Speaking Silently to Silence

From the archives (December 19, 2016):

Review of Yeo Wei Wei’s These Foolish Things (Singapore: Ethos Books, 2015)
by Deven Philbrick


The current cultural moment in American letters is marked by, among many other things, a peculiar treatment of the short story. Whereas novels are often used as a vehicle for dropping out of reality (crudely escapist drugstore novels seem to be everywhere, while even serious novels, often very good or even great novels, are frequently read by the general reading public for this purpose) short stories are too compressed for this; if a novel is discursive and thus able to distract, a short story forces you to engage with as much reality as possible in a very short amount of time. If this is true, we might expect short story writers to be unpopular—and yet there is an inexplicable renaissance of the short story taking place. Short story writers are, slowly, beginning to become literary celebrities. Where, then, are we to take the renaissance of the short story next? I think that cultural exchange is an important part of this new aesthetic movement. Beautiful short stories, in English, from distant and unfamiliar geographical locations need to be a part of this conversation.

Yeo Wei Wei’s elegant short story “The Beholder” begins with the epigraph: “In a dark time, the eye begins to see.” Taken from Theodore Roethke’s poem “In a Dark Time,” the line gives those who are familiar with the poem a framework within which to appreciate the story, but perhaps more importantly, this simple line—examined in the context of the larger body of stories from which “The Beholder” comes—serves as an apposite metaphor for what the Singaporean author does in her stories. Each story in the collection These Foolish Things, published by Ethos Books just last year, is a documentation of the process of beginning to see. We are placed in the dark, and then, with quiet compassion and exactingly economical prose, are slowly and cautiously given vision—a vision of the humor and the woes, the particulars and the universals, of trying to carve out an existence for oneself.

The collection’s engagement with and representation of its own thematic content is subtle yet pervasive. Each story hovers around its unique constellation of themes, eschewing heavy-handedness, erring, rather, on the side of a kind of quietude that gives us brief and profound glimmers of the stories’ wisdom. Themes do recur throughout the sequence of stories, but never in precisely the same way. In “Here Comes the Sun,” for instance, descriptions of the central character’s interactions with animals, and the repeated birdsong of a mynah, are expertly woven together with a story of a kind of emotional homecoming, anecdotally foreshadowed when the character recalls her childhood experience of having moved away and leaving her dogs, wondering when they will come home. “Branch” grapples with the same theme, but inverts it, refreshes it, gives it to us in a different light. Our narrator, for whom the home is, in many ways, a refuge from the outside, and for whom the entrance of an unwanted family member into the home precipitates an understated tale of family cruelty, experiences quite a different sort of emotional homecoming by the story’s end. Other such themes, interpreted and represented multifariously by each story, include the nature of domesticity (often symbolized by the birdsong motif, as in the opening paragraph of “Chin Chin,” in which the very first sentence points out the singing of a bird indoors, followed by the slightly ominous question: “Was a bird trapped in here?”) and the fragility of connections between human beings. These themes, commonly appearing in contemporary literature and that of the past, are refreshed in These Foolish Things, taking a form that quietly dispenses exhilarating observations and never feels tired or clichéd.

Indeed, “quiet” is the word that most readily comes to mind to describe these stories. Pervasive understatement allows the depth of feeling the stories render to be all the more haunting, as in the titular story. The centrally important ambivalence of the main character is reflected in the first paragraph, where we hear of a yellow umbrella that is “looking as if it were unsure to stay or go.” Watching the umbrella moved here and there by the wind, Yuan wonders, in free indirect style, whether she is “indifferent to air.” Despite the ostensible incompatibility between ambivalence and indifference—one is feeling strongly in two different directions, the other is not feeling at all—Yuan embodies both of these in her muted ruminations. In a great literary tradition of ambivalence (Hamlet is the most obvious example, but there are countless others) and the all-too-human feeling of indifference, Wei Wei renders a smartly constructed story in which memory and loss intersect with both the ambivalence of the characters and of the text itself and, almost by gestalt, illustrates the complexity of human relationships in a way that feels complete. The kind of restraint and patience she exhibits here is abundant in nearly every story, as in the concluding sentence of “Beer in Fukuoka”: “It was the sound of someone unworried by the sum of all that had become irrelevant or closed off, unburdened by the sunken freight of the past, the dense vapour of dreams,” which reveals so much about the psychological plot of the preceding passages without making anything too clear; Yeo Wei Wei’s world is one of hinting and gesturing, of silent signals and inexact foreboding, of intimation and whispers. In the very same story, a sentence is “said silently to Philip’s silence.” These stories speak silently to silence.

The quiet grace of Yeo Wei Wei’s writing contrasts with and augments the peculiarity of her descriptions. In “Here Comes the Sun,” for instance, a character who “could read the faces of animals better than the faces of people,” describes cats as having “haughty or sluggish too-much-sun expressions,” and a corpse falling into the water as “like a small potato.” In “The National Bird of Singapore,” an unasked question hypothetically posed to a distant spouse is “like a moth beating its wings frantically in a glass jar.” In “The Beholder,” glimpses of another person are “like notes of a melody without a score,” and a painter paints “as if he were a hummingbird in a race against time to reach the end of an infinite series.” Reminiscent of a sentence in Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping, in which a train going off the tracks is “like a weasel sliding off a rock,” these little bits of figurative language, which are the interstitial material that holds together the movements of character, plot, and theme, require a pause. It is true, for example, that a small potato might fall and splash into water as a corpse would, but why this image in particular? The deeply mundane character of a potato and the haunting image of a corpse work in concert with one another to the end of an eerie atmosphere. These are not straightforward comparisons, but comparisons on which one must expend mental energy, that create the feeling of something being off about the story—the imprecision of the feeling is one of its key features. Wei Wei’s language, her voice, begs to be pondered.

In what is perhaps the most beautiful story in the collection (my own favorite, at least), “The Art of Being Naked,” the following paragraph appears:

Vivienne’s face was still flushed when she reached home that night. She opened a bottle of wine, something she had chilled in the fridge for her private celebration. She tilted her glass to examine the colour of the wine. It was similar to the shade of red of the dress in the painting. She sipped. There was nothing left to do, except to enjoy this excellent bottle. She lay her head down sideways, allowing the tempered glass of the dining table top to soothe her burning cheek.

An intensely symbolic story, the “private celebration” of the story’s conclusion tells us what the story is, as much about art as it is about heartbreak, and indeed, gives us a guide for appreciating it. Many of the stories in this collection, in my view, function as a kind of ars poetica, in which Yeo comments on literature via careful renderings of the human experience and vice versa. She revels in the absurdity of life and literature, and forces us, in situations of brutal pathos, black humor, graceful tenderness, and breathtaking beauty, all situated in close proximity to one another, all overlapping, to feel as much as we can, to stretch the limits of our empathy, to be overwhelmed by emotion. And when we do this, we have “nothing left to do, except to enjoy this excellent” story, and participate in the “private celebration” to which it invites us—a private celebration of the human depth that the stories limn with devastatingly precise language and a rhetorical patience that earns Yeo Wei Wei a spot among the great practitioners of the short story form in English.

Deven Philbrick is a writer of fiction and essays. Born in Massachusetts, Deven currently lives in Seattle and is a Grace Milliman Pollock fellow at the University of Washington, where he is pursuing an MFA. He is also a literary translator, working primarily on 20th-century French fiction. His other interests include jazz, cinema, and cooking.