Friday, January 01, 2016

Yeo Wei Wei's "These Foolish Things"

Yeo Wei Wei sees the broken and hurting lives of her characters with a kind of dispassionate compassion. A wife finds her way home from mass devastation. An old woman in a home for the elderly. A blind painter. A female Math teacher abandoned by a younger lover. The subjects are ripe for sentimental depiction, but Yeo does not hurry to sympathize. Instead, with patience and care, she slowly delineates the details of their lives and the flush of their thoughts. The only exception, perhaps, is the story "The National Bird of Singapore," in which good and evil are too simply demarcated.

In other stories, the details become, as they should in a work of art, subtly suggestive, even symbolic. The yellow umbrella in the title story "These Foolish Things." The ivory carving of three apples in "Branch." The blue lamp and the blue flowers of the bunga telang outside an artist's house in "The Art of Being Naked." Not only are the stories are threaded with beautiful symbols, but they are also narrated with a soundtrack in the background. Mdm Goh in her lonely seniority used to listen to Teresa Teng in "Here Comes the Sun," the title itself coming from a Beatles song. In "Chin Chin" there is recorded birdsong in the airport bathroom. If we give ourselves to these visual and musical details, they open portals in the stories. It is no coincidence that the stories feature many doors, windows, and balconies, belonging most often to condos and bungalows. The Singapore that appears in this book is not the bustling HDB heartland, but the decaying propertied class.

The stories also give entry into the characters' minds. Settling there, we discover how their consciousness is richly burdened by memories and desires. The light-footed surrealism in some of these stories activates these memories and desires into action, blurring the line between past and present, even between person and person. The surrealism in "Beauty in the Eye" is humorous, as the protagonist discovers that he is a character in a story being written by his date. Darker in "Here Comes the Sun," the surrealism of talking animals prepares us for Mdm Goh's passing. Wrenching in "These Foolish things," the unreal haunts the story in the form of a ghost. In one instance, the device fails to carry the story, as in "The Beholder" when fruits, the supposed objects for painting, heckle the artist. The device is too cutesy. It is extraordinarily powerful, however, in the best story of the collection "Chin Chin," when it turns uncanny. How it plays out is too good to give away.

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