Fixi Novo, RM19.90, ISBN 978-967-0374-46-8
Noir Fiction, 2013
KL Noir: White has “18 unfiltered stories” – hence the cigarette box cover art – about the darker side of life in Kuala Lumpur. To be fair, “18 unfiltered stories set in Ulu Yam” doesn’t have the same commercial appeal, so you can’t blame the people behind this anthology for coming up with yet another anthology about the rear end of the capital city of Malaysia. With everything associated with the word “noir”, this one claims to have stories packed with moral ambiguity, violence and passion, et cetera. In other words, life as usual.
Nadia Khan starts the show with Savages, in which our female protagonist bumps into a boxer-or-you-could-say-that fellow that stays at the same building block as she when they get into the same elevator. Of course, things are never what they seem in an anthology that screams “Noir!” every five seconds. This one is a decent read, although there is nothing too surprising here. In fact, I can say that the author is just rehashing a tried-and-true trope that has been done many times before. I like it better when those Japanese directors make movies out of such tropes, especially when they add in gruesome acts of torture. Here, it’s just too short to do much more than to get me say, “Ooh, so this is like what happens when Lorde writes a song after she experiences a break-up with her boyfriend!”
Foong Li Mei has a quaint story in Burger without Sides. In a dystopian future, Kuala Lumpur is reduced into a ghetto version of Gotham City. Criminals – all with costumes and cool names – and cops share a same passion: the old-school real burgers of a guy named Pin. Pin insists that his burger stall is a Ramly burger paradise in Switzerland: no violence is allowed and everyone, good or bad, is allowed to eat here in peace as long as the rule is observed. Some superheroes beg to differ, however, and try to upset the status quo by making Pin choose between them and the bad guys. I like this one – it’s quirky and the take-home message is delivered without being too preachy. This one could be tightened up, however. There are obvious filler moments, such as the parts about Pin’s back story, which end up having little impact on the story arc. This story could also use a less obvious and more creative title.
Terence Toh’s Mad about Mary is about a homeless beggar’s infatuation with a young lady he sees taking the Bukit Nanas Monorail Station regularly. This can’t end too happily, right? Predictable to the point of almost being clichéd, this one doesn’t deliver much other than the novelty of a familiar story line taking place in a neighborhood I am familiar with.
M SHANmughalingam’s Flowers for KK deals with the darker side of bigamy and the chauvinistic “traditional” ways of a Indian household. This one has me thinking of an over the top Bollywood melodrama. The female characters all but cackle like harpies, and I can only wonder whether I’m supposed to laugh at these people or take them a little bit seriously. I do know of unhappy Indian women trapped in marriages with men that are just like the guy described in this story, and the author succeeds in capturing the turbulent emotions of women trapped in a relationship with such men. However, the melodrama in this story ends up working against the fundamental premise, making this seem like a parody of sorts.
Angeline Woon’s Big Bertha and the Stones of Justice is also over the top in its melodramatic elements, but unlike the previous story, this one works. Well, not as a good story, but as a delicious cathartic experience that may leave a few readers feeling like they need a cold shower afterwards. It’s basically a tale about pent-up anger one may harbor towards snatch thieves and other scumbags that prey on folks, as well as towards the casual way the cops regard such cases. When one reads in the papers of old women murdered just because someone wanted the purse these women were carrying, or when one ends up at the receiving end of these scumbags’ “hospitality” and then spends two hours staring in outraged disbelief at the cop in charge as that idiot accused one of “asking for it” (ahem), then yes, this tale of vigilante justice may just bring a happy smile to the face.
Terence Tang’s Yummy Meats has killer condoms that feed on men’s penises. Hmm, I think I had come across those things before. Anyway, this one has crude but cute humor that the old coots at the Ministry of Information, Communication and Culture may not approve. I can’t help but to give two thumbs up to toilet humor that works.
Dipika Mukherjee’s The Bleeding Tree is easily the most erotic story in this collection, mostly because it some nice build-up of believable sexual tension and some short foreplay scene that, astonishingly, er, works. A story of a marriage falling apart and ensuing adultery, this one boasts some pretty fine character introspection. I laugh out loud at the splat scene at the denouement, but I blame this on the lingering after effects of the previous story.
Maya Tan Abdullah’s The Man from Berali Carpets was previously published in the anthology Body 2 Body, which horrified some people in the country back in those days as it was a collection of LGBT-themed short stories. This one is a poignant tale of a closeted cop who fights back an attraction to the guy referenced in the title even as he tries very hard to be part of the homophobic fraternity of PDRM. This one is, like the previous story, very good at portraying the raw and turbulent psyche of the protagonist. I may not have been in that protagonist’s shoes, but I think I know his feelings, thanks to the author’s efforts here.
Eileen Lian’s My Father, The Hero, is shaping up to be a pretty good portrayal of a family with the father getting arrested by ISA for failing to dance in line with the ruling government, and then we have that twist ending. Okay, so now it’s a fabulously twisted “okay, I didn’t see that coming!” stumper of a story.
Hasrul Rizwan’s Dick was translated into English by Rumaizah Abu Bakar, which is a pity, I feel, as the story may just be more of a dirty joy to read if it was published here in its original language and form. Bahasa Malaysia, if you ask me, is a language that comes to life when we are being vulgar, as there is a beautiful cadence to each syllable of a “dirty” word. The story itself leaves a lot to be desired, though. It’s a tale of a man’s obsession with improving the size of his penis and how this obsession leads to a series of events that feel hollow, mostly because the whole thing feels like a disjointed narrative sequence. The ending has me thinking, “Okay… so what now?” and then realizing that I don’t really care to know the answer.
Lim Li Anne’s Time Agents is about three people going back in time to the May 13 racial riots. Despite the grim setting, this one feels like a curiously detached and white-washed young adult tale where the end message is, “Gosh, kiddies, racial riots are so bad because they are horrible, don’t we agree?” There is a startling lack of gritty, dirty, disgusting, disturbing crap in this one, so it ends up like a sheep that ends up falling into a cesspool. It doesn’t seem like this story belongs in this anthology. Surely there is an Alaf 21 anthology that it would feel more at home in?
Arif Zulkifli wins the award for the most gruesome story in this anthology with his gloriously vile piece Playtime, which is what you get when you put knives in a creepy kid’s hands. It would have been better if the author had given the protagonist a voice that resembles that of an eight-year old more. Right now, it reads like a monologue of an adult pretending to be a kid. It’s still a deliciously nasty story, though. I like it.
Beggars by Cheryna Zamrinor has a pretty interesting twist to the plot, and I do love how she succeeds in driving home how the mundane tedium of day-to-day life in the urban rat race can be a real terror in itself. However, the author doesn’t trust the reader to get the twists and turns of her story, and spoils the effect of her story considerably by being heavy handed in hitting the reader with these twists. The last sentence of the short story encapsulates the entire problem of this story in a nutshell: the author doesn’t trust her readers to get her brilliance, to the point that she basically inserts her presence into the story to slap the reader in the face and scream, “See? See! That’s my plot twist. I’m so clever, am I not? Say it! Say it!”
I really want to like Jimie Cheng’s The Banger because it has a serial killer running around setting off special fireworks in his or her male victims’ anuses. Unfortunately, this one has plot holes bigger than Jupiter, and the “twist” is actually one done to death many times before.
Hadi M Nor’s Breadwinner has a kid telling me of his father’s unusual job. It’s cute, I guess, but utterly lightweight compared to some of the more hard-hitting stories in this anthology.
Bathma Loshanee’s Jalan Masjid India tells of an unhappy woman, forced to keep working for a sex fiend of an employer for the money, and her fascination with a homeless man at Jalan Masjid India that may be more than what he seems to be. This one is another story that tries too hard to give me a twist only to have me rolling up my eyes and going, “Please, darling, let’s not try too hard.” The whole thing is too far-fetched even for this anthology.
Raja Faizal has a charming premise in The Aviator, Titanic & a Nightmare before Christmas, which sees a “chemist” who names his potent drugs after his favorite movies. Here, this fellow decides to supply a client with enough pills to kill that client’s wife (the money is good, you see), only to see red when the client reneges on payment. This one is about a smug protagonist who will find any excuse to gloat. The story is too short and too predictable to warrant such smugness, however. The whole thing feels like a short story that is way too impressed with its own mediocrity.
Finally, Amir Sharipuddin has Clippings, which basically sees Sweeney Todd migrating to Malaysia and setting up shop in Pasar Datok Keramat. Now, I’m all for slitting the throats of useless and corrupt politicians and government officials in my fiction, but come on now, how about a little more originality, for once? Perhaps by having our Salleh Todd kill his victims by shoving a big hair clipper up their rectums?
KL Noir: White is a mixed bag. Some stories work, some don’t. My biggest disappointment here, however, is how even the strongest stories can seem to be mere rehash of tried-and-true crime and thriller tropes. I think I may love this anthology more if the authors had pushed the envelope further and cheerfully brought on the noir some more.
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