Sunday, August 24, 2014

Amanda Lee Koe's "Ministry of Moral Panic"

There is a deftness of touch, a sureness of intent, a knowingness of accomplishment that makes it hard to believe that Ministry of Moral Panic is Amanda Lee Koe's first book of fiction. She has marked out in virgin territory a realm of her own, a kingdom of weird, non-conforming, stubborn passions in Singapore. And she has done so without resorting to the usual pieties of understanding and tolerance. She has looked directly at the contorted subject and drawn every contortion that she could see. Love between a senile Chinese high-society woman and a successful but aging Malay rocker with three wives? Read the opening story "Flamingo Valley." Art as vengeance by a Chinese Singaporean artist for unrequited love from an Iranian Muslim reporter? Read "Carousel & Fort." The manipulations of love? Read "Pawn" to find who is making use of whom, the middle-aged Chinese Singaporean office virgin or the Chinese Chinese food-stall boy. The attraction between a high-living, and dying, female globetrotter and a teenage girl trying to come into her own person? Read "Alice, You Must Be the Fulcrum of Your Own Universe." Inter-species love? Read "Siren," a fantastic tale about the one-night passion between a sailor and a mermaid, and the seductiveness of their offspring, a ladyboy with both a slit and a stick.

Perfectly capable of writing the well-crafted traditional short story, Koe experiments confidently with narrative form as well. The urban pastoral "Every Park on This Island" is written in sections headed by the names of parks in Singapore. The most powerful of these experiments is the "Fourteen Entries from the Diary of Maria Hertogh," a Dutch girl raised by a Malay Muslim family, who was forcibly reclaimed by her Dutch parents by resorting to British law, and then transplanted to The Netherlands, where she did not take root. Yes, a few of the stories are slight, not in length, but in substance. "Two Ways to Do This" does not improve even in its second variation: the experience of rape is described with great acuity, but the folkloric magical elements are unsurprising. "Laundromat" is as bland as the sociological experiment that it describes. Nevertheless, the collection is eminently readable. I should know. I read it straight through--all fourteen stories--on my flight from Singapore to New York. I had not been able to read on a plane for a while. Too uncomfortable and distracted. But these stories carried me to the end.

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