Warning: featuring ‘unsur-unsur sensitif’
March 27, 2010 § 2 Comments
Right after I finished Brian Gomez’s Devil’s Place I felt a little breathless and had to check to see if my hair was still in place (i.e. not electrocuted-frizzy but just regular humid-frizzy). The whole experience of Devil’s Place felt like a ride in a Bas Mini (way back in the day, holler if you remember them.) Granted, I only rode the Bas Mini probably twice in my life, bourgeois middle-class bitch that I am, yet the experience never leaves you; it lives on in shell-shocked memory. In the Bas Mini, you never know where to turn, lest your nose be buried in some unsavoury armpit or your nether regions rubbing against someone else’s unsavoury nether regions. (Wait, some of you may cry. How is that different from current buses? Bas… Ceria, for instance? Well, not much kids.) You never know if you will actually end up at your destination; whether you’d reach it alive or dead. Riding a Bas Mini is an existentialist experience; you ponder the futility of life even as you continue to live it.
In that same way, Gomez’s book, filled as it is with alcohol, botched blowjobs, piss, shit, and puke, practically flies by – your hands keep turning the pages even if you’re not aware that you’re doing it. On the one hand, that’s a good thing. It’s getting harder to find a book that sucks you in with a story these days, even if this story is a pastiche of shoot-‘em-up episodes cribbed from action movies. It’s an action book, if there’s such a thing, and one waits for the day when Amir Muhammad buys the rights to transfer it into the film. I’m sure it’ll make a very entertaining and relevant Malaysian movie, one that’ll bring in every damn race to the cinema, because this book is very muhibbah – very 1Malaysia, if you will allow me (only doing my national duty to spread the brand) – and every damn race is represented in here.
No, forgive me. The other lain-lain’s are not represented here, but there are Thai people, and American ones, so I mean, it’s not bad la!
But on the other hand, the flipside of can’t-stop- turning-the-pages is that you’re not exactly paying attention to the language (although his language is impeccable, it’s largely serviceable – I rarely stopped to swoon over the sentences), and you don’t really care THAT much about the characters although you’re rooting for the good guys to win. That’s probably one of my biggest problems with the book. I cared just enough for the characters to want to know if they remained alive or not, and to know how the story turned out for most of them. But beyond that, I wasn’t really invested in their respective life stories – mainly because we’re not told much about their lives anyhow. Some would like to say to me, “That’s the point of a crime book, stupid,” and I would say, yes… but make me care, la, dumbo! (No, nor Brian Gomez, I’m not calling him a dumbo. I’m calling the person who called me stupid a dumbo.)
Home-grown Malaysian products always make me hyper-anxious and none more so than its books. Fine, we can have Milo-tin cars and palm-oil chocolate, but our books MUST be good. To that end I admit that I hold Malaysian books to an unreasonably high standard, and more often than not I’m probably unfair to local authors as a result. But I can’t help it. Each time, before I begin a book written by a Malaysian, I feel almost nauseous – is it going to be good? Is it going to suck? How can I deal with my guilt if it sucks? You can’t really blame me; I’m still recovering from The Rice Mother. But I also feel compelled to love books by Malaysian authors, and because this stresses me out, I end up unreasonably hating certain books more than I should because of all that guilt. It’s all very complicated.
I really wanted to uninhibitedly love Devil’s Place. I didn’t, but there is still plenty that I liked. Brian Gomez is a very confident writer, and you know you’re in capable hands from the very first chapter. There’s no mincing about here. And I can’t help but compare it to a movie, even though it’s probably been said many times (well, one time that I know of – by Amir Muhammad, here) but that’s because it does get its stylistic inspiration from pop-culture, and pulp crime novels. So this book is no slow meandering walk through the exotic rice paddy fields, or a playful romp through the leafy green villages of small-town Malaysia.
It’s a madcap Bas Mini ride through the heart of urban Klang Valley. But like a Bas Mini ride, though, it does adhere to a route and the book largely works on a “yea, I can sort of see this happening in KL” scale because it has an internal logical structure, a linear narrative that takes you from Point A to Point B through with detours thrown in, but with a purpose. Sort of like the Bas Mini stopping smack dab in the middle of Federal Highway to allow someone to disembark.
For this reason, I will say that Brian Gomez is a mini Malaysian literary god. This is the first local book (that I’ve read) that has attempted to represent modern Kay-Ell for all that it really is, as opposed as all that it could be through the perspective of hazy nostalgia or poetic literary license. He has a knack for dialogue, a gift for being able to infuse the tragic or plain horrific with a delicious sense of absurdity, and a strong scent for local flavours in all its variety and putridity. Within the first few pages I seriously thought I was in Waikiki Bar, PJ, and had to look around to remind myself I was actually at home and not to say “fuck” out loud lest my mom heard me.
But it’s difficult to actually talk about what the story is all about – it’s essential not to give things away, because part of the charm of the story is not knowing what madcap farce/tragedy might ensue next even if you feel like you’ve been down this road before. Suffice to say that the a basic rundown of the key characters are listed on the back cover, and there are terrorists involved, as well as pub musicians, pub owners, Thai prostitutes, taxi drivers, singers, murderous politicians, murderous ex-girlfriends, thoughtful mothers, incompetent policemen, dead people, Hawaiian shirts, as well as locks, guns, fire, conspiracy theories, and nasi lemak.
There are moments where I laughed out loud. There are instantly recognisable comic characters and situations; for example, unfailingly foolish reporter Joe Maniam’s penchant for alliterated, pun-ny headings for his pieces is a gently derisive poke at our local newspaper headlines.
Or consider Gomez’s spot-on observation about pub phenomenon in KL: “O’Reilly’s Pub was an Irish bar in Bangsar that had almost exclusively white and Indian patrons,” he writes in one of the earlier chapters. Later on in the book, he observes that “Mat Sallehs, especially the English, tend to see Irish bars around the world as sovereign British ground. Sort of like an embassy that serves alcohol. [...] Indians, who have always felt a kinship with the Irish, due to their common love of alcohol, also claimed the Irish bars as their own.” He continues several paragraphs later: “Many fights had broken out over the years, but today everyone at O’Reilly’s, the Mat Sallehs and the Indians, were united in bewilderment. There was a Chinese man at the bar.”
Another moment of hilarity that all Malaysians will recognise with pride is the scene where the police try to elicit some useful information about a taxi by calling the taxi company. You can already see it coming. Detective Azmi calls, explains the situation, asks for the name of the taxi owner and his address, and the female voice replies, “ ‘Taxi on the way, 15 minutes. You wait outside now.’ ” After explaining to the operator again what he wanted, he waits and tries again: “Do you have the name and address?” and gets the reply, “Taxi on the way. You go outside now.”
There is also Gomez’s relentless eye for the ridiculous and the willingly stupid and ignorant – the aforementioned Joe Maniam and his goon buddies, Arun and Siva, both perpetually drunk and unfailingly at Joe’s beck and call (because he buys them drinks). Or the fact that some politicians ARE evil, and some terrorists ARE bloody crazy.
This book is also very much fuelled by testosterone. Virtually every important character is a guy, except for one – the Thai prostitute. There are two other women who make small appearances; one is a bitchy ex-girlfriend, the other a devoted mother. So there you have it, the women of Malaysia: prostitute, bitch, mother. But to be fair, even though his book is populated by males they are largely also bumbling idiots, and even the ones who aren’t do make stupid choices and screw things up. And the only character who does have a shred of dignity is the prostitute, Ning, but you can’t get much from her except when written from her point-of-view; otherwise, she barely speaks English. However, so much of this book’s premise hinges on things that go wrong that maybe it’s a compliment to women in general that they play such a small role in it.
Is it a book I would recommend? Yes. I think underneath the layers of misfired shoot-outs, misplaced identities, and misunderstood intentions, Gomez captures a lot of culturally relevant issues that will have most Malaysians snickering, but possibly with a heavy heart. It’s not all flippant cynicism, though, because Gomez seems to be saying that even if things are generally fucked-up, and powers-that-be rarely have our interests at heart, we should count on each other – regular citizens – to help each other out of our everyday misery. Or even out of non-everyday, seemingly catastrophic miseries. The police might try to pull batik over your eyes, or your elected ministers might try to kill you, but you just never know when a taxi driver might show you the way out of a dead-end.