(Trigger warnings for scenes of sexual assault and violence.)
Eliza Victoria is at her best when her stories unfold with an almost dispassionate reserv(Trigger warnings for scenes of sexual assault and violence.)
Eliza Victoria is at her best when her stories unfold with an almost dispassionate reserve, the measured cadence of her sentences like a steady stride of a predator approaching. I like how this collection slowly coalesces into an examination of collective violence, delusion and hysteria, sometimes called folie a plusieurs. I was ambivalent about this theme when it emerged from the first story titled "Needle Rain," but slowly the notes started building upon themselves, reaching a satisfying crescendo of wtf. ...more
There are less standout stories than Kite of Stars but as a collection of a whole it is much tighter and more fully realized. Alfar is doing somethingThere are less standout stories than Kite of Stars but as a collection of a whole it is much tighter and more fully realized. Alfar is doing something interesting here with the use of the freewheeling omniscient exposition, like an emotional camera that zooms in and out of people's feelings. My favorite story is "Remembrance."...more
Review to follow. The story took me to surprisingly poignant places even though the story itself is self-consciously and deliberately abrasive. But I'Review to follow. The story took me to surprisingly poignant places even though the story itself is self-consciously and deliberately abrasive. But I'm misogyny-ed out for the moment, you guys....more
Nostalgia for a Manila slowly ebbing away lies at the heart of Blue Angel, White Shadow, the newest offering from one of the Philippines' most renowneNostalgia for a Manila slowly ebbing away lies at the heart of Blue Angel, White Shadow, the newest offering from one of the Philippines' most renowned novelists, Charlson Ong. With references to Marlene Dietrich, John Coltrane, Old Binondo, World War II, dogfights and summary executions, his foray into the mystery genre results in a symphony about the constant push and pull between the old and the new, the artful and the brutal.
The story begins with an iconic noir image: the beautiful woman in a red dress. Rather than a seductive shift, however, singer Laurice Saldiaga was wearing a red cheongsam when she died in the upstairs apartment of the Blue Angel, a decrepit jazz bar in the middle of Chinatown. A Hokkien-speaking mestizo policeman named Cyrus Ledesma is brought into the investigation because of its delicate nature, even as he comes to terms with his own dodgy past. He encounters a list of people with motives and opportunities to kill Laurice. The implication even goes as high up as the Mayor of Manila himself, Lagdameo Go-Lopez.
I have always harbored the belief that the way to make cities real is to write about them. Charlson Ong succeeds in making this true with this novel, vividly sketching the melancholy, grime-filled streets of Chinatown in my head, using mellifluous turns of phrase to conjure up the perfect mood. I had trouble with the 3rd person ominiscient style in the beginning--I'm used to mysteries that are either in 1st person or the very tight, 3rd person POV of a single character--but it manages to lay out the inner lives of all the people who somehow intersect with the doomed jazz songstress. Particularly poignant are the memories of Antonio Cobianco, owner of the Blue Angel, whose fondness for Laurice and the bar puts his innocence into question.
There are elements of the supernatural here, with old houses haunted by spirits and two characters who see ghostly visions, but they do not detract from the logic of the mystery like I initially feared. They add a lovely gothic dimension to the story, in fact, emphasizing the extreme subjectivity of memory and the uncomplicated acceptance of the Chinese-Filipino worldview when it comes to the unexplained.
Suspects attempting to deflect blame or harboring their own suspicions complicate Cyrus's search for the truth, with bursts of violence throughout the story culminating into a satisfying horserace of a climax. The crucial thing for me was whether to final conflict would be satisfying, and I have to say it was--very reminscent of the over-the-top confrontations in Pinoy action movies but elevated by Ong's gorgeous prose. I found the denouement and the last two chapters dragging, however.
If Charlson Ong ever decides to write more of these, I'm definitely buying. You can hear him talk about this novel in a podcast by DZUP's Quadro Kantos, with download links here. I highly suggestion listening to it because they also played songs which they dubbed as the soundtrack of Blue Angel, White Shadow....more
I do enjoy a well-characterized romance novel once in a while, and Mina V. Esguerra's No Strings Attached is a quick, one-day diversion that offers aI do enjoy a well-characterized romance novel once in a while, and Mina V. Esguerra's No Strings Attached is a quick, one-day diversion that offers a lot in terms of intelligent characterization within the short novella form. However, the main quibble I had with the story itself lies in the fact that it is too short.
The story is about Carla, a smart, professional woman who meets an attractive man named Dante during an office party. Sparks fly immediately despite their age difference (isn't it strange how this is only a concern when the woman is the one older?) but what was supposed to be a casual hook-up turns into something deeper and much more uncertain.
The plot reminded me of How Stella Got Her Groove back by Terry McMillan, which I read when I was in high school. I was initially wary of the premise when I read the book blurb because it implies that despite an enjoyable career and great friends, the one obstacle in Carla's life is turning 30 without having a boyfriend. This is not how the story plays out at all. I like that the initial affair was very casual and laid back, that there was no moral hand-wringing about having an extended fling. Not that the characters don't get to angst, but that's really the nature of a romance though, isn't it?
My problem is the inevitable final scene. I won't give away spoilers, but I thought that the conflict that surfaces between Carla and her friends weren't established convincingly enough in the story, and I wish more wordcount was used on that. What could've have been an affecting final scene makes Carla seem uncharacteristically bitter and prone to grudges. This then made the happy ending all the more abrupt and unsatisfying to me.
In romance novels, we all yearn for that heart-pinching scene like Mark Darcy telling Bridget Jones that he likes her just the way she is and getting rebuffed, but that kind of expectation set-up and reversal needs a lot of buildup. I don't think it was earned here. Nevertheless, I really enjoyed the character interaction for the most part. And I particularly enjoyed Dante and Tonio a lot.
A novel filled with parodic exuberance and tongue-in-cheek humor often runs the risk of archness to the point coldness, becoming too intent at skeweriA novel filled with parodic exuberance and tongue-in-cheek humor often runs the risk of archness to the point coldness, becoming too intent at skewering the ridiculous to actually carry a human center. L. Zamora Linmark's Leche sidesteps this trap by grounding the chaos of his setting with a fallible and searching viewpoint character, a balikbayan named Vince who wins a trip through a Mr. Pogi beauty contest. Through his incredulous but largely game eyes, the readers navigate the crooked sidestreets and gridlocked roads that make up life in 1990s Philippines.
Vince descends into an Aligherian hell from the first scene as he takes in the cacophony of voices, smells, and personalities in a Manila airport. He then interacts with a gaggle of personalities not unlike the Italian nobility that populate Inferno and Purgatorio--from the iconoclastic director Bino Boca to the distressingly effervescent fictional(?!) Kris Aquino. The rugged man who ferries him to the various sights of Manila is even named Dante. Linmark makes these parallelisms overt throughout the novel. But Leche also has much in common with another work of literature to use an epigraph from The Divine Comedy--the eponymous J. Alfred Prufrock from T.S. Eliot's landmark modernist poem.
Much like Prufrock, the inaction and ennui that Vince feels through much of the novel is a response to a wide range of anxieties and hurt that he has experienced in his life. While Prufrock's trauma comes from the unexpected assault of war and modernity, however, Vince's come from leaving his country as a child to build a life in a new one. The novel also intersects Vince's diasporic identity with that of his queer experience. I like that being gay is not the definitive aspect of his character--in fact, you can say that it only ends up complicating his already fraught relationships, not only with his friends and loved ones but also with his two countries.
This novel was slow burn for me. The din generated not only by the characters but also the setting, humor, and writing style can overwhelm a reader who is not expecting it. It took a while to warm up to Vince's character, but the final pages that take him on a jeepney ride out of Manila (and into Paradiso, perhaps?) ties up all the disparate parts of his identity, including his relationship with his deceased grandfather, and allows his story to end somewhere quiet, mournful, and beautiful. It is a wonderful meditation of the question that emigres often grapple with, whether one can ever truly go home.
Notice how I haven't yet mentioned how this novel is a veritable stew of postmodernist narrative tools, the most obvious aspect of Leche. Vince's sightseeing is punctuated by postcard messages, excerpts from tourist books, interview transcripts, even an extended scene from a Bino Boca movie extravaganza. A postmodern homecoming novel about a balikbayan is not new (hello there, Ilustrado). I decided to focus on the novels more affective qualities to demonstrate that formal inventiveness is not enough to create resonance. Leche checks off as many literary references as Ilustrado (read: a hell of a lot of them), but I argue that they do not distract from the characters' fiercely beating hearts.
Diaspora stories have become a staple of Philippine fiction, thanks to our historical and economic realities. Because this experience fractures so many of us, much of our literary real estate is invested in collecting the broken pieces and gluing them back together. Leche's foray into the diaspora archetype shows that some of the most emotionally rich places exist within the jagged edges that we are trying to smooth over. Let us go then, you and I.
Something peculiar happens to stories when they are housed in the same anthology, especially when an overarching theme orOriginally posted on my blog.
Something peculiar happens to stories when they are housed in the same anthology, especially when an overarching theme or rubric comes into play. Aside from the sensibilities of the editors informing the curation process, the stories themselves cease to become autonomous units of narrative. Difference in writing styles become sharper by contrast, premises are either reinforced or disputed by the stories that come before or after it.
In Philippine Speculative Fiction Anthology Volume 6, editors Nikki Alfar and Kate Aton-Osias continue the annual tradition of gathering short fiction in with a speculative vein, with works of publishing newbies mingling with those by seasoned, award-winning authors. Kapres, supervillains, galactic warship captains, and (alleged) cannibals are among the archetypal characters featured this time around. The stories that stand out for me explore the unease that is often overshadowed or glossed over by the flashier aspects of science fiction, horror, and fantasy.
"Carpaccio (or, Repentance as a Meat Recipe)" by Arlyn Despi, "The Bookshelves of Mrs. Go" by Charles Tan, and "Hollowbody" by Crystal Koo all possess a quiet, almost mundane style of storytelling that belie the uncanny and disturbing themes that they tackle. I hesitate to say more for fear of divulging too much and ruining the experience but I was really taken by the careful way these stories build up and how their endings, particularly Koo's subtle but sharp last scene, provides more questions than answers.
Jay Steven Anyong's "Lament of the Counselor," while disappointingly short, is a funny, off-beat take on the local myths of which I would like to see more. Danilo Madarang, marriage counselor the supernatural, explores the trials and tribulations that come of inter-species (inter-spiritual?) dating. His patients include diwatas bickering with their human husbands about children, the future, and different expectations within their relationships. However, I doubt Margie Holmes ever had a counseling session that included the sentence "I didn't let you carve your initials in my inner thigh for nothing, you insensitive beast!"
The steampunk (clockpunk?) story "On Wooden Wings" by Paolo Chikiamco is a deceptively simple one about a young girl engineering a set of mechanical wings. Buoying the plot is its setting, an inventive and elaborate alternate Philippines with a consolidated Muslim sultanate in the South successfully resisting the Spanish Invasion and a floating academy moving across the islands of Mindanao. The additional tension between The Philippines That Is and The Philippines That Could Have Been adds a level of metacommentary into the story. A wonderfully detailed analysis of the story's post-colonial implications is available on the Silver Goggles blog.
My favorite in the collection is Eliza Victoria's "The Storyteller's Curse," about a writer receiving a gift that he never really wanted. This is the kind of formal ambition I really admire, juggling the different tropes of horror and metafiction to create a tight, tension-filled story. It has one of those double plot setups that can be challenging to maintain, but Victoria does it masterfully here. The convergence of the two narratives leads to a climax whose implications are as horrific as they are intoxicating. It has subtle nods towards the style of writers like Stephen King and Ray Bradbury, using gothic elements to tackle issues of artistic creation, survival, and choice. The last line was a sucker punch in the gut the first time I read it.
Very small nitpick, but I dislike the title quite a lot. I feel that it reveals too much and misleads the reader at the same time? This comes down to personal taste, however, and such a small quibble at that.
Some of the stories in PSF 6 feel incomplete, acting more as scaffolding for big ideas than fully fleshed out narratives. But the biggest disappointment for me is the very first story, Asterio Enrico N. Gutierrez's "The Big Man." I realize that I may be a minority in this (the story won a Palanca, after all) but I don't think the story offered anything new or transgressive aside from transplanting a mythological creature and placing him in a contemporary setting, this time a kapre named Bolado de Makiling entering the NBA.
The elements that make it unique fell flat for me. It's fiction masquerading as non-fiction--using the sports article as its format--but it doesn't have the kind of verisimilitude and rigor I expect from pastiches. It also relies heavily on the reader's ability to recognize real-life people, places, and organizations to provide the needed tension in the story, which doesn't bode well for people who either don't know or care who Noli Eala or Tim Duncan are. It becomes very exclusive that way, making a clear demarcation between people who can recognize the references (by accident of interest, generation, or what have you) and people who don't.
I think the story also missed an opportunity by not interrogating the obvious wish-fulfillment and neo-imperialist aspects if its entire premise. Bolado's star lives and dies according to international validation, and the outcome of his NBA career is presented as a national tragedy. But why is it so important for a Filipino to play in the NBA? I am uncomfortable with the idea that the legacy Bolado ultimately leaves to future Pinoy basketball players is the hope that, one day, they too may get scouted by the Atlanta Hawks. Not to mention the entire subplot of basketball coach Norman Black braving the wilds of Makiling to scout for a player strikes me as having problematic whiffs of Kevin Bacon in The Air Up There.
(Bet you never expected that reference, huh? I'm so uncool.)
Despite some stumbles, PSF 6 succeeds in presenting a varied landscape of current SFF writing in the Philippines. Having read through 3 of its 6 volumes, it impresses and delights me that the Philippine Speculative Fiction Anthology continues to offer stories that push the boundaries and definitions of Filipino writing.
(Disclosure: My review copy came from Charles Tan back in August, whose work I praised within the piece. All the opinions presented here are my own.)...more
Ilustrado is a novel full of and about fakes. The fragments that make up the book are themselves knockoffs of different genres--murder mystery, satireIlustrado is a novel full of and about fakes. The fragments that make up the book are themselves knockoffs of different genres--murder mystery, satire, interviews from The Paris Review, everything but the kitchen sink. Miguel Syjuco's brassy debut novel turns on its head the first accusation thrown in the face of every expat writing a novel set in the Philippines: "Just how authentic are you?"
Reveling in the flimsy divide between the true and made-up, Syjuco names his protagonist--a listless, wannabe writer in self-imposed exile--after himself. Aldrin of FullyBooked.me points out that other postmodernists like Auster and Safran Foer have created protagonists that they have named after themselves, but this device takes on a more political dimension here. Miguel Syjuco's surname, after all, is a potent one; his own father is a incumbent Iloilo congressman. It practically invites speculation and chismis, since the novel's Miguel also comes from a family of politicians. Could (and should) the reader conflate Miguel's ambivalence about the burgis class he is a part of with the writer's own views? The book brazenly invites these types of questions and more.
Syjuco crams in a distressing number of conceits here, everything from the complicity of the moneyed elite in the sorry state of Philippines, the inherent vacuousness of "intellectual" conversations during book launches, the increasingly grotesque bread and circuses orchestrated for the consumption of the masses. Ilustrado mocks postmodernism even as it wallows in it, going through the techniques like a checklist: bricolage, metafiction, black humor, irony, intertextuality, pastiche. One is tempted to make jokes about having more tricks than a hooker.*
But while accusations of bloat is a fair one, this novel is most certainly not a gimmick. Some parts were handled clumsily (like Avellaneda's blog commenters and the entire length of Miguel's misguided infatuation with a girl he met in a bookstore) but there are layers within these techniques, becoming clues that lead to a final, mind-bending revelation.
Mystery is a genre that has always been close to my heart, and I have been very much invested in discussions regarding the dearth of crime and mysteryMystery is a genre that has always been close to my heart, and I have been very much invested in discussions regarding the dearth of crime and mystery fiction from Filipino authors. Batacan’s novel about two Jesuit priests and their quest to find the murderer and mutilator of young boys in the Payatas Dumpsite is a relative bestseller, consistently read and reviewed in different blogs through the years. But it’s also a bit a of an outlier, unique in its position as the only Filipino novel so far that I believe follows the convention of a proper mystery novel.
Books like Jose Dalisay’s Soledad’s Sister and Miguel Syjuco’s Ilustrado feature elements of crime in their plots but they’re entirely different literary animals. You can’t say they’re following the conventions the likes of Agatha Christie or Patricia Cornwell have cemented within the genre. What I’ve been wishing for from the Filipino publishing world is a concerted effort to churn out solid, pop-y crime novels that are both accessible to casual readers but are also rich with decidedly Pinoy sensibilities.
I don’t think that’s an impossible feat at all. Smaller and Smaller Circles shows that it can be done, and despite its shortcomings as a novel, I still maintain that it’s the kind of book that everyone who’s Filipino and loves book should read. It can be nice gateway to more productive discussions, and hopefully, more Pinoy mysteries....more
2008 can be considered a high watermark for the Philippine novel as Jose Dalisay, already an established name in Philippine letters (as well as column2008 can be considered a high watermark for the Philippine novel as Jose Dalisay, already an established name in Philippine letters (as well as columnist, academic, and untiring blogger), came close to bagging Asia’s most coveted literary award.
His quirky hybrid of a novel, Soledad’s Sister has been a literary triumph even before seeing print. It is included among the five shortlisted novels for the first ever Man Asian Literary Prize. Beating other English-language works from much more robust literary scenes like India and China, the Jury calls Soledad’s Sister, “a work of warmth, humanity and confidence."
The story begins with a casket arriving at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport. Charmed by Dalisay’s dry wit and tongue-in-cheek imagery, we follow a series of mishaps that causes the body labeled “Aurora Cabahug” to take the place of another Filipino OFW, one Filemon Catabay, in the tarmac, much to the annoyance of his family. To add to the confusion “Aurora” isn’t even the corpse’s name, having borrowed it from a younger sister, very much alive and singing her heart out at a karaoke in the far-flung town of Paez.
Snagged into this confusing web is the unlikely hero, a has-been cop whose faint affections towards Paez’s songbird compels him to take on the duty to drive the grief-stricken Rory (the live one) to fetch Soledad (the dead one) and bring back to their hometown.
What happens after is a sort of morbid road trip, two people going through a long and lonely journey through the countryside. For the younger sister Rory, fetching her sister’s body is a filial duty, compounded by guilt for taking all her sister’s sacrifice and hard work for granted.
The exiled cop, SPO2 Walter Zamora, however, it is his time to go back to the city he once called his home, the bustling and often dangerous Manila. His return brings back memories of infidelity and betrayal, a botched kidnapping rescue, and a young girl who disappeared from his life at a 7-11.
Oh, and the body is stolen on their way back.
Dalisay himself has dubbed this tale his, “glorious mess of a novel,” and in many ways, it is. The story itself touches upon many narrative tropes and conventions, turning them over their heads in ways that are often surprising.
Take Walter Zamora, the cop, one of the stock characters in every Filipino action movie. Fernando Poe Jr. or Erap Estrada has never played a policeman quite like this, however, he who prefers the company of an undemanding cat rather than human contact and who considers answering crossword puzzles the highlight of his week.
Throughout the story we catch glimpses of his young, more reckless self, probably with the trademark swagger of an action hero. But the man facing Rory is already a tired gunslinger, resigned to oblivion in Paez.
Rory Cabahug, the karaoke singer is a character described with much warmth and compassion,–a certain zest for life. She prefers Karen Carpenter to Edith Piaf and is unapologetic about it, but at heart, she is a vulnerable girl who suddenly finds herself acutely alone in the world. She will need to find her own strength to live a life that is not chained by duty, the way her Ate Soledad’s existence had been.
If there is an aspect to the story that comes short, it has to be the ending–it loses some of its steam and finally putters off to uncertainty. In the beginning, there has been teasing suggestions of a crime novel, but there is no dramatic final revelation about the culprit or the repercussions of the crime. Soledad’s gruesome fate in Jeddah is only disclosed to the reader as an omniscient aside, bearing no significance for the living. Even a Johny-come-lately carnapper’s entry to the story seems to simply make a point about the randomness of life rather than anything more substantial.
Ridiculous side trips and all, however, does not deter from the fact that the accolades have been deserved. The story never runs out of twist and turns, examining pertinent and often sensitive issues like the Philippine Diaspora, crime and corruption without sinking into sermons or invectives.
Cynical yet still hopeful, audacious as it is fumbling, it is a sincere ode to our own glorious mess of a city, of a culture, of a country. Everything is left to the imagination, with only a quiet but steely optimism. Ironic for a novel that starts with a dead body in an airport.