Signs Of Life by O Thiam Chin
First published at Singapore Unbound's SP Blog.
Signs of Life is the latest short-story collection of Singaporean writer O Thiam Chin. A writer whose collection Love, Or Something Like Love (Math Paper Press, 2013) was shortlisted for the 2014 Singapore Literature Prize, and whose 2015 novel Now That It’s Over clinched the inaugural Epigram Books Fiction Prize, it can be safely said that O is a well-established author. The question to be asked of any seasoned writer, whether their writing continues to evolve and surprise, can be asked of O. In an interview, O has said that his latest collection explores new genres. Venturing into the genres of magical realism and horror, Signs of Life dresses up O’s familiar themes of love and intimacy in new settings, providing strange situations that magnify the motif of desire.
The title Signs of Life suggests at least two ways by which the collection’s themes can be understood. To fans of Pink Floyd, the title calls forth memories of a similarly titled track on A Momentary Lapse of Reason. Released in 1987 with electronic vocals over ethereal background synth, Pink Floyd’s music created a futuristic and surreal soundscape, one that decried the loss of reason and self. For lovers of science fiction, the phrase “signs of life” evokes the search for extra-terrestrial life. The effect of O’s title is that of an implicit promise, leading this reviewer to expect science-fiction stories that explore humanity’s current and future relationship with modernity and its technology. The promise is largely unfulfilled, as the collection not only deals with the futuristic, but also includes the merely fantastical and surreal. This blurring of genre boundaries, however, gives O a wider latitude for genre experimentation. And experiment he does: O’s stories make use of tropes such as zombies (“Bitten”), fairy tales (“The Three Bears”), and magical healers (“Signs of Life”), as well as futuristic dystopias (“The Last Men”).
By now, one would assume that O has mastery over the form of the short story. The twelve stories in Signs of Life appear to support this expectation. Each story is well built, with good hooks, meaningful symbols, and believable conflict. However, while reading this collection, I am reminded of the words of Flannery O’Connor, who said, “So many people can now write competent stories that the short story is in danger of dying of competence.” If the polish of O’s stories is clear, it is also evident that the same competence strips force and life from his narratives. The first three tales, “The Girl and The Snake,” “Signs of Life,” and “Depth and Weight of Things,” are explorations of human emotion in surrealist settings. “The Girl and the Snake” recalls the inner turmoil of the female protagonist just after her husband has died. The reader is privy to the narrator’s ambivalent feelings for her late husband who had a second family behind her back. The voice of the betrayed wife is compelling up to the story’s ending. Having met a girl with a snake, the wife allows the snake to bite her:
I gasped— not in pain as I expected— but in confounding rage and ecstasy, sorrow and pleasure. The snake held its bite unrelentingly, and a rivulet of blood trickled down my wrist and dripped onto the earth, disappearing into the ground.
The snakebite is symbolic, of course, as the narrator experiences grief and elation over the injury. However, this clarity in emotion is not developed. Instead, the narrator witnesses a horrific car accident on her way home and realizes that she has left her husband’s ashes at the tree where she had met the girl with the snake. She chooses to leave the urn where it is, pondering in a detached voice, ”I considered it for a while, then decided to leave it there.” The narrator does not reflect further nor make a change in a way that is clearly conveyed to the reader, nor is any greater emotional journey rendered. Although the symbols in the story are easily parsed—the story is, after all, written competently—they do not lend emotional weight or development to the narrative arc.
This feeling of dissatisfaction is continued in the story “Signs of Life,” from which the collection draws its name. “Signs of Life” follows a protagonist who observes his brother—gifted with healing—struggle with the demands of those desperate to have their loved ones brought back to life. Having hinted from the beginning that the protagonist's brother has poor mental health, the story unfolds as a predictable tragedy, in which the healer exhausts himself trying to fulfil every request. The story comes to a head when a woman brings a dead child to the healer, her desperation juxtaposed against her child’s lax body: “the child hung limp from the mother’s arms, dark lines of blood trickling from his slack mouth.” I had a visceral reaction to this description, a standout moment that centers mortality in a surreal world where healing and resurrection is possible. This momentary pathos is unfortunately squandered by the last few paragraphs, where O attempts to blend the identities of the healer and the dying boy in an altogether expected ending:
On the bed were my brother and the young boy, their hands in each other’s grasp. One of them had his eyes open, unmoving, unblinking; the chest rising and falling in slow, infinitesimal undulations. The other had his eyes closed, locked away in the shell of his body, blind to the world.
Though beautifully written, this revelation about the overworked healer could have come earlier in the narrative, especially since hints of burnout were evident throughout. Doing this would allow O to question more incisively the nature of death and the ramifications of escaping it, which the story has ample room for. Lacking such questions, the story surrenders any claims to philosophical substance.
The third story “Depth and Weight of Things” suffers from a more troubling problem. The premise of the story lies in a fertility procedure that requires the removal and return of a woman’s entire womb. This extreme imagery, especially in the context of violence voluntarily enacted on female bodies, undergirds the story’s investigation into the unequal costs of having a child borne by male and female partners. One of the most haunting lines in the collection appears in this story, when O describes the wife’s alienation from her own body:
She felt like a ghostly resident in the house of her body, assigned with only a bare room for her thoughts, which was really what she felt she needed at the time, nothing more.
Despite the nuanced understanding of a woman’s experience, the desperation of the woman is ultimately subservient to the man’s inability to let go. The final sentence of “Depth and Weight of Things” sees the woman’s despair fully encapsulated by her husband’s actions: “The man held the woman fast in his grip, and even as she threw herself fully into her sadness, the man was still holding on, for both of them.” The very syntax of the sentence reads as a betrayal of the story’s focus on the unequal burdens of pregnancy, although a more charitable reader may argue that both story and sentence critique the ideal of marriage as a partnership between equals.
The opening trio of stories, along with “The Three Bears” and “Touching,” can be easily distinguished from the other tales in the collection, which draw heavily from horror and science-fiction imagery. Here, among the monsters, the collection seethes with life. Some stories are interesting adaptations of classical fables and horror tropes: using vampires, zombies, and wolves in ways that heighten the humanity of those they prey upon. In “Campfire,” a group of seniors at an all-girls school are hunted by an unseen force. Although the girls should be united by their common need to protect themselves, they still turn upon one another with homophobic violence. In a particularly chilling scene, a girl is entranced by the sight of her teacher coming back to life, and her girlfriend tries to tear her away from the rising zombie. Rather than helping the two girls, the collective “we” escapes, thinking, “[they] had made their own bed and now they had to lie in it.” “Campfire” is easily one of my favorite stories because it uses horror tropes to expose how young people are taught to value life, or not. The ending, which never reveals the monster’s true form, effectively uses this ambiguity to underscore the monstrosity of homophobia. The girls who escape are the true monster. In contrast to the previous stories, “Campfire” uses its ending to lend emotional weight.
Another standout story is “Blood for Sale,” a subversion of the vampire narrative. The story recounts how a refugee becomes a vampire and is later captured by a small family who uses his blood as a source of income. There is an appealing level of detail to the world building and an interesting use of split narratives. Perspective in “Blood for Sale” alternates between that of the vampire, who recounts his past, and that of a girl who tends to him in the present day. This is a particularly difficult technique to incorporate into stories, which are typically too short to include multiple narratives. To navigate this challenge, O cleverly uses fleurons to separate the characters. I was also hooked by O’s subversion of the vampire trope. In Blood Read: The Vampire as Metaphor in Contemporary Culture, Joan Gordon and Veronica Hollinger posit that the vampire is a sublimation of our fears and appetites. Thus, it follows that interpretations of vampires since the 1980’s reflect the heightened awareness and panic, even, about the sharing of blood when “vampirism has always already contained the constellation of signifiers currently clustering around AIDS.” O ’s presentation of the vampire is decidedly post-1980’s. Instead of the vampire feeding off innocent humans, the vampire in “Blood for Sale” is exploited by the family for their business in a critical role reversal. In a subversion of the genre, the vampire is revealed to be weak and almost pathetic rather than a fearsome predator.
Although “Blood for Sale” is smart in its subversion of the vampire trope, this cleverness is hamstrung by the story’s flaws. The teenage narrator is largely devoid of agency. She takes care of her siblings, feeds and drains the vampire, and is trapped in a routine cycle. Like the vampire, she is also in chains, in her case, to her family. Although this parallel with the vampire is a nice touch, the story provides very little room for her character development. When events happen in the story, they occur to rather than are instigated by the teenage girl. At one point, captivated by the danger of the vampire’s teeth, the girl is possessed to “suddenly reach out and touch one of [the vampire’s] fangs.” Even here, the word “suddenly” denotes a lack of thought or agency, undercutting the significance of the girl disobeying her mother. The story stagnates, much like “The Girl and the Snake” and the other stories in the collection.
Horror and science fiction have always been tools for social critique, and I commend O Thiam Chin for using them to explore themes of gay sexuality and social mooring. However, the execution of these stories leaves something to be desired. Often, I am left dissatisfied. This dissatisfaction, I believe, is the result of the stories stopping just short of their ideal length. The horror stories take up more than half of the collection, and I would argue that this is no coincidence: they just make better reads. That said, I am excited by O’s exploration of the horror genre, and would likely look out for future works by him if he continues to go down this route. Unfortunately, as a published collection, Signs of Life lacks the cohesion and vigor that a great short-story collection boasts.
by Sebastian Taylor
Sebastian Taylor studied physics at the University of St Andrews. Their area of interest is nuclear decommissioning and non-proliferation. They are also fascinated by performance poetry and write on the themes of queering the body, self, and space after having served as the Head Editor of the University’s Creative Writing Society.