Featuring Amir Muhammad, Adib Zaini, Preeta Samarasan, Marc de Faoite, Shaz Johar, Shih-Li Kow, Fadzlishah Johanabas, Dina Zaman, Eeleen Lee, Kris Williamson, Shivani Sivagurunathan, Khairulnizam Bakeri, Megat Ishak, Dayang Noor, Amir Hafizi, and Brian Gomez; contemporary (2013)
Fixi Novo, RM19.90, ISBN 978-967-0374-23-9
KL Noir: Red is the first of a planned series of anthology devoted to - and I quote - "the seedy, the sinister and sometimes the spooky" side of Kuala Lumpur, basically the only city that is worth something, at least in the local literary scene. Don't believe me? Try issuing a submission call for Batang Berjuntai Noir and see whether people would take you seriously.
Anyway, as editor Amir Muhammad puts it in the introduction, this one attempts to... okay, I confess I still have no idea what noir has to do with some of the stories here as my personal idea of noir is more at home in movies heavy in crime, cynicism, and morality that is in shades of grey. Despite my labeling this anthology as a contemporary anthology in this review, there are horror stories here as well, ranging from gore to a local take of the Cthulhu mythos. Still, what's important is that everyone has a great time, right?
Adib Zaini starts the show with The Runner, a solid take on the whole "girl victim turned badass babe bent on vengeance" trope typical of exploitation movies in the old days. Our heroine starts out looking for a part time job after she gave the finger one too many time to the establishment and her imam father cut off her pocket money. What started innocently enough as a job at a cybercafé soon devolves into a side gig of drug pushing. Our heroine is soon way out of her depths. Despite being a short story, this one is a good read as the protagonist has a coherent and memorable personality and, no matter how sordid things become, it's still appropriate that I cheer her on.
Preeta Samarasan's Rukun Tetangga starts out very powerfully. An eccentric man, never taken seriously by the people around him, gets a new wind of life when he acts as a sponsor for some orphans abroad. Now having an interest in the welfare of hapless children in general, he becomes appalled at the alarming rate of violence inflicted on children these days in his neighborhood. If the cops can't do anything, he'd do something anyway! As you can probably guess, the poor guy's intense staring at the children around him and his scowling at their parents would soon be misconstrued into something more sinister, with unhappy results to follow. This is a great read, a chilling portrayal of how easily we can see monsters in all the wrong places in an ordinary environment, but the author's effort at giving me a "literary" style ambiguous ending kills the story. That moment screams "trying too hard to get me to take the author seriously" way too much. The story is going very well, and it would have been absolutely perfect if the last paragraph had been removed. If it had ended abruptly with the previous paragraph - perfect. But it hadn't, so this one is a bit of a botched effort.
Marc de Faoite's Mamak Murder Mystery is a standard local neighborhood "Siapa bunuh itu India punya orang lar?" story, but with the take-home message of how we tend to view immigrant workers in Malaysia as sub-human species not worthy of care or respect. Oh, and politicians are corrupt pigs, so if you can get some leverage to force them to share their goodies with you, good for you. This story is ordinary, and the take-home message is... okay. I mean, the author could have made his message more hard-hitting if he had Bangladeshi or Indonesian illegal immigrants spotlighted here, as Indian mamak workers generally have it pretty good compared to those two groups of people.
Shaz Johar channels Alfred Hitchcock in Asian Angel, in which a paranoid starlet suspects that her husband is having an affair with a younger diva and acts with appropriate melodrama. This is amusing story, but it's nothing extraordinary as I'm a big fan of those movies and TV series and I've seen twists and turns like those in this story many times before. I actually guessed the twist correctly two pages into this story.
Shih-Li Kow's A Gift Of Flowers follows a bouquet of flowers as it moves from a seething mistress down along an assortment characters. This is a standard device featured in stories done by people who think it'd be so cool to natter about a day in the "life" of a coin or a dollar note or whatever, because, really, I've come across such story many times before and one more typical story of this nature won't hurt, right? Well, it won't hurt, but it won't make much of any impact on me either. Maybe if it had been a hypodermic needle passed around, I'd be intrigued.
Next is another "flower" story, Fadzlishah Johanabas's Kiss From A Rose, which sees a charming guy seducing the female friends of the object of his affection so that he can isolate her completely from them. Nothing a pair of pliers or a visit from the heroine of the first story can't fix, so I'm hard-pressed to give a care about this story.
Dina Zaman coos After Dark, My Love, which sees the heroine telling me, the reader, about the sordid things that happen in KL, mostly to do with blowjobs from trannies and other fun stuff. Honey, I've been approached by pimps in hotel lobbies in KL, and I've heard far more sordid stories from my days counseling troubled teens (I know, shut up). If this story really had featured some truly sordid moments, then it would have worked. As it is, this is a story that would titillate probably only the most sheltered folks from the most backward areas of Sarawak ("Abang! KL ada pondan lar, ALAMAK!"), and I doubt they would easily find copies of this book, so the whole point of this story is quite bewildering.
Eeleen Lee tells of a fortune teller who wants frowning faces at the mechanical oracle opposite his stall in The Oracle Of Truth, even as the man tries to awkwardly court a regular performer that catches his eye. This one is actually shaping up to be a good story... until the author falls into the horribly clichéd "Let's just have a big vehicle hit the sod in the end because this gimmick is going to raise my literary cred by +1,000!" trap and comes out looking like a try-hard wannabe. The stupid movie City Of Angels used this same turd plot device - that's how much "literary credibility" it has.
Kris Williamson's Chasing Butterflies In The Night, on the other hand, is a brilliant story that fits the theme of the anthology perfectly. What starts out as a standard "serial killer kills whores" tale soon evolves into something far more... complicated and entertaining. I really like this one for catching me unawares, well played on the author's part.
I'm still not sure what Shivani Sivagurunathan's The Dualist is about. I can't get past phrases like "the hour of owls, cockroaches and mythical demons", "frantic voice of a destructed man", "a winged effulgent dot that sprayed health and amnesia", and worst of all, "the shape of Bujang's nipples, geometrically precise discs that transported Billy back to the solar nebula". I'm afraid I'm just too much of a philistine to appreciate such pointlessly self-indulgent and meaningless throwing together of every pretty word the author can find in a thesaurus in hope that I would be impressed by the resulting verbal diarrhea. When one resorts to calling nipples "geometrically precise discs", it's safe to say that the plot has been lost, completely and utterly.
Khairulnizam Bakeri's Vanished was originally in Bahasa Malaysia, and it was translated by Nabila Najwa for this anthology. It's... shockingly romantic. A tale of a young lady encountering a charismatic musician at KL Sentral and discovering that he is much more than what he seems to be at first, this story isn't noir as much as it is a feel-good tale of love and healing. Not that I am complaining, as I'm all for happy endings. I'm taken by surprise, that's all, and while I like this story, I wonder whether its inclusion is a way for me to decompress and feel good about life again after encountering the assault of geometric nipples in the previous story.
Now, we go into horror territory, starting with Megat Ishak's cheerfully gruesome Cannibal Vs. Ah Long. With a title like that, and the unapologetic gore in this story, I can only give it my two thumbs up. I'm not sure about the portrayal of Ah Longs, our enterprising "private" moneylenders, as comparable to other scums of society, though. Ah Longs don't predate - their "victims" go to them willingly, agree to the high interests, and spend that money, so I'm not sure if we can so simply blame Ah Longs for the plight of these "victims". The real crooks, if you ask me, are the banks. Oh, and can someone tell me how our "hero" can hide a foot-long machete in the rear end of his pants?
Speaking of machetes, Dayang Noor presents The Machete And Me, which is like an average spooky Korean movie involving a possessed object and a disbelieving heroine, but without much of a back story or a context for the spooky happenings, this one feels like a half-baked tale designed just to scare me without telling me why I should be scared.
Amir Hafizi presents The Unbeliever, which is basically a tale of Cthulhu mythos transported to the seaside in "an underdeveloped part of Selangor". There's our hero, accompanied by a pregnant woman and her beau, traveling to a village full of weird people. If you have read enough stories by HP Lovecraft and all those authors wanting to smear Dagon's aquatic goo all over their pages, then you will see the plot twists coming from a mile away. This one is a decent read, and the protagonist feels more human and sympathetic than the usual "idiot English scholar coming here to scrutinize at fish statues and look for his missing buddy" stereotypes that populate such stories. It doesn't deviate much from the rest of the formula, however, so it's too predictable for its own good.
Brian Gomez gets lots of my love for the upfront and hilarious political incorrectness that riddles Mud, a tale of a cheerfully racist and amoral businessman who won't let anything get in the way of his wants and desires, but this story is completely killed by the last line. The last line openly shifts the blame of the character's behavior to the racist treatment he was subjected to when he was younger. This story was working so well when it lets me make my own judgment as I read the story, and, while racism does play a role in shaping that fellow to be what he is, that last sentence oversimplifies matters, turning the protagonist into a woobie when he is anything but. Take away the last three sentences of this story and it would have been the best of this anthology. As it is, it's a fun but fatally flawed story.
I'm not sure most of the time where the noir in KL Noir: Red is, but some of these stories push the envelope cheerfully and I can get behind that. It's just that most of these stories seem content to be familiar and predictable tropes taken from grindhouse or exploitation films and stories, placed in a local setting, when I feel that the anthology could have been so much more. Brian Gomez is on the right track, Adib Zaini ain't bad at all, but I'm not sure about most of the rest. Still, it's a pretty interesting locally-flavored anthology. Let's hope future anthologies can stand on their own merits after the novelty factor wears off.
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