Review of Leonora Liow’s Moth (Singapore: Ethos Books, 2015)
by Deven Philbrick
In Leonora Liow’s story “Blink,” the third-person narrator refers to the “sole gleam to the day’s unrelieved routine.” This phrase is, in more ways than one, emblematic of the larger project of all the stories in Liow’s 2015 collection Moth, published by Ethos Books and shortlisted for the Singapore Literature Prize in 2016. The “day’s unrelieved routine” is her primary subject matter, and sifting through it to find its “sole gleam” is what each of the ten stories accomplishes with grace, poignancy, humor, and humanity. Liow excavates the monotonous droning of everyday life to find a deep, dark, harrowing core; she then excavates further, to locate and present to her reader the human dignity and beauty hidden within.
These stories showcase the natural poetry of the English language. Language, image, and emotional resonance often collide as they might in poetry. In the title story, for instance, the apothegmatic sentence, “Ignorance can be a weapon when skillfully wielded,” works on all of these levels. I was perplexed, admittedly, when I first encountered this sentence. It seemed trite to fresh eyes. But the more I pondered it, the more its rich store of resonances opened up, and the more the author’s poetic sensibility became clear. The alliterative repetition of “w” (punctuated by “sk” sounds) made the sentence stick out, forced me to reflect on what it was achieving in the passage, which led me to discover its bizarre ironies. To wield is an intentional action—one must decide to wield something, must know what one is doing and to what end. To be ignorant is, of course, to be in the dark, to be without the requisite knowledge to wield anything. Too, the sentence is circular, stipulating that a requisite condition of knowledge as a weapon is that it be well-wielded (one must wield a thing as something). Here lies the power of this ostensibly simple aphorism: to wield one’s ignorance like a weapon, one must simultaneously know and not know. Lest I be accused of overreading, this irony is a motif throughout the story (and recurs in all of the stories, sometimes centrally, other times peripherally): a moth must be blind in order to see, Salimah must climb deep into dejection in order to reassemble her humanity.
The extraordinary is contained within the ordinary in Liow’s world. In “Falling Water,” the fragmented recollections of the ordinary lives of a family mask a reprehensible and disturbing reality, while the narrator, addressing the perpetrator (and at times, it seems, on some other level, the reader) in the second-person, attempts to avoid “upsetting the order of things.” Liow’s stories show us that there is no “order of things,” that “the day’s unrelieved routine” is illusory. There are only complicated human beings mucking about in the dark, where they encounter everything from love to abuse, from moths to caramel coated nuts, from motherhood to sickness. Soft-boiled eggs have “quivering hearts,” the “dull thud-thud-thud of explosions” is a commensurate memory with “the tastelessness of tapioca and potato leaves,” a mother watching her youngest son eat his breakfast is the occasion for profound meditations on child-rearing and memory. The public and the private blur as the owner of a construction conglomerate opens a package labeled “personal,” which contains an unexpected gift, while looking out on the ocean, the vast expanse that reaches all people and symbolically encapsulates the impersonal nature of our world. During each moment of reading, one feels that an image’s opposite is always clandestinely waiting within the prose, tucked away for the scrupulous reader, ready to unfurl the limitless complexity of a life, a moment, a moth.
The story “Rich Man Country” begins with an epigraph from Eliot’s "The Waste Land." The stanza, and most emphatically, the line “I will show you fear in a handful of dust,” is a statement of what the story to come (and all of the stories in the collection) seek to achieve. The handful of dust in this story—the undervalued, overlooked object that Liow turns inside out to examine its astonishing intricacies—is a construction worker who is anonymous in more ways than one. The fear is simultaneously real and imaginary: “He grimaced. Fear was just your own imagination running wild. The horror stories were endless. Abu Dhabi, Bahrain, Malaysia. Workers literally disappearing into thin air, lucky to be found or claimed, dead or alive, the nameless and faceless who slipped through the cracks.” Liow is a master of distilling a story’s themes in seemingly disparate or unexpected images, reflections, or observations—one never knows when or where a story’s core meaning (always multi-faceted, never didactic) might appear, disguised by its off-handed delivery.
Divinity is an important theme in this collection, though its presence is subtle and perpetually in flux. Liow places traditional divinity as conceived of by religion in contrast with the natural divinity she places in each of her characters. In “Clara,” it is said of a character that “the deep affection he had for humanity shone through his kindly eyes, as too the sorrow of knowledge that there are chasms in human nature that render all beatitudes, all doxology impotent.” We might well say this of the author too, as these “chasms in human nature” are where her investigations take place. The Christian church exists on the edges of many of these stories, and its influence, while abundantly apparent, is not at all clear. References to it are often oblique, and rarely engage directly with the belief of a specific character. In “Jigsaw”, for instance, we learn of Elizabeth Ong’s youngest child that “her Christian friends told her that he was a gift from God,” but never learn whether Elizabeth thinks so. At times, this can feel like the author is evading the issue or hiding behind her own subtlety. But, as evinced when in “Clara,” the line “sometimes it is not God but man himself who is his own miracle” appears, the larger thematic machinations of the stories remain uninjured. Man’s personal miracles are central in this collection.
Two sentences about memory stood out in my reading. The first appears in “Blink”: “His friends fall back in respectful silence and look away, allowing him the dignity of memory and its onslaught.” The second appears in “Majulah Singapura,” the final story in the collection, and one of the most moving: “The memory alone would have to do.” These conflicting accounts of memory demonstrate how the stories in this collection work both as discrete objects of aesthetic scrutiny and as a unified literary project. When examined together, these two sentences triangulate the previously established duality—the reciprocal relationship between the dignity and onslaught of memory becomes the simple but powerful satisfaction of memory; it is enough. This is Liow’s mechanism for uncovering, unraveling, reveling in the infinite labyrinth inside of a thing. Memory has no stable features, but is nebulous and, therefore, resonant and meaningful. These stories all deal with memory in some form, and many of them take it as one of their main objects of investigation. What do we remember? How do we remember it? How do we impute meaning to our fallible rememberings? These are only some of the questions that Leonora Liow poses.
In “A Modern Girl’s Quandary,” Liow dramatizes the relationship (ironic and reciprocal, as usual) between fate and agency. Agnes, the central character, does her meaning-seeking in rebellion against her own mother’s way of being, in search of agency outside of her mother, which she attempts to find in unconventional ways—chiefly, through her relationship with Raymond, a much older, married man. The thematic content established elsewhere in the collection coalesces in this story, as we trace these complicated oppositions in human psychology, and yet, are brought into a new frame. Agnes’s moral ambiguity, and the oppositions she contains, are a kind of culmination of Liow’s project, by which she seeks to paint a clear and compassionate picture of the human experience, never cruel, but never sanguine either.
One can imagine, as an American reading stories from another cultural sphere, finding their characters or situations difficult to understand or mine for wisdom. In the case of Moth, the opposite is true. These stories are particularly apposite for an American—and, I suspect, global—audience. Moth trades in the intersections between public and private lives, internal and external selves, ordinary and extraordinary events; but it also trades in the intersections between the specific and the general, the unique and the universal, the Singaporean and the human. On one level, a reader from another place may appreciate the unfamiliar names and places and foods (one will note that Singapore, as evinced by these stories, is a place of cultural intersection). The political concerns of the society in which the stories take place—always roiling beneath the surface, never central—are equally illuminating of how human beings tend to organize themselves, what people need to do to survive. But on another, more essential level, more closely related to the project of literature, one finds the possibility of a transcendental human spirit. This spirit, according to Liow’s exactingly crafted stories, burbling with the grist and magic of an ordinary human life, manifests itself in all that we do; the ways we speak, work, love, think, and do virtually anything else, if scrutinized, contain universes within them. Just as a moth seeks the life-giving and sight-giving warmth of light, Liow’s characters seek, in their own unique and subtle ways, meaning and order in the entropic lives she builds for them.
Deven Philbrick is a writer of fiction and essays. He is also a translator of French literature. He is currently pursuing a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing at the University of Washington. He is originally from Massachusetts.