31.5.07

alternative worlds

It finally rained.

That and a public holiday make a perfect reading day.

First up was Joan Didion's 1970 novel Play it as it lays. Having read her A Year of Magical Thinking recently, I had picked up a collection of her essays and this novel. Though set in the Hollywood of the 60s, it is perhaps less about the Californian sunshine than the somewhat toxic and barren Nevada and Las Vegas - the venom of rattlesnakes, the nothingness of chance on the game table, and disrupted childhoods (abortions, a child in hospital, mothers who die in the desert). Of course, there's drugs, alcohol, parties, loveless sex, depression, divorces, expired careers and suicide.

All of this would be too much to read if not for the elliptical, episodic structure - the short, brutal bursts, minimising yet intensifying the readers' contact with Maria Wyeth, our Virgilian guide into this hell, but not quite.

It is readable also because it is so distant from our tropical island - in time and space. But maybe the 2 "Integrated Resorts" will change something.

Then, a nap.

Followed by this about yet another world - Chester Brown's graphic novel Louis Riel:A Comic Strip Biography, about the life of the 19th century Metis (part French, part native Indian) leader in Canada. Exiled and admitted to an asylum before he led a final rebellion, Riel is quietly introduced into the narrative as someone who happened to be able to speak English, a reasonable young man. But he soon grows in scale until - at one point - he claims to be a prophet and the 2nd Christ who is to liberate the Metis, God's new chosen people.

And like Didion's novel, this historical biography is a page-turner! Bound by the 1.5by1.5 inch frame, Brown's story is sparse and disciplined, his lines are simple, clean; but the story and lines are energetic.

"I think one of the reasons that our history looks uninteresting is that the telling of it is left in the hands of the Canadian government," Chester Brown says in an interview.

How true! After all, it is not in the interest of governments to tell colourful, varied histories. Governments provide, or want to provide, coherent narratives - towards their own intended ending, of course. As colourful as the shades of propaganda would allow. Reading Brown's comment, I remember this book, possibly the only graphic novel about one of the most colourful periods in Singapore's modern history. There's surprisingly little written about Joe Yeoh's To Tame a Tiger (still available at Kinokuniya). A google search provides only 3-4 relevant links, none of which reveal much about the writer or the context for his book being written. Was this graphic novel commissioned - paid for by some government grant? But the story is not always a flattering picture of PAP, though mostly safe and expected in its viewpoints. Of course, maybe the impulse to mark it as being or not being pro-PAP is a problem in itself - as if PAP was our only reference point.

Anyway, this has been a perfect day for reading. And I won't spoil it by getting into island-gazing. The sheets are still cool from the afternoon rain - still perfect for reading - and sleep.

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Reviews of Louis Riel:A Comic-Strip Biography here and here; and to find out more about Chester Brown here.

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