The Netherworld of Self

September 22, 2001

tan-1This review of Kelvin Tan’s Nethe(r); R (2001) appeared in an edited form as “Enter the Netherworld of Self” in The Straits Times (22 September 2001).

To my knowledge, books like this don’t get written in Singapore and, even if they did, would never procure the satisfaction of print. That Kelvin Tan has achieved both with Nethe(r); R — his new novel nine years in the waiting — is already a publishing miracle.

Its appearance as event, however, really indicts more than it applauds: the work is self-published, photocopied to cut cost, and raw to the point of needing a product-end editor. Under such humble circumstances has what is perhaps the year’s most invigorating local read tumbled into a mostly convention-ridden market.

It is as if Tan is doomed to write with invisible ink and, indeed, his message seems to bear out the same displeasure, the same symptomatic grasping for what disappears when “good society” fashions itself. It surely remains to be seen — and believed — that Nethe(r); R can secure the attentive readership it properly deserves.

Friendship, a predominant theme in Tan’s songs and stories, forms yet again the basis for a Dionsyiac erasure of life’s unquestioned meaning here. His love for such negation ought not to be dismissed as it often is: if we will only admit it, to a large extent, friendship is emotional vandalism.

Consider how, if I open up to a stranger like you, even if I persist in dictating where we agree and disagree, friendship is already taking place somewhere else. And its growth is such that a deeper bond paradoxically carries a freer content and a stronger strand of what is inexpressible while the opposite is as true, that a newer one is more definable and verbally legislative.

For the real limits of friendship are the limits to the freedom of the other in myself; this is why it can still hurt when two friends are in total agreement and why times of bitter repulsion can still be edifying. Nethe(r); R profoundly explores such contradictions through the central affections between its sometime narrator and its protagonist Rimbaud Liew, and between R and r.

The hero’s name, together with the title’s allusion to the underworld, recall the French poet Arthur Rimbaud and his Season in Hell which chronicles a descent through pain into infernal madness. Tan’s Rimbaud by himself, as indecisively R and r, is the symbolic fatality of all outer and inner friendships negatively grounded, expressed here as the colliding existences of an elusive content in him and the abysmally real.

In this light, the recurring motifs of sex and psychological violence, more often psychological sexual violence, simply rehearse the same tension on a carnal level and as excremental truth, as the foulness of precisely the productive work within the self. Indeed, the surest way to be frustrated with Tan’s book — and I write in full knowledge that some will nonetheless go on to do so — is to read its violent eroticism as mere eroticism.

For, from the start, what taunts us is a rather perverse psychology that twists and drones in less than pleasurable ways, the opposite of reading as delight; it is as if Tan seeks deliberately to befoul his own work, to befoul beauty and then the pleasure still possible through ugliness and inauthenticity.

Thankfully, there are two other ways of vindicating such writing, both of which are theoretical, and in this sense Nethe(r); R belongs to what I may more comfortably describe as a “novelic something” than a novel. The first is the linguistic-psychological thought of Jacques Lacan on whose ideas of identity-creation through an inherent divide Tan’s work is loosely based.

The other starting-point, reminiscent of Sadean ideas, is really Georges Bataille’s, the novelist-theorist called the “metaphysician of evil” for his discussions on sex, debasement and death. Bataille propounds the urgency of a war against over-rational existence as the way an intellectual, artistic or religious act can break down its legacy of evil.

You can see why books like this don’t get written in Singapore: they don’t because the style simply isn’t Dickensian — isn’t more accessible or entertaining — but, in our strongly conformist society, our worst and best experimental writers get flushed down the same drain.

Give Nethe(r); R a chance and a minor creative revolution may follow, meaning too that there will be hipsters-in-arms proving exactly why such exercise is crude, self-indulgent and circular. Tan’s key difference resides in his already subversive desire for Rimbaud’s death, for a sacrifice of the rut of cynicism in order to acknowledge its content wholly in vain.

This is, in other words, a scandalous effort at friendship, one which betrays its own raw feelings to make room for the norm to persist in its ways. There may be much philosophy for the picking here; the worst we can do is to cast both thought and project to harsh critics or prefabricated fans as our idea of responding to an other.

Gwee Li Sui


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