV set at night when she falls asleep.

Fourth Day

For this day, the theme is fear of change, the stimulus is someone twisting their ankle on a stone in the temple, and the quotation is “The entire universe just vanished in front of me and there is only one thing I could have done.” By now, the writers can be divided into two camps. Yong and Heng only mention the parameters and do not make use of them whereas Phan and Yeow make them central to their stories. Both Phan’s school teacher and Yeow’s archeologist have their fates decided by their stumbling and hurting their ankle. A shock for both characters, the accident brings out a spontaneous display of affection from the teacher’s high-school boy lover, a public unmasking of their relationship leading to her dismissal. Yeow’s use of the accident is a twist on the earlier vampire theme. This time the monkeys come to the injured woman and the troop’s matriarch sucks the blood from the wound. At once, the archeologist’s fear of emotional commitment evaporates as she shape-shifts and joins the monkeys. Her whole human universe vanished and joining the troop was the only thing she could to do.

Fifth Day

On the last day, the story must be set in Cambodia with the theme of forgiveness, and use the stimulus of the sign language gesture of “I,” and the quotation “There is a season for everything, and a time for every event under heaven.” By this point Heng’s stories seem to have lost cohesion with the final installment having no narrative connection to the start point. In the fifth story the younger sister is backpacking round Cambodia with the Frenchman she picked up in Paris: there is no attempt to connect them to the older sister and her drug-dealer boyfriend living in Amsterdam. The younger sister is described as having six fingers on one hand but no reason is given for this revelation and it is as pointless as Heng’s stories have become aimless. At least Yong loops back to give us two older versions of original characters, the female tourist and the young street vendor Khiev. Unfortunately, the woman is interviewing Khiev for no clear reason and both her interview and the story ramble off to nowhere.

Phan’s stories have been held together by the apartment building in Singapore. The tales unfold in neighboring units on the same upper floor, the elderly long-term residents knowing each other’s business. The last story focuses on a previously minor character, the live-in Cambodian care assistant for a quadriplegic boy. Her employer had been racked by guilt for her affair with a student and jumped to her death when her application to adopt her disabled nephew is rejected. This desperate act leaves the boy in the care of the maid, Venetta. The maid is haunted by her own past working in a Khmer Rouge interrogation center, a haunting nicely suggested by the skull that a neighbor brings back from Cambodia and leaves behind to be found. Venetta is in far more need of forgiveness than her employer, but it is the latter who is driven to kill herself. Ironically, the actions of the authorities leave a helpless boy with an experienced torturer.

Yeow’s stories have the most dramatic climax. They finish with a secret ritual complete with dark hoods, chalices, chanting, and blood. As with Phan, Yeow draws an immigrant maid to the front of the story. Both writers show the devotion these women have to those they care for, in Yen’s case the disabled boy and in Chai’s case, the grandmother who was lost in the ruins. The grandmother is now the matriarch of a troop of temple monkeys nearby, but the maid does not know how easy it is to be reunited with her. The reader knows and is also aware of the blood magic in the temple and of the presence of vampires. When the chalice is raised with blood mixed with the dust of home, the reader’s mind moves beyond the text to reunion and forgiveness as another human becomes a temple monkey in Angkor Wat.

Several metaphors are used by the authors and the publisher to describe this book. The introduction mentions a four-part symphony, the back cover uses the figure of a relay race, and a quotation on the publisher’s web site refers to a kaleidoscope. This is a hard book to pin down. The symphony metaphor comes from the constraints of the literary format that focus and channel creativity to produce four varied sets of stories. However, orchestral music lacks, arguably, the engagingly specific detail of the best fiction. Kaleidoscope has that detail but, as a child, I never found the toy as emotionally engaging as some of these stories. Relay race switches the focus to the creation process but suggests that this book is an exercise in endurance. Instead of these tropes for the volume, I would suggest a Rubik’s Cube. It is playful as well as colorful and absorbing.

 

Stewart Dorward is a British-born teacher trainer living north of Tokyo. He has multiple degrees in law, education, and religion, and a long-standing interest in traditional Asian spirituality in modern popular literature. He also runs a bed and breakfast and tries to grow vegetables.