Now That It’s Over by O Thiam Chin (Singapore: Epigram Book 2016)
Reviewed by Stewart Dorward
Now That It’s Over by O Thiam Chin is his first full length novel and the winner of the 2015 Epigram Books Fiction Prize, the richest literary prize in Singapore. Prior to this work O had written and published many shorter pieces, which gave high hopes for this new work. Starting quietly but building inexorably, it does not disappoint. O shows his ability to get to the heart of his characters and to make us care as each new layer of their experience is revealed.
Singaporean popular literature seems to have reached a tipping point in which people with non-standard sexual identities are not just plot devices, but are simply present. O gives us two couples, one gay and one straight. Cody and Ai Ling are old university friends who have settled down with Chee Seng and Wei Xiang respectively. They come to Phuket for a Christmas break and, as it turns out, just in time for the tsunami. On Christmas night they are shown together in a seaside restaurant, enjoying the view, taking selfies, fussing over the menu, and shushing anyone who becomes too serious. The next morning, forces that lay beneath the surface shatter their lives and scatter them across the landscape. However, the resort and the wave are only the setting. O treats each of the four to the same unrelenting personal examination and clearly shows the irrelevance of sexuality when things fall apart. The same tectonic forces work in and around each of the four. Although they deny these forces and carry on with their reassuring routines, things are moving. As Ai Ling says, when they first arrive, “You’re not really looking; you’re not really seeing what’s there.” A line repeated at the end of the next paragraph and emphasized in italics in both cases.
One thing that the characters do not see is the spirits at work around them in Phuket. These supernatural beings are benign but limited. There is no Western God reaching down to part the waves and draw them to safety, imbuing their lives with purpose. These spirits can only touch, hint, and gesture, without the ability to change much, or even communicate in words. Our characters think that the spirits’ incommunicability is due to language barrier, which hinders all their interactions at the Thai resort, from ordering a meal to searching a morgue. However, when our characters leave the hotel, they are likely to encounter helpful street children, teenage beach workers, and old women, who go out of their way to help them for no payment. The appearances of these mysterious helpers become too much of a coincidence and the reader cannot help but wonder if karma is at work. Is there a connection between the missing boy from Ai Ling’s kindergarten and the street children in Phuket? Are the hours Ai Ling spent in her fruitless search for him now being rewarded? The supernatural presence behind everyday appearances is not seen by any of the four and so these questions are never posed nor answered.
Even if something is seen, it is not discussed. This is a recurring theme in the past and current lives of all the characters. It does not matter if the issue is illness, sexuality, bereavement, accident, or infidelity. “It,” whatever “it” is, is simply not talked about. “It” is suppressed and buried under the daily routine of holding everything together. As Ai Ling says to herself near the start of the book, “Everything happened so fast … but now that it’s over, I don’t want to think about it.” Again, her words are italicized.
Denial works until it all becomes overwhelming, as it does for Ai Ling’s bereaved aunt, who slumps to the floor and crushes the lenses of her husband’s reading glasses in her hand. The aunt has emerged from a coma to learn that her husband of forty years is dead but she suppresses her grief. This apparent lack of feeling provokes Ai Ling’s question, ‘How can you stop loving someone just because he’s dead?’ O gives Ai Ling some very good questions to ask. In contrast, Ai Ling’s misunderstanding of Cody is described gently. On one of Cody and Ai Ling’s earlier trips she tries to move beyond the platonic. Wrapped in each other in bed, all Cody says is “I’m sorry”; he does not complete the explanation with “but I’m gay.” His terse reply is not due to any squeamishnesss on the author’s part. Some of O’s sex scenes are passionate and explicit.
The isolation that denial produces recurs throughout the book and brings us one of its most poignant scenes. In high school, young Cody is unable to tell anyone about his homosexual feelings. He masturbates to carefully curated mental images of his classmates playing basketball. His go-to place is a disused boys’ toilet on the top floor that should be locked but is not. He opens up this forbidden place and standing in bird shit and rotting leaves, he strips naked to relieve himself. Once, he is nearly found out by a classmate, so Cody reports the toilet lock broken and the forbidden is locked up again. The filth is sealed away.
Over their last supper on Christmas night, Ai Ling tries to talk about death. She is gazing at the sunset from the restaurant she has sought out for its view of the bay. Instead of going along with the mood and posing for the perfect selfie, she tries to have a real conversation. There follows a predictable shushing and embarrassment over the table. Hidden under the table, the gay couple grasp hands in dread. This reaction is believable. However, at other times, the emotional repression of the characters stretches credulity. People often lose it over the smaller things since the bigger are scarier to deal with. Accidentally killing a beloved pet would cause a nuclear meltdown in any couple I have ever encountered. But not in this book.
The themes of repression and isolation are amplified by the structure of the story. Before the wave, the language barrier isolates the four friends in their private circle. Later, when the wave hits, they are further separated from one another. From that point, one chooses to stay locked in his hotel room. Another wanders the wrecked resort trying to find his lost one. The third wakes up in a jungle hut, having been rescued and nursed back from near death. The fourth is lying alone on a beach, dead. Each is caught up in his or her own consciousness and is unable to reach out and touch any other. The dead woman is no longer thinking and feeling but that does not stop her from being part of the story. Throughout the book the characters’ lives are examined side by side. Death does not change this pattern but answers Ai Ling’s earlier question, “How can you stop loving someone just because he’s dead?” The wave has scattered them but not severed their connection.
The use of a corpse as one of the four points of view is O’s most original, and audacious, stylistic innovation. The use of italics for the corpse scenes is O’s signal to pay close attention. Unlike the bodies hauled into makeshift morgues across the island, this corpse washes up on a beach and slowly rots. Each new day we are brought back to this lonely, lovely isolated strip of sand and shown the next stage of decay under the tropical sun. This corpse is all alone. No one is weeping over it. No one is preparing it for burial. No one is praying over it. Birds peck it as the heat rots it. These passages serve as pause buttons before we are thrown back into the maelstrom of the days after the wave. They also serve as effective contrasts to the earlier crowded and intense lives of these city-based Singaporeans. To say that the wave, sun, and beach are indifferent is wrong because that implies a sentience that they do not have. They simply are what they are, as is the corpse we are repeatedly brought back to. And the story ends with the corpse, not the living.
As someone who lost a friend to the Thai tsunami, lived through the Japanese one, and talked at length to others who survived both, I did not believe that a writer could convey the experience of the wave accurately. In O’s novel, the full wave only appears in the final pages after we have been exhausted by the storms ripping through the characters’ lives. By that stage the wave comes as a relief, lifting us up and away from all the entanglements of love and life. The power of O’s writing does not, however, lie in the description of actual violence; it lies, instead, in the details of the aftermath: a seagull extracting an eyeball, the lingering scent of talcum powder, the phone messages of a missing lover, the tender washing of a stranger’s dead body. These details provide the emotional punch that any overpowering description of the wave itself might fail to do. These are the types of detail that I have heard survivors focus on and organize their recollection around.
Some reviewers of Now That It’s Over complain that the last third of the novel loses interest because it is obvious what is going to happen. This complaint misses the point. Chapter one ends with the words “They would fly to Phuket via a nine o’clock flight on the morning of Christmas Day and come back four days later.” However, the reader knows from the first page that they will not all be coming back. It is clear from the start that the tsunami will rip these friends apart and there is unlikely to be a happy ever after. What matters is not what happens but how the characters react to it. In the story, the places remain vague in contrast to the precise detail of the four’s emotional lives. It is to O’s credit that we are taken deep into these lives and left feeling that we have encountered real if battered individuals.
Perhaps by 2030 this novel will get the K-Pop idol treatment and appear as one of the Channel Eight dramas that the characters are so fond of. It may take that long for Singaporean censorship to allow some of the scenes in the book to be shown on TV. Then some little Cody or Chee Seng can see that “people like us” include everyone. And all can see themselves mirrored in the lives of these two flawed gay men and in the equally confused straight marriage.
Stewart Dorward is a British born teacher trainer living north of Tokyo. He has multiple degrees in law, education, and religion, and a long-standing interest in traditional Asian spirituality in modern popular literature. He also runs a bed and breakfast and tries to grow vegetables.