Review of Impractical Uses of Cake by Yeoh Jo-Ann (Singapore: Epigram Books, 2019)
by Diane Josefowicz
In Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being, a man involves himself sexually with two women, who then develop a charged relationship with each other. One of the women makes paintings that comment upon the duplicity she considers a basic condition of existence. “On the surface,” she explains to the other woman, “there was always an impeccably realistic world, but underneath, behind the backdrop’s cracked canvas, lurked something different, something mysterious or abstract.” Duplicity figures in her paintings, as it does in Kundera’s novel: “On the surface, an intelligible lie; underneath, the unintelligible truth.”
These lines returned to me as I read Yeoh Jo-Ann’s debut novel, Impractical Uses of Cake, which won last year’s Epigram Books Fiction Prize. Yeoh herself invites the comparison by referencing Kundera’s novel in her first pages and shaping her title to echo his. But intertextual play is hardly the whole story. Readers expecting a beach read with a side of pandan chiffon should take note: Despite the upbeat cover and the attention devoted to pastry, the novel is unlikely to spawn either a foodie television series or the next big girls’ night movie. Yeoh’s central theme is akin to Kundera’s. The lives of her characters perpetually threaten to become “intelligible lies” in Kundera’s sense, comprehensible but fake. Yet relinquishing a false persona entails the loss of a self that was at least comprehensible to others and of real, if limited, value as a hedge against complete isolation.
The story begins with an English teacher named Sukhin, a young man whose relentless nitpicking expresses an acute disappointment with his life. Yeoh presents this unhappy man in a sympathetic light, revealing him to be a sensitive idealist deeply pained by the hypocrisy that surrounds him. In particular, he detests the cheerful “thickskinnery,” as he calls it, that permits others to enjoy their imperfect lives. A car park provides Sukhin with occasion to muse on the emptiness in which he is immersed. The car park is practical, efficient, functional, and ugly. With this kind of public architecture, he carps, “no one growing up in Singapore could be faulted for not having a capacity for poetry.” His analysis is not exactly wrong—urban architecture often does evacuate local meanings from spaces, alienating those who live there—but the understanding avails nothing. Socially he is similarly stuck. His parents, friends, students, and colleagues seem, at first, as psychologically empty as the car park, assiduously completing to-do lists filled with workouts and mani-pedis. Recalling a folktale of a fisherman being enticed to waste his entire life chasing fugitive mermaids, Sukhin worries about frittering away one’s life in pursuit of trivial goals. But even as he notes the gap between shallow busyness and more necessary endeavors, he cannot see how to change his situation.
Enter Jinn, a former schoolmate. At first, her presence in Sukhin’s life is a mystery. Homeless for the last five years, she seems an unlikely object of Sukhin’s attention. But her seemingly impossible life is full of the essentials for which Sukhin yearns—intimacy, for one thing. When she moves in with Sukhin, she disrupts Sukhin’s careful organizational efforts, mixing up the lids on the jams. Initially dismayed, Sukhin ultimately finds he doesn’t mind the pleasurable havoc she creates. His larger transformation is already underway. He makes her bakwan kepiting from a recipe inherited from his mother, toward whom he starts to feel an unaccustomed warmth. Joyfully doing Jinn’s laundry, he feels “like he’s been entrusted with the crown jewels of kingdom.” By this point, he no longer scorns small conveniences but welcomes them, glad for the way they cushion the sharp edges of ordinary life. The washing machine’s “gentle” setting proves a boon. He is grateful for fabric softener.
Yeoh suggests that Sukhin’s shift is not “thickskinnery” but the result of his exposure to Jinn’s distinctively un-thickskinned way of getting on in the world. With Jinn as his guide, Sukhin discovers another Singapore in which Jinn and her friends perform various down-home miracles, recovering imperfect and ugly vegetables and turning them into beautiful feasts served up from their mobile soup kitchen, crowning the year with a lavish holiday feast for the city’s marginalized others. “No one notices us,” Jinn tells Sukhin, speaking of her experiences of homelessness. “People pretend we don’t exist. No one’s supposed to be homeless here.” As her culinary project suggests, Jinn shapes her existence according to values that create and preserve community. Although these values obviously include sharing and resourcefulness, they are premised on something else: clear-sightedness, seeing what (and who) is actually there. This is a far cry from the ethos of the car park, built without regard for those who must live with and around it. Jinn’s values thus contrast not only with the superficial striving of Sukhin’s set, but also with the more troubling ambitions of Jinn’s sister, an entrepreneurial type whose overweening ambition creates a crisis for Jinn that can only be resolved by the latter’s disappearance—which is as much as I can say about the novel’s complex mille-feuille of a plot.
Despite its light-hearted packaging and narrative pyrotechnics, this is actually an ambitious character-driven novel. Yeoh is principally concerned to show how Sukhin develops. While many of his experiences are mediated by Jinn, Yeoh allows us to observe Sukhin responding to other friends, to his students, and to his environment. Sukhin takes his class on a field trip to the Merlion, a fantastical fountain—half-lion, half-fish—widely recognized as a symbol of Singapore. The visit prompts a discussion of Alfian Bin Sa’at’s “The Merlion,” reproduced in the novel, in which a woman too easily critiques the fountain as “grotesque” and conceptually blurry, a three-dimensional image of a creature deeply unsure of itself. "I know exactly what you mean," says the poem’s narrator, who then slyly observes “the blond highlights in your black hair/ And your blue lenses the shadow of a foreign sky.” Sounding like Sukhin in his disappointed-idealist phase, Alfian’s narrator identifies the same narcissism in both the young woman and the Merlion, who “spews continually if only to ruffle its own reflection in the water; such reminders/ will only scare a creature so eager to reinvent itself." It is one thing to point out the hypocrisy of a public sculpture and quite another to note, as the poem’s narrator patronizingly does, evidence of its presence on the face of the person making this critique. By including both points of view within the poem, Alfian thwarts the reader’s impulse to choose a side, inviting her to consider her own hopes that an easy critique—aesthetic or ad hominem—might disperse the problems of authenticity and identity stimulated by the Merlion. Intriguingly, the same ambiguous hunger for self-reinvention is also shared by the otherwise-admirable Jinn who, as it turns out, is not really homeless at all but only escaping an ordinarily stultifying family situation.
Posing existential problems in terms of erotic dilemmas, Kundera diffused his political critiques into philosophical reflections. With Impractical Uses of Cake, Yeoh invokes less abstract forms of liberation, from rescued vegetables and communal meals to spaces built for those who live in them. I was especially moved by Sukhin’s friend, Dennis, who wheedles and teases, who is knowledgeable about fashion and obsessed with workouts, who calls Sukhin “sweetie” and expertly redecorates his apartment. Like the homeless people in Jinn’s circle, Dennis cannot make himself fully visible to those around him; he cannot be completely himself without incurring risks that others do not even perceive. In the book’s closing pages, Sukhin teaches another poem, this time by Cyril Wong, in which one man kisses another as their car rolls down the street, causing buildings and people to collapse in shock. Eventually the car rolls into the water. As the car sinks, the narrator imagines they will only stop “when we reach a world/ where no person or building may/ fall at the spectacle of our embrace.” Tartly, thrillingly, dismayingly, he continues: “I think we are almost there.” Packaged as a confection, this assured debut novel explores distinctly non-confectionary themes of identity and community, inclusion and exclusion, and the struggle for a fully realized existence.
Diane Josefowicz's writing has appeared in Conjunctions, Fence, Dame Magazine, and Necessary Fiction.
Special discount for SP Blog readers. Get 15% off the retail price on the publisher’s website by using the promo code CAKE. Offer valid until September 30, 2019.