I recently finished a book, Was, by Geoff Ryman. Picked up the book for five dollars at one of those mega warehouse book sales they hold in Expo occasionally. What clinched the book for me was its nomination for the World Fantasy Award. Into the first third of the book, I realised that it was fascinatingly anti-fantasy, an anti-genre fantasy story.
The book tells the fictional tale of Dorothy Gael who inspired the fictional character Dorothy Gale in The Wizard of Oz. For someone who never read the Wizard of Oz and often confused it with the other classic, Alice in Wonderland, reading this book brings the pleasurable feeling of being lost in the instertices between history, fiction and fantasy. But this is a hard book about life's realities, a hard book which has a child hanging himself within the first few chapters, child abuse, homosexuality in an age of puritanism, dysfunctional families, madness, AIDS, survival and ultimately hope. There is of course, a fantasy element to the book after all. In three pages and fairly ambivalent.
The story pivots around Dorothy Gael, a small city girl, who is orphaned, her parents and brother are victims of diphteria, and moved to stay with her aunt in 1890s Kansas. Away from the glitter of the big city, Dorothy moves into a farmhouse, sharing the living space with a puritanical, God-fearing, frontier aunt and a farmer husband, Uncle Henry. On the first night, she is scrubbed clean, to rid her of the taint of diph. Her golden locks are shorn. Her dog Toto is denied home and left in the open. Ultimately Toto dies in the wilderness; the revelation of his death woven with utter skill and power by the author. Her only friend, a neighbour, runs away and hangs himself by the railway. More realities follow as she grows up into a young woman. The narrative intersects with other characters in other times, living other realities, hard realities; but all involved or related somehow to the fictional story, Wizard of Oz.
The book employs a fantasy narrative to strip away the fantasy narrative of Wizard of Oz. Re-telling this child fairy tale with very different lens. It is a relentlessly bleak book most of the time. Committed to an asylum in old age, Dorothy Gael watches the film version of Wizard of Oz by Judy Garland in a brand new television donated to the asylum. "It was not like that" and she goes hysterical. Soon after, Dorothy dies, after sneaking out of the asylum and reliving a child game of making angel impressions in snow. A game she remembers playing with her only childhood friend; the boy who hanged himself.
I am still not too sure how this book came to be shortlisted for the World Fantasy Award. In one aspect, the book explores the fantasy genre, tracing its antecedents to darker realities, decadent roots. It is a fictional piece which unravels fiction, it seems much closer to reality. To life as we know it.
Closer to home, I am reminded of the movie 15 by Royston Tan. Other than the at times jarring cinematographic rips of Wong Kar Wai, that movie hit home because it reflected a reality which I believe we are all aware of but which we consciously try not tot hink it about. It is inherently an ugly film about Singapore. Abusive parents, the brutal monologue of Hokkien expletives by the father remains etched formly in my mind. Images of despondent youths, aimless lives. Any hope remaining in the film is in the bond of friendship despite life's realities; but even then, this bond is ambiguified by the film's glancing treatment of homosexuality.
I like Singapore Dreaming. Its one of the better made local movies. Technically, it is smoother than 15. But the narrative, in some sense which I cannot fully describe, further fictionalises the fiction of Singapore. Perhaps its the characters, perhaps its the ending, its hard to really pin it down.
The Latin root of fiction is "fingere" -- to form or create. In Italian, "fingere" is to feign or pretend. Fiction then, is an act of creating something which is feigned. Is fiction untrue then? It is hard to say. Because in its etymology, fiction really does not address the question of Truth. We know that it is an act of creation, to create a pretense. I can construct a fiction from facts?
More importantly, if fiction is a creation, than it can be de-created, un-created, counter-created. This is perhaps what I mean on further fictionalising the fiction of Singapore when there could be avenues to explore counter-fictionalisations of Singapore. This counter-movement, after many semantic translations, distils into difference. Real difference in Singapore. And not the simulacra of difference, that Nietzschean fear of the twilight of the Idols, when the absence of a basic reality is masked, and worst when there is no relation to reality, but pure simulacrum. This is the problem of Singapore.
Quote of the Day --
"... Then the whole system becomes weightless; it is no longer anything but a gigantic simulacrum: not unreal, but a simulacrum, never again exchanging for what is real, but exchanging in itself, in an uninterrupted circuit without reference or circumference." -- Jean Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulations