‘A Certain Exposure’ is certainly not my idea of exposure to Singapore books (review)

Reading Crazy Rich Asians actually left me hungry for more books about my own country of Singapore, so I started with a 2014 book by Cambridge University and Harvard Law School graduate Jolene Tan. A Certain Exposure, the Singaporean author’s debut novel, is described in the blurb as a “classic coming-of-age tale doubled across two vividly individual brothers.”

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Indeed, the book follows the story of a pair of twins in Singapore, Andrew and Brian, and both the blurb and its first chapter establish that the former dies in the tale due to “explosive events” (figuratively. There are no bombs in this book.)

And that’s… pretty much what the book is about: Andrew dies, and Brian… well, he doesn’t do much to investigate or avenge that. Apart from briefly pondering over a Polaroid of his brother and his male love interest, and verbally defending his memory to homophobic relatives at his wake, A Certain Exposure is more concerned with Andrew than it is with Brian. The relationship of the twins and its rediscovery are not truly the thrust of the book; it is intermittent and poorly fleshed.

The story begins mundane and doesn’t improve significantly until the final chapter. It lacks a heartbeat, flatlining even as the chapters switch back and forth between Andrew’s funeral in 1998 and the twins’ formative years. Tan opted not to dedicate its perspective to a character to anchor the tale, causing poor focus in storytelling. The book begins with Brian as a device to foster curiosity within the reader, but eagerly abandons him and trails Andrew for around most of the novel instead.

In fact, the story is instead anchored by the author’s vantage point. When a 18-year old Andrew comes into brief physical contact with a male classmate in one scene, Tan tells the scene in most the driest, dispassionate writing ever; impossible for a hormonal teenager (“As it’s uncountable molecules clicked together in their unfathomably complex game of three-dimensional billiards, messy things were bound to spill over now and then; you couldn’t avoid the occasional meaningless spikes of chemical noises.”)

There is little warmth in this Harvard graduate’s writing, which reads more like a third-person account or report of factual events angled through the lens of the author eager to express personal sociopolitical views in flowery language.

Failing to anchor by character is one problem, but generously investing in minor characters is unforgivable. At different instances, the book leaps on a bizarre tangent by following two supporting, almost irrelevant characters. First is their lesbian aunt, whose backstory is described in unnecessarily great detail that bears little contribution to the point. The later half tails Andrew’s discipline master, whose subplot of handling a student rape situation is really a backdoor for the author to share her views regarding gender inequality.

Tan favors telling more showing, particularly potentially dramatic scenes which are instead sacrificed for soulless, passing one-liners. Dialogue is unbearably minimal, even though the author actually shines in this aspect because of the characters’ authentic, true Singaporean voices.

The book is not entirely painful. As a story primarily set in the late 80’s and 90’s, it  captures the harsh reality of Singapore’s discreetly racist, sexist, homophobic and elitist sentiments. It is a shame that the crumbly storytelling and its basic lack of a point fails this otherwise powerful theme.

I can’t say I enjoyed A Certain Exposure, both story and telling. Its ending is quite interesting, but I was more amazed by how I managed to get there. This is definitely not my idea of getting into Singapore literature. To think they say don’t judge a book by its cover…

Rating: 1½/5

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