The all-inclusive hug

January 26, 2011 § Leave a comment

Last night while staying glued to Twitter for developments in Egypt, a tweet came in from a Malaysian with the words “The Printing Presses and Publications Act 1984 will be amended” and my heart almost stopped for a moment. Buoyed, no doubt, by the idealistic energy that comes from watching a revolution onscreen while seated in a sturdy-backed chair in the comfort of my study, I thought for a moment that the Malaysian government was considering “amending” the PPPA in terms of limiting its scope, and scaling back. However, I’m clearly delusional – because if Najib Razak has shown us one thing, he has shown us that he is the rightful heir to Mahathir-style authoritarian conservatism. I cannot imagine any form of fundamental, systemic difference in this country if the same ruling coalition continues to rule for the continuing decades like has for the decades past.

The Malaysian Insider has a short article, as well as The Sun. Some choice words:

He said among other things, the Home Ministry was looking at the definition of “publication” and whether it should include Internet content.

Mahmood said the ministry was working with the the Attorney-General’s Chambers in going through the proposed amendments which were expected to be ready for tabling in Parliament in March.

“For example, what does the publication process mean? Is it inclusive of Internet content or what is said on Facebook?” he said at a press conference after presenting appointment letters to members and associate members of the Film Censorship Board and Film Appeal Board today.

“We have to expand the act so that it does not only cover print media. Nowadays the landscape is totally different. We are talking about publication, but what about what is in digital form?”

Mahmood said the amendments were not meant to tighten control over the press but to address loopholes in the law and make it more inclusive.

I marvel at the ability of the Home Ministry to think about things – the definition of “publication”? Wow, that’s pretty heavy stuff. “What does the publication process mean?” Amazing. All this in service of keeping the Malaysian public further suppressed, oppressed, and repressed. I mean, it’s a truism that all governments are stupid yet when there’s a will, there’s a way, and if it means keeping you in line they’re going to THINK VERY HARD ABOUT THIS.

And, I like this particular phrase: “to address loopholes in the law and make it more inclusive” – it sounds like a grand old party. “Inclusive” is always a good word, no? It brings to mind multiculturalism and happy parties and we-are-the-world-type sisterhood and brotherhood. You can feel the long, skeleton arm of the Printing Presses and Publications Act reach out and bring you in close for a rib-crushing “inclusive” hug, whether you want to or not.

Do head on over to Uppercaise for more in-depth coverage:

Unable to effectively counter the barrage of exposés, leaks, commentaries and analyses being published on the Internet, the Government is now falling back on repression through legal muscle, in a throwback to conditions existing in the late 1980s, when the Mahathir Mohamed government tightened press controls and introduced annual press licensing.

Najib, as we’ve all suspected, is just another Mahathir, but that pink-tinged baby face that makes you forget this very, very easily.

Update: After the Home Ministry secretary-general spilled the beans said some stuff, there was obviously an emergency meeting held along the lines of, “Fuck, we’re a democracy… oops, maintain the façade!” and therefore our Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department Datuk Seri Mohamed Nazri Aziz – I’m not sure what he does, really – came forward to say, “Hey, we’re not going to restrict stuff online, but perhaps we will, it’s up to us really, because we may have tabled Bills in the past, but we can revoke  the Bills, especially if you’ve been bad, so we won’t censor you, but we actually can and will when we want to.” Or, something along those lines. Then, along came the Home Minister himself – the esteemed cousin of our Prime Minister – Hishamuddin Hussein, to tell us, “Hey, you can’t judge what we haven’t yet done because my ministry’s secretary-general lacks PR skills! I mean, you can’t judge how we restrict your freedom of speech until we actually restrict it! You know?” Or, something along those lines. In the meantime, PKR responds to this proposed PPPA amendment with a WTF? Furthermore, in this piece our National Union of Journalists says firm, principled things, and Edmund Bon points out how a future caveman age is upon us if we go down this route. And Steven Gan says, “You mofos aren’t taking us back beyond our-already shitty past.”

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Awkward

January 18, 2011 § 20 Comments

The experience of reading Awkwardness was awkward. It’s a clever book that started off really well with a smart and well-done first chapter (everyday awkwardness vis-à-vis modern urban working life, as filtered through the pop-cultural lens ofThe Office) but sadly petered off into superficiality with the subsequent chapters. The book is divided into three key areas: everyday awkwardness, cultural awkwardness, and radical awkwardness. For each chapter, Kotsko draws on TV shows or films to help him make his case and further illustrate his theories. He’s very good at doing this without losing focus on his key points and careening wildly off into the vast expanse of pop culture, but this, as I point out later on, might be most significant weakness of his book.

I wanted so much to like Awkwardness – nay, love it unabashedly. The topic of awkwardness is one close to my heart, but even as Kotsko finally admits in his chapter on cultural awkwardness and Judd Apatow, it’s a largely male phenomenon. The boyz, they are so awkward! LOLZ. Throughout the book, the key examples Kotsko references are from shows and films that feature male characters grappling with awkwardness. Certainly, I’m not holding Kotsko responsible for a representation that’s played out in throughout much of American popular culture. But it seems as though Kotsko’s not quite sure how respond to the representative lack of awkward adult women either, although the fact that he limits his scope to TV shows and Judd Apatow films has much to do with this problem. American TV has not really given us enough awkward adult women to deal with, and Judd Apatow gives us women as harpies. Like, LOLZ!

Men dropping in to visit object of lust and affection when object is going through a nervous breakdown = awkward

On the one hand, Kotsko says that awkwardness is a male phenomenon precisely because men have reacted to crumbling social norms with regards to “traditional” gender relations with lack of grace:

If social awkwardness seems like such a male-dominated field, it’s because men have descended into self-pity, defensiveness, and even wilful denial in response to their loss of relative privilege and the cultural awkwardness that followed.

So, men are kind of useless and that’s why they’re awkward, Kotsko seems to say, but it reads like a weak appeasement proffered to women readers. Something about the offhand insertion of that sentence into what could potentially be a more complex issue rubs me the wrong way.

On the other hand, Kotsko’s entire book is written to make a case for awkwardness, and as he writes in the final chapter, awkwardness can be utopian; it can be “full of grace” and create its own spontaneous community that cuts across barriers of race and class. (Gender? We’re not so sure; he doesn’t say.) If this quality is largely male and the phenomenon is largely a male one, women are peripheral to Kotsko’s proposed project of awkwardness. Which is, to say the least, awkward.

Kotsko neglects to ask why women are projected to be in possession of this “basic social grace”, even if they are very often not. Are women inherently “better” at these things? Why is it useful to portray men as awkward and adolescent-like while women are portrayed as “fairly accomplished”, as Kotsko writes, like Katherine Heigl’s character in Knocked Up? Do we not know of real-life women who are, as we would say, a mess and far from accomplished, women who are similarly befuddled as men by changing social mores?

Kotsko writes:

Previously the system was, though obviously unjust from the woman’s perspective, relatively simple for men to navigate: the man got to be in charge, and in exchange he provided for the woman. Now that women have claimed their right for self-determination, however, the situation becomes much less clear, and – most importantly – the inherent prestige that came along automatically with being a man has largely fallen by the wayside. Women are newly-competent and self-assured, while men have followed the opposite trajectory. In short, men are expected to pursue women who all seem to be too good for them, in order to establish a partnership whose parameters are so vague as to virtually guarantee failure.

This is the Apatovian world Kotsko is describing, but it seems that Kotsko seems to agree that it reflects a certain strain of reality. Indeed, if I often seem to confuse Kotsko’s arguments with Apatow’s vision, it’s simply because this chapter makes it hard to separate Kotsko’s arguments from Apatow’s vision; I’m never quite sure of Kotsko is merely elucidating an Apatovian world, or approving it. Kotsko’s arguments don’t seem to go beyond Apatow’s reductive vision, and it makes it difficult to take the entire chapter seriously.

So. How are women “newly-competent and self-assured”? Economically, maybe, a point he points out but doesn’t dwell on. Were men always competent and self-assured in the past and in cultures where they are still considered the “head” of everything: family, society, the workplace? I understand Kotsko’s point on how, post-feminist “revolution” in the States, the erosion of boundaries that prescribe gender relations have left American men confused, the poor things. But I don’t understand how women have responded with “basic social grace” to these changes that leaves them somehow superior in their approach to relationships. This attributes to women some sort of secret, mystical, always-present knowledge about gender relations that gives them a one-up over men. There’s no room, in Kotsko’s formulation of new cultural mores, for the confused or awkward woman. And this is troubling, because it simply reverses the gender binary and pits women against men – again.

Car ride in silence = awkward

Kotsko points out that Apatow seems to have captured a particularly white, middle-class, American male zeitgeist – hence Apatow’s popularity. But while Kotsko acknowledges Apatow’s misogyny and recognises how it undermines the very idea of demand-free, spontaneous and natural “bromances” it purports to promote, it’s also unclear what this misogyny actually means for awkwardness in general. This is because Kotsko wants to hold up a certain element of the awkward male – particularly, his relationship to other awkward males – as ideal and worthy of emulation. Why?  Precisely because it hearkens back to a time of adolescent friendship between boys that is free of demands and rigid social norms, and thus spontaneous and agreeable to all involved:

In this sense, we could say that these friendships that take place during or mimic adolescence, the most intrinsically awkward period in a person’s life, are themselves structurally awkward insofar as they fall outside any given set of recognized cultural conventions – but awkward in a good, promising way.

So it seems that while (white, generally middle –class) men are essentially awkward and unaccomplished, they’re also the key to the “good, promising way” of life, while women (white, generally middle-class), accomplished and “successful”, are the moral police who seek to reinforce social norms and serve as the barrier to true community. Again, this places female adolescent friendships outside of the “good awkward” sphere, as well. But, you say, female friendships, especially in adolescence, comprise manipulation, hatred, envy, competition over BOYS, and girls stabbing one another in the back with their fake long blood-red nails, etc. Boys rarely beat each other up, sexually demean one another by comparing penis size in the locker room, taunt and tease, or police each other’s “gayness” – boys, forever and ever, are like, total BFFs! So of course male adolescent friendships are “awkward in a good, promising way” because boys just want to get along, until the Eve-like harlot-type snake-ish women come into the picture and instigate social policing and rivalry, hot though they are!

Outside of Awkwardness, let’s admit that adult women aren’t generally thought of in terms of “awkward” or given enough leeway to be awkward. For a woman, awkward is shameful and not a trait that can be referred to with affection or lenience. Some of us certainly tend to imbue women with a certain sense of gravitas or “seriousness” like it is somehow intrinsic to the sex when it is certainly not. But perhaps it’s just that biology trumps everything else for some. It certainly does for Christopher Hitchens, who seems to think that the vagina exerts a heavy weight upon the female funny bone, wherever the hell that’s located. There is all that monthly bleeding, leading to a policing of one’s own body – an act that must continually resist awkwardness.

Awkwardness indicates a lack of ordering and policing, but for a woman to relax and slip up means bleeding all over the place, even after the invention of the tampon. To relax and slip up can also mean an unwanted penis inside you, or perhaps a wanted penis, but then again, with undesirable consequences if one is not careful. There is that pesky thing that women have: The Womb. Sex, even when it’s fun, can quickly become unfun with the weight of pregnancy. The potential for a girl or a woman to become a mother is always there, underlying even meaningless sexual intercourse. And mothers are always policing social norms, are they not? The father lays down the rule, but the mother implements the rules. Women just can’t laugh or be awkward. They stand rigid and unbending and unsmiling, like an army of governesses from hell.

The current trend, as Nina Power pointed out in One Dimensional Woman, is the imago of the “sorted woman”, insofar as it serves capitalism’s basic need: labour power. But as Power reminds us, “Sometimes women are supposed to be demented harpies with wombs full of devils and other times they’re supposed to fold up nicely like the ironing board in a suburban bungalow.” As she continues further on:

Certainly, there is this prevalent image of the successful, sorted young woman with enough enthusiasm and emotional reserves after passing all those A Levels to look after a fragile, tortured young man. But really, women no more know what’s going on than men do, and they certainly don’t have an insight into nice, normal stability (as if anyone does).

This could be read as a direct response to Kotsko, only that her book was written and published before his. It must also be noted that Power is British and therefore analyses American culture from a British perspective that is somehow more valuable because it’s better clued in to current capitalist ideology than most mainstream American feminist perspectives. (Um… is my bias showing?)

It’s important to note that there have been awkward women of film and literature, though as with the case of all womanly things, and if women are awkward then they’re also often shown to be seriously fucked-up on some level – and somehow all roads lead back to sexuality.  Again, it’s the Unbearable Wombness of Being. There is a compulsion to present awkward women as otherwise inherently neurotic or hysterical; usually suffering from some form of trauma due to sexual repression, or mentally ill and thus manifesting some form of sexual deviancy. There’s always something excessive about womanly awkwardness that sends them off the “normal” course of things, even if they are stunningly beautiful. In fact, if they’re stunningly beautiful they’re often to be pitied and may even be desired, but more importantly, they must be tragic. If they’re not beautiful, then they’re most likely “doomed” to a life of spinsterhood or lesbianism. In their approach to social relationships and their response to social norms, however, awkward women can certainly demonstrate Kotsko-prescribed traits of awkward. They are unsure of how to deal with men, retreat into their imagination and solitary lives, and demonstrate very little competence in any “worldly” skills. It seems unfair that they can’t somehow get away with just goofing off with their fellow friends, like the male characters cited by Kotsko. Instead, awkwardness for women comes at a heavy price – they go off the deep end, kill people, or die. Some quick examples I’m thinking of include:

The singular trait of the female characters in film and literature who demonstrate awkwardness is that they are very likely to be solitary creatures; alone in the real sense of the word, unable to form proper sexual relationships with men or healthy friendships with women. These are other elements of awkwardness, then, that don’t fit in neatly with Kotsko’s proposed thesis – and one that is very different from the overtly male phenomenon that Kotsko talks about at length. It is perhaps out of necessity that Kotsko had to limit his scope and survey of cultural products – but his argument is certainly weakened and almost flimsy in its acquiescence to awkwardness as being an inherently male phenomenon, and precisely because he chooses to look at shows and films that only confirm and affirm his argument.

A bloody situation - bloody awkward, actually

By framing cultural awkwardness as a largely white male phenomenon, Kotsko is able to make the point that men are confused by changing mores brought upon by the feminist movement from the 1960s and beyond. Yet this also implies that women are somehow less confused because they spearheaded the change and are therefore running the show (at least in terms of social relations between the sexes), which is quite untrue, and a reductive view of gender relations. It also seems to imply that some men’s resistance to changes brought on by feminism only manifests itself in behaviour as trivial as “awkwardness”, when this is hardly the case. Awkwardness, in the case of the characters in Apatow’s movies, is more often than not refocused as a form of wilful passivity and an “opting-out” of gender relations and serious thinking. This is far from being a generally harmless and benign approach.

In the final chapter of Awkwardness, this male phenomenon of awkwardness is also shown to pave the way for an utopian mode of being that is inclusive and non-discriminating, which seems to imply, perhaps unconsciously on Kotsko’s part, how women can prove to be the barrier to this utopia due to a relentless impulse to order social relations. Or something? The womb, it gets in the way? I don’t know. Basing his theory on St. Paul’s conception of a utopian community, Kotsko points the way using Larry from Curb Your Enthusiasm as his example. Although he cites female characters, they are often mere participants in a male-led revolution of awkwardness. If Kotsko were to explore female awkwardness, as mentioned in some examples above, then he would have to reassess his entire thesis – and conclude that awkwardness is a lot more problematic than his too-neat conclusion supposes. To be fair, if Kotsko had explored male awkwardness from another angle – that of anger – then he would also have to think about ways in which awkwardness influences violence, like how it was explored in Gus Van Sant’s Elephant (just to cite one example).

In short (could I have said this at the start?), this book feels like a book written by a white man for white men about middle-class white men and their middle-class white awkwardness.[i] To his credit, Kotsko doesn’t pretend to try to do otherwise, but still. A subheading that said “For middle-class white men who believe they leave in the Apatovian real-world” would have helped. That kind of honesty would have made the strange slide into the final chapter’s “we are the world” utopian vision less off-putting and more palatable. For an example of white men doing awkwardness in a way that simply does not exclude – just watch Peep Show. You’ll be all the better for it.

It seems somehow wrong to talk at length on awkwardness without mentioning one of pop culture’s – British, in this case – best inventions of an awkward female character. Who is it? It is, graceful and awkward readers of this blog, Daisy Steiner of Channel 4’s Spaced. Jessica Hynes plays Daisy as one of the most idiosyncratic, hilarious, and genuinely interesting female TV characters of recent memory. She is totally the opposite of accomplished and graceful and bullshit-female characters of most American popular culture. (Sorry, my bias is showing again.) In fact, she is totally unaccomplished in the conventional  sense, is a writer who does not write, is quite certain she is a Very Intelligent Person although she makes what are usually the worst decisions, is cheerful and annoyingly optimistic and always pleasurably aggressive when you least expect it, and quite possibly just plain batshit crazy. But crucially, she is batshit crazy in the way boys are allowed to be! She is, you know, not weighed down by The Unbearable Wombness of Being! Hyuk hyuk. Etc. Anyway, I love her. You will, too:


[i] I “borrowed” this line from one of my recently-discovered favourite feminist blogs, Millicent and Carla Fran – and this line is in Carla’s blog post about The Green Hornet, about White Man Culture and its pervasiveness.

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Interlocking issues

January 17, 2011 § 3 Comments

Some musings of mine on the issue of Interlok ran in The Nut Graph today. I have reproduced it here in full:

The debate about the novel Interlok by Malaysian national laureate Abdullah Hussein continues to rage, but among a select few. The Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC) wants the book to be withdrawn from the Form Five syllabus for Malay literature on the grounds that the novel contains “offensive” words and depictions of Indian Malaysians. The MIC claims that the book will offend the entire Indian Hindu community, who, according to them, no longer practise the caste system.

Coming from the MIC, this smacks a little too much of hypocrisy, because I know of Indian Malaysians who still have to battle with issues of caste within their communities and families. The issue of caste has also come under scrutiny for its implications on the internal politics of the MIC. And it’s hypocritical because the MIC itself is part of a power structure that continues to practise and propagate race-based discrimination.

Interlok may or may not be right in its depiction of the Indian Malaysian community, which is taken for granted to be monolithic when it is not. But the MIC’s claim that the book highlights issues that are no longer relevant for the Indian Malaysian community is a blatant lie. It’s also a blatant form of politicking in order to win back the Indian Malaysian vote. By fighting for the rights of Indian Malaysians through this issue, the MIC is no doubt hoping that the community will forget its complicity in promoting race politics.

Selective arguments

There’s also hypocrisy from those who want the book to remain in the syllabus. These are people I follow on Twitter, traditional media columnists, as well as other writers and scholars quoted in media coverage of the issue. They claim that to censor or remove words from a published work of literature is to insult the author’s integrity. On one hand, I agree with this, because as a writer myself, I believe that the craft of writing must be respected.

More importantly, however, books, including works of creative expression, should be judged on their merits. Speculations as to the author’s intentions should not tilt the scale either way. Further to this point is the argument for free speech: something should not be censored, banned, or restricted simply because it offends some people’s sensitivities.

What would these same people who argue for the author’s integrity say about the tendency of the ruling coalition to ban any book that challenges its authority? 1FunnyMalaysia, perhaps?

Education system the problem

My greater concern is how a national education system that is fundamentally structured to be racist can attempt to teach a text as problematic as Interlok.

This book, because of its content, is the kind of book that should help further, deepen, and intensify national discourse on race relations. It is a book that should be handled with maturity and critical yet intelligent interrogation. Precisely because it offends some people, it should be deconstructed and taught with sensitivity.

But how are we going to do this through a nationally constructed pedagogy that promotes half-truths and prejudiced views, which alters history, neglects critical thinking, and undervalues the role of the teacher and student? How can we fill our schools with racist, defeated teachers, hand them a racially problematic text, and expect these very same people to teach it with any degree of responsibility, compassion, or intelligence?

Scholastic hypocrisy

Some scholars argue that Interlok depicts the “social reality” of the time in which it was set, and thus should be studied as a realistic portrayal of Malaysian society during that period of time. The Malaysian Institute of Historical and Patriotism Studies says that Interlok is a “suitable novel for use of as a textbook for the literature component of the Bahasa Malaysia subject in Form Five because it is based on historical facts”. The National Writers Association (Pena) has come out strongly against the removal of the book. A memorandum has also been signed by several groups, including the Malay Consultation Council and Ikatan Persuratan Melayu.

Will these scholars say the same about Anthony Burgess’s The Malayan Trilogy, which is arguably one of the best novels about colonial-era Malaya? Burgess is equally scathing of all races, including the British. Will any Malay Malaysian politician champion for Trilogy to be taught in schools the way some of them are for Interlok?

In fact, as Sharon Bakar has pointed out, The Malayan Trilogy is not only not taught in our schools, it has also at one time or another been banned or restricted, presumably because it takes the mickey out of not just the Indians or the Chinese, but the Malays as well. I would like to hear scholars, politicians and writers come out in defence of this book for English Literature classes in Malaysia. I think all we would hear are crickets.

We uphold free speech only when it’s convenient, and argue for the integrity of artists and the free circulation of art only when it suits us. But let us not be gullible enough to assume that if Interlok is allowed to be taught in schools nationwide, we’ve won a small part of the battle. It might only be dispiriting confirmation that the national discourse favours the sensitivities and sensibilities of one particular group or race over another.

(This is cross-posted at We Are the Cocoa to Your Puffs.)

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PopMatters review: In a Strange Room

January 13, 2011 § Leave a comment

My curmudgeonly review of Damon Galgut’s In a Strange Room for PopMatters:

Travel, they say, broadens the mind. This seems to be so well-accepted as to be an aphorism that even Winston Churchill, in this 1943 documentary by the British Council on The History of the English Language, seems to think that there is only one type of travel, or one very specific way to travel. According to Churchill, even Britain’s colonialist ventures, as it turns out, was an “exploration” – presumably a way for the nation to find itself in a vast universe of others.

Thus, individuals also set out to travel to “find themselves”. Even a community considered as hermetic as the Amish allow their youth the rumspringa, the teenage rite of passage that gives them the opportunity to go out into the world and explore all things non-Amish for a short period of time.

To what end are these explorations? There’s always, in every journey, an implicit notion of a return home. We allow people their moments of exploration, bouts of travel, self-fulfilling holidays, but the eternal traveller invites suspicion and occasion scorn. Only people of a certain age – adolescents, young adults – are given leeway to find themselves. There is also, in this notion, the implicit understanding that there is a quantifiable ‘self’ to be found and excavated, hiding beneath the ruins of one’s banal, day-to-day life.

Then, one thinks, what of the adults who live each day in exile? In the words of Edward Said, “Exile is strangely compelling to think about but terrible to experience. It is the unhealable rift forced between a human being and a native place, between the self and its true home: its essential sadness can never be surmounted.” This essential sadness is no doubt the compelling factor; or perhaps it’s only compelling to me. We lug around bags of stuff day in and day out, going from one meeting and work assignment and social gathering to another, and essentially we seem to be lugging this sense of sadness around, as well. Our various forms of sadness rub against each other, writhe, slide, and occasionally jostle and collide.

I had hopes of learning more about the condition of compelling sadness when I opened the pages of Damon Galgut’s In a Strange Room. From the reviews I’d read, I’d assumed Galgut was the go-to guy for this sort of thing. But if the book is steeped in sadness, it’s of the kind that is so prevalent and consistently exhausting that it becomes almost ridiculous. It’s like spending 180 pages with Eeyore, minus the cute donkey factor.

For sadness to be in any way compelling, it needs to be situated in context of others’ sadness. Modern-day travel stories tend to be ridiculous because no one pretends any longer to be interested in the world. The world, as it is, is at your fingertips with the click of a mouse or a tap on the touchscreen.  All I really need to know about Lagos I learn from Wikipedia, and the only reason I go there is to post my pictures up on Facebook and count the number of ‘Likes’ it can accumulate.

It seems only fitting, then, that In a Strange Room is the Eat, Pray, Love for the serious set. Its Booker nomination only seems to attest to how men and women can essentially write the same book, but if there is Serious Philosophizing and Serious Manpain involved, a prestigious literary nomination is likely for one gender, while a bad movie and public derision is reserved for the other.

In a Strange Room is centred on one mysterious traveller, a person named “Damon” (how’s that for a hint?) with no tangible roots or history or perhaps more precisely, no interest in sharing those roots. The book is set in three parts, each set within a different continent: Europe, Africa, India. In each of these three sections, the central character Damon is the axis upon which the other characters rotate. The sections have been titled accordingly: “The Follower”, “The Lover”, and “The Guardian”, giving the reader a tentative, nebulous idea of the role Damon plays in each of his encounters. A mysterious German with whom Damon shares an undercurrent of antagonistic sexual attraction, a seemingly-innocent Swiss boy for whom Damon develops an infatuation (or love?), a close female friend who suffers from depression – these are Damon’s fellow-travellers on the search for an elusive meaning.

It’s perhaps the novel’s biggest flaw that its central preoccupation with human relations is unable to translate through its words. It might be unfair to assume that Damon’s inability to reach out to others is because he’s endlessly preoccupied with his own emotional temperature at any given time. However, this is the conclusion that one inevitably reaches. In this book, as well as in The Beautiful Screaming of Pigs, the only other Galgut novel I’ve read, Galgut’s central obsession as a writer seems to be the moments in life that transform strangers into non-strangers. Certainly, Galgut has a gift for capturing those fleeting, in-between moments of discomfort, uneasiness, anxiety, longing, desire, and repulsion that the presence of another person might arouse.

However, where Galgut’s language has been praised for being precise or beautiful is where I hoped to see more chaos and disorder, and less of an earnest, desperate yearning for the sublime. Every few paragraphs seeks to make Meaning of some person or situation. Why complain about this, when it is very well something that we all crave in our art, whether or not we recognise that craving? Yet in Galgut’s writing the attempt at meaning-making always seems so desperate that it begins to hint at the artificial. As long as there is some attempt at pondering over the deep, dark impenetrable matters of human relations, Galgut seems to think, this will be a Serious Novel. Therefore we get pronouncements like this: “An image in a mirror is a reversal, the reflection and the original are joined but might cancel each other out.” What, you think, does this have to do with Reiner, the mysterious German, whose story we were in the midst of before Damon interjects with this observation?

In the first section of the book, particularly, there is plenty of opportunity for turmoil, sexual anguish, and raw pain even if Damon remains immobilised, petrified even, by the very idea of being allowed to feel something. There is opportunity here, one thinks as one reads, for Damon’s placid surface to suffer some form of crack. But what we get instead is more rumination and armchair analysis, Damon observing himself from a distance, Damon observing the world from a distance, Damon in pain because he is only able to observe everything from a distance. While Damon as a character is allowed to disappoint the reader, Galgut as a writer should preferably strive not to. By that I mean, your writing can fail, but it should not be the failed writing that is published and marketed as a life-changing book. Galgut’s writing is essentially Damon the character made-into-words. It’s endlessly preoccupied with its own self, striving to reach for and convey meaning where others will be happy to have, instead, the merest glimmer of an idea or a flicker of genuine emotion.

Probably we can all agree that Galgut writes beautifully, and there is a gentle, rhythmic elegance underlying the structure of his prose, but that’s a mere technicality. There must be some rupture at the point of beauty and perfection that allows writing to strive for some deeper uncertainty. In a Strange Room is too sure of itself, written with one eye for “literary” posterity. Ultimately, however, just as Damon stands apart distant from his world – the fascinating places he visits are mere backdrop and not one bit more – I am moved to only fold my arms and step back from the book to say, “It was passable.” I am tired of reading about on-the-whole privileged people so damaged by whatever life has done to them that they can’t take pleasure in the newness of a new place. If a person in Malawi can’t afford to travel the world and suffers from this form of ennui from having been trapped within one place his or her whole life, I can get it. Here, however, I want to ask, what the hell is Damon’s problem, really?

This is therapy-lit, and I would rather just reach for an Agatha Christie murder mystery. If we can readily mock Christie or Stieg Larsson (insert name of any popular author here) for writing such intellectually-unstimulating books, I’m uncertain how we reward writers like Galgut on the other hand with Booker nominations for being passably, appropriately and prettily boring. Towards the end of the book, Galgut writes, “Things happen only once and are never repeated, never return. Except only in memory.” True enough, one thinks, but so what? We have crossed oceans with Damon. We have slept among strangers and washed bedpans in filthy hospitals and entered into customs checkpoints with Damon, but we need never have left the first page and never have gone anywhere. Everything is still the same.

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theory and stuff

January 12, 2011 § Leave a comment

In an interview with Paul Taylor, after all the Zizek-fawning (I’m being unfair – there are good things said about Zizek, although I’m decidedly ambivalent about Zizek these days), Mark Thwaite asks him a couple of questions on writing and reading theory, and I found Taylor’s answers quite unexpectedly nice:

MT: Do you have any tips for the aspiring writer of theory!?

PT: I find writing theory both an immensely rewarding and exasperating experience. At the risk of sounding bonkers and/or an early candidate for Private Eye’s Pseud Corner’scomment of the year, I’d describe it as both nothing and everything. What I mean by this is that in the greater scheme of things this sort of writing seems to be something of a fluffy luxury, on the other hand, I’ve had enthusiastic emails from readers as far apart in geography and culture as Peru and India. You never know how and where your ideas will make an impact and you can add to that the sheer absorption of being “in the flow” whilst writing – although as the same character who I’ve just quoted from Salamander says, “The Mohammedans say that an hour of reading is one stolen from Paradise. To that perfect thought I can only add that an hour of writing gives one a foretaste of the other place”.

More positively, although theoretical texts will never appear on advertisement hoardings, on the other hand, they avoid the fate of best-seller writing that goes in one eye and straight out the other. By contrast, I have been contacted by ex-students who have described how they have had their whole world-view changed by a theoretician that has successfully burrowed deep inside their heads. So, this time not wishing to sound like Gandalf, my tip to aspiring writers is to value theory’s understated power. Since writing theory has its own unique rewards, they should try not to be too downhearted at its marginalized social status. It may well prove to be bad for your peace of mind and perhaps even your professional life (in the narrowest greasy-pole-climbing sense) but it produces an ineffable buzz that money just can’t buy.

MT: Anything else you would like to say?

PT: A character in Ray Bradbury’s dystopian novel Fahrenheit 451 describes how “the word ‘intellectual,’ of course, became the swear word it deserved to be”. I would suggest that the current furore over student fees shouldn’t distract us from the real origins of the wider, underlying problem. These were already evident in much earlier signs of gangrenous cultural attitudes. Think back to when, as Education Secretary, Charles Clarke openly questioned the innate value of medieval history degrees and, largely unchallenged, universities were subsequently shunted from their self-explanatory location in the Department of Education to their newly non-titular status within the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS). This acronym reveals, more succinctly than I could ever hope to express, the brutish reductionism of people educated to know better. It also vividly demonstrates the stubborn value of implacably critical theory. So I would finish by saying… turn off your gizmo, go to a solitary place, pick up a book, and learn, learn, and learn!

I like that Taylor still seems to be madly in love with reading and writing theory. I’m not in grad school, and it’s often a daily question for me if I made the right decision not to go, and a daily question if I should go, considering my sort of absurd love of academia. But I also note that most people in academic invoke theory with extreme hatred or resentment, and I don’t ever want to become the kind of person who hates theory because she was forced to read theory or because someone else used theory to make her feel stupid for years on end. And that sounds like grad school in a nutshell, if all the twittering grad students are to be believed. I mean, all the mansplaining that went on in undergrad philosophy classes? I’m guessing theory in grad school is mansplaining-central. Except with women, too.

However.

“I have been contacted by ex-students who have described how they have had their whole world-view changed by a theoretician that has successfully burrowed deep inside their heads. So, this time not wishing to sound like Gandalf, my tip to aspiring writers is to value theory’s understated power. Since writing theory has its own unique rewards, they should try not to be too downhearted at its marginalized social status. It may well prove to be bad for your peace of mind and perhaps even your professional life (in the narrowest greasy-pole-climbing sense) but it produces an ineffable buzz that money just can’t buy.”

Yes.

Also:

So I would finish by saying… turn off your gizmo, go to a solitary place, pick up a book, and learn, learn, and learn!

Yes. I sense an ambivalent relationship with “gizmos”, and I feel that. Also, this “learn, learn, and learn!” thing is something I really feel. Grad school or not.

Read the entire interview here.

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never was a cornflake girl

January 10, 2011 § Leave a comment

(This post was written awhile back. The uploading of this post, however, seems to be happening… um… now. I have allowed my blog to languish. I am sorry, Blog Gods and the two of you who read this regularly!)

This post came about in the shower this morning, when I remembered that what I wrote in my tumblelog in response to Sady Doyle’s post wasn’t really true. The last Tori Amos album I really loved was not made in 1998, but in 1999. To Venus and Back was the last great obsession.

I remember liking Tori Amos. I say I remember because it seems I have lost that ability to lose myself in music like I used when I was a teenager. Yes, this is a cliché that others have also uttered as a matter of course, but it is still true. Losing oneself to music, as is losing oneself in a book, seems to belong to a very nostalgic past when we were all young. I remember when I was in my late teens in 1999 and the internet was still a brand-new thing in Malaysia. Some of my friends did not have internet connections yet, but my father was one of the first to get us signed on in 1996. I write whiny blog posts now musing about the utter confusion generated by online interactions through Facebook and Twitter and so on, but in 1996 I used the internet like a mad woman. Like a mad woman, that is, without any angst.

I like describing myself as a mad woman, and liked describing myself as a mad girl as an adolescent. Tori Amos makes music for mad girls and women, or at least she used to. You meet Tori Amos en route to Kate Bush, but that doesn’t make the Tori Amos experience any less valuable. In 1999 I knew from online interactions with several email penpals (e-pals?); other people as singularly obsessed with Tori Amos and The X-Files and, yes, Jane Austen as I was, that To Venus and Back was going to be released. This was back in the day of the mailing lists and forums. This was pre-Amazon days, before bit torrents, the heady, exciting days of Napster-about-to-arrive. Music albums released in the UK, US, and Europe could take months to reach Malaysian shores. I was having none of that, so I emailed my sister living in Florida to get me a copy of To Venus and Back THE DAY IT CAME OUT and send it to me. Those were the days when my siblings listened to what I said, because I was still the youngest, and somewhat cute. Being the youngest sibling as an adult, unfortunately, does not render one cute anymore. Nor does anyone listen to you. But I digress.

The character Delirium in Neil Gaiman's Sandman comics came to have Tori-influences

I got the album. It was utterly bizarre. It is still utterly bizarre. I still love the madness of the syncopated, skittish, unhinged beats of To Venus and Back. What the hell is Tori doing in ‘Datura’? No one has a clue. No matter, you sing along – “dividing Canaan, piece by piece.”  The first song, ‘Bliss’, begins with “Father, I killed my monkey / I let it out to taste the sweet of spring”. Hilarious, I thought, but also foreboding, in the way only Tori can be. This was in October 1999 when the album arrived from my sister in Florida. By the end of November of 1999, my father was dead, and the lines “You know it’s true I’m part of you / we’re a Bliss of another kind” could never be listened to in the same way again.

This is probably how songs – whole albums, even – become intrinsic to your life as your own thoughts, feelings, experiences. It’s all about the listening, about when you do it and how you do it, whether riding in the passenger seat of your first boyfriend’s car during a road trip or curled up in the corner of your bed after a death, numb. How was I to know that Tori had ensured To Venus and Back came bundled with a song about death? That plenty of her hardcore fans mocked ‘1,000 Oceans’ on mailing lists and forums for being too maudlin, sappy, or for the crime of having too simple a melody, didn’t diminish the value of that song for a girl who needed to listen to it on repeat, day after day, for months on end in order to even begin to give shape to her own sprawling, chaotic, messy, out-of-grasp pain.

There are moments in To Venus and Back that hits the note of pain – pain as I remembered it in those awful months of 1999 – so much that I’ve avoided listening to some of those songs up until now. But now that I am listening to it again, I can’t help but feel invigorated again by the blatant display of Tori-madness. This is a woman who wears her lunacy on her sleeve in her music. I don’t mean to say this to dismiss her or her music as a form of artifice. Personally, as a listener, I’ve taken the extremity of vocals, lyrics, and piano-playing as a reflection of a temperament trying to make sense of its limitlessness.  Indeed, I think we all have our individual stripes of lunacy, well-hidden from polite view. What I love about Tori’s music is that she was the first example for me, as a teenager, of how lunacy can be invited to come and have a seat at the dinner table with the rest of the guests. “Rabbit, where’d you put the keys, girl?” Tori sings in ‘Cornflake Girl’, and you know, I don’t know who the hell Rabbit is, but I do know that the question makes sense to me. Somehow, in some cloudy part of my mind, I need to know where the keys are, too. We can all go look for it together, you, me, Tori, and Rabbit. There is no need to ask why.

As an adult woman who has to behave, for the most part, Tori’s older music still provides the kind of safe haven to exercise one’s hysterical woman-madness privately, and with abandon. “I can’t believe this violence in mind. But I believe in peace, bitch,” Tori and I sing. Tori bangs on her piano aggressively, I on my computer keyboard as I write, and demons are exorcised or at least put to bed snug for awhile.

To Venus and Back consists of two CDs, one of newly-recorded studio material and the other a CD of live tracks recorded on tour. For someone who had not seen Tori perform live (and who most likely will not, because the desire to see Tori live has now diminished – I will attend the concert expecting the Tori of 1996, she will perform as the Tori of the 21st-century, it will all end badly), the live CD was further illumination of how you can be both crazy – loopy, nutty, unhinged, what have you – and be immensely talented.  Because you’ve still got to perform and pull of a musical feat for the thousands of people who have paid to watch you, and I suppose back in the days of 1998 people still expected musical excellence in a concert by a musician. The charming loopiness only gets you so far, yet for it to have worked and to have enchanted people the way it did, it must always be simultaneously done with a sly wink. This is where Tori always used to get it right. Up until she got married and had babies, that is, which is the part where I agree with Sady and the part where my heart constricts a little because the Tori of past is no more.

But it’s also silly to think about it that way, because I still have Tori of the past in her music.

never was a cornflake girl
thought that was a good solution
hangin’ with the raisin girls
she’s gone to the other side
givin’ us a yo heave ho
things are getting kind of gross
and I go at sleepy time
this is not really happening
you bet your life it is

Indeed. You bet your life it is.

 

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Listomania part 2

January 3, 2011 § Leave a comment

Following the haphazardly put-together best reads list, along comes this haphazardly put-together best films watched in 2010 list. But I detest “best”, so “noteworthy” it is. Before I continue, I feel the need to clamber up onto my soapbox and say: it’s well-nigh impossible to participate in year-end conversations with cinephiles on the film highlights of a particular year if you’re Malaysian. Even considering, for a moment, that you had enough money to buy ridiculously overpriced DVDs of foreign and independent films from online stores, it’s harder still to enter into contemporaneous conversation with film-fans from the West because none of those foreign or independent films would have been released in Malaysia and none of those films would have made it to DVD before the year was out. So it would seem that a serious Malaysian film critic or a regular film fan with a taste for the different will always be a couple steps behind in the conversation. The movie that everyone loves today is the movie you’ll likely watch next year. This really pisses me off. *clambers down treacherous soapbox*

Essentially what I’m trying to say here is that these don’t refer to any movies released in 2010. Nevertheless, I watched some amazing films in 2010 made in other years. Hence, a list!

Noteworthy films watched in 2010:

Nobody Knows, dir. Hirokazu Kore-eda. I’m still unsure how to talk about this film except that it proves to be  something that your mind will revisit over and over again in the hopes of making sense of human frailty, simple parental neglect and cruelty, and the general malaise of a wilfully-ignorant society. Based on the real-life incident of abandoned children in Sugamo, Japan, Nobody Knows brings the story to modern-day Tokyo and features one of the most heart-rending performances ever by a young actor, Yuya Agira. Whether or not there is any one person to blame seems not to be the central issue here; what we get instead is a beautiful, bleak, non-sentimental look at how all of us –every single member of society – is implicated in issues of neglect and marginalisation of the young, the powerless, and the poor.

The Celebration, dir. Thomas Vinterberg. I made the mistake of following up Nobody Knows (to get it out of my mind) with this; the result was mental and emotional catatonia for about a week. What seems to be a regular family gathering to celebrate the 60th birthday of a bourgeois family patriarch turns out to be a searing indictment of bourgeois family values and societal hypocrisy. That some people choose values and status over the health and lives of the children and young in their midst is a known fact; what Vinterberg does is drop us in the middle of a family where this is the lived reality. It is harrowing, and yet the living reality of how people cope with terrific pain and betrayal and what they make of it is shown to possess redemptive power and beauty, as well. But I found the movie mentally and emotionally draining, so I’d block out a whole day to recover if I were watching it for the first time. Or the second time.

The Circle and Offside, dir. Jafar Panahi. Two movies that I’ve grouped together simply because they were directed by the same force of Iranian talent, Panahi, and because I consider them the tragic (The Circle) and comic (Offside) versions of the same issue – the oppression of women in societies functioning under fundamentalist regimes. The Circle deserves its own review when I’m finally up to it but its narrative structure is quite technically perfect, and the intertwining stories of women in trouble in modern-day Iran are presented with clear-eyed and tender honesty. I blogged about Offside here. It’s a truly hilarious depiction of unfathomable and absurd sexist rules as it’s played out against the backdrop of football fanaticism and communal participation in hegemony. In both movies, Panahi excels in pointing out, with kindness, sympathy and great tenderness for his human subjects, how foolish we allow ourselves to become when we forget the reasons for doing what it is we do, and the dangerous yet seductive pull of ignorance when we cease to ask why it is we do what we do.

Repulsion and Cul-de-sac, dir. Roman Polanski. Again, these are two wildly different movies, but you know, it’s Polanski. And so some thoughts on Repulsion have already been blogged here, but I’ll just say again that Polanski intrigues with this surprisingly sympathetic portrayal of feminine “excess” and sexual confusion. It’s a riveting cinematic description of desire gone awry, and underpinning it all is the question of female madness – is she, or isn’t she? Cul-de-sac, on the other hand, is a riveting cinematic description of marital hermetic bliss gone awry. It takes an aggressive, violent stranger to ruin the shaky foundations, but the flamboyant and eccentric husband and his seductive, sexually-confident wife have basically switched sexual roles in this “charming romp” which becomes increasingly non-charming and dark as the characters start peeling off their eccentric layers to reveal a seething mass of resentment and confusion. And this can only end in…? We’re not sure. Disaster for some, perhaps, and freedom for others.

The Joshua Tapes, dir. Arvind Abraham. This quiet Malaysian indie film doesn’t really shout or announce its intentions very loudly, except through its occasionally-annoying lead characters who do, in fact, shout quite a bit. But as I mention in my longer review, the effect of being with these characters during an emotionally-turbulent road trip is similar to that of being with one’s own friends. It’s hard to see Malaysiana depicted honestly and without overt nostalgia, optimism, or moralising clouding the essential story, but The Joshua Tapes succeeds admirably and is one of the unexpected minor gems discovered this year. It’s also a superbly-honest look at friendships between long-time friends of mixed ethnicities. The only problem is its significant lack of female characters, but then again, it’s a male-bonding movie that dares to portray male friendships and masculinity without the usual dumb-ass fuckery of, say, Judd Apatow. (Hell yeah, I went there.)

Red Road, dir. Andrea Arnold. I didn’t know what to expect of this when I clicked on it on mubi.com, but what I got was tender and subtle brutality, largely perpetrated and rendered through a emotionally-volatile and isolated CCTV operator who recently lost both her husband and daughter in an accident. Set amidst a particular depressing slice of North Scotland, the act of surveillance is turned upon itself when the surveyor and the surveyed are both implicated in a strange, dark dance of desire that, on the part of the woman, is one rooted in the desire for retribution. What should be nasty, brutish, and short, however, becomes sympathetic and a possible – perhaps – path for potentially redemptive hope. Katie Dickie’s performance is exquisite; her subdued yet jittery portrayal melds perfectly with Tony Curran’s unpredictable yet tender-hearted sort-of criminal.

Strangers on a Train, dir. Alfred Hitchock. Oh, Hitchcock! If only one was able to dismiss you as a misogynist with a bizarre vendetta against women in general that finds its full expression through your female characters on-screen! And then, having made that conclusion, be rid of you forever! Instead I find you beloved in my film-director pantheon. Lest we think ol’ Alfie only had trouble with femininity in female characters, think again. Here, Robert Walker’s effeminate and menacing Bruno Anthony’s manifestation of “feminine excess” is the thing that truly sets everyone off, and Farley Granger’s very manly and athletic Guy Haines can barely relax in Bruno’s presence before all of Guy’s defences are up again. Perhaps I’ve grown used to Anthony Perkins’ Norman Bates with one too many viewings of Psycho, but Walker’s agitated energy and cloying charm is always shot-through with a dose of danger, and the result is that Bruno Anthony gives Norman Bates a good run for his money in the hard-to-pull-off category of Disturbing Psychopaths of All Time. Furthermore, it’s a damn good story. And there are trains. Also, there is a fabulous scene involving a woman’s fallen eye-glasses.

Russian Ark, dir. Alexandr Sokurov. Russian Ark is an unexpected delight; whimsy and dreams and history all coming together in 90+ minutes of a superb directorial imagination taking flight.  After some Wikipedia-ing, I learned that the concept behind Russian Ark was based upon the travel writings of a 19th-century French marquis while he was in Russia. As far as concepts go, Russian Ark is simple and uncluttered and pretty much genius. Who among us does not feel the need to enter into conversation with travellers of yore – imperialists and non – who arrived on our shores and said a great many things about our country before it was even a country, our people, and our culture? The idea of “ours” and “theirs” is explored beautifully in Russian Ark. The result is not a facile, sentimental “It is ALL ours equally!” but more of a “None of us can remain untouched by the other.” Sumptuous scenes filmed in the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg also rekindled old longings to visit St. Petersburg. Everything about this film – a 96-minute Steadicam sequence shot, as we’re told – is perfection, which is all the more heightened when you think about the fact that the entire film is a 96-minute Steadicam sequence shot. Hello, you say! Yeah, I reply! Go watch it.

I would have liked to write about the “noteworthy music” I heard in 2010 but I can’t seem to write intelligently on music. (Insert “What can you write intelligently about, then? Hyuk hyuk” joke here.) Also, I acquire music on a regular basis in a very haphazard manner, not full albums most of the time, but bits and pieces, and then after some time when everyone’s heard the full album, I’ll listen to the full album.

So Listomania will, sadly, end here.

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