Saturday, January 02, 2016

Haiku and Noon at Five O'Clock

Brown leaves penned
in a field of winds
who will open the book?


Noon at Five O'Clock: The Collected Short Stories of Arthur Yap: This slim volume of 8 stories is significant mainly because it collects the prose fiction of a major Singaporean poet. Too much can be made of the resemblance of these spare, almost plotless stories to his minimalist poetry. The best story here is the first, "Noon at Five O'Clock," written when Yap was nineteen years old, an undergraduate at NUS. The style is spare too, but here the spareness is entirely fitted to the situation of a young boy's accidental discovery of a secret courtyard. A small moment is inscribed in plain yet highly conscious prose. The style is less convincing in the other stories in the collection. It feels rather more like a writer's handicap than like a precisely chosen instrument. When the later stories become longer, they turn to satire, dream, and formal pastiche. Nowhere do they give the hidden depths of a lightning-quick characterization. In a very interesting critical essay included in the volume, Shirley Geok-Lin Lim posits that Yap's preference for extreme privacy and reticence hinders the expression of the public privacies required in a short story. She may very well be right. A great poet may not make a great storyteller. Still, I'm grateful to Angus Whitehead for editing this collection. It adds to one's understanding of Arthur Yap's artistic powers and their limitations.

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