I always look forward to reading locally-published English fiction. Granted, a lot of them out there are bad, but there are also gems, brilliant in their own right. When Buku Fixi announced the launch of its English imprint, Fixi Novo, I was excited, ecstatic even.
Fixi publishes pulp fiction, whose origin started in America in the late 1890s. Back then, short stories and serialized novels were published in magazines using paper made of pulp, making the magazines cheaper & more accessible. The quality of writing was secondary. Fixi & its English imprint Novo aim to continue the legacy of pulp fiction--not by using cheap paper, but by honoring the spirit of accessible fiction. Language purists scorn every single Fixi novel, but the younger generations devour these books with a passion.
Back to the book in question. I don't often write book reviews because there's not much to say, usually. Either I love it, I don't, or I find it blah. Kris Williamson's "Son Complex" has moved me to share words on it.
Not in a good way, however.
In essence, this novel is about a young man from Florida whose Caucasian mother passed away (for reasons not stated). After her death, his aunt gave him a set of letters, correspondences during the year his mother spent in Sabak Bernam, Malaysia. He never knew his father, and his late mother never spoke of the topic; the one clear thing is that he has mixed parentages. He discovers that his mother had a love affair with a Malay man who, after almost 25 years out of the picture, turns out to be a prominent politician with a wife and son. With nothing to lose, the young man, Aaron, travels to Malaysia to learn about his mother's past & possibly about his father as well. He appears at the politician's doorstep, assuming he's the father, and latches on to the family.
Since part of Novo's manifesto is manufacturing pulp fiction, I can forgive the paper cut characters, the stilted dialogs, the racial and class stereotyping, as well as the almost non-existent storyline. The book is 1/3 personalized tour of Kuala Lumpur, 1/3 dissertation on Malaysian social and political issues, and 1/3 story. I can almost forgive the author for trying to cram every imaginable social and political dysfunction that makes Malaysia...well, Malaysia. What I cannot forgive, and the reason for the 2/5 review on Goodreads, is how the author breached his contract.
There are many rules to writing fiction--more than half of them broken in this novel--but one of the rules that cannot be broken is honoring the author-reader contract. In exchange for the reader's time and suspension of belief, the author promises to lead the reader to a satisfying conclusion. It doesn't have to be a happy ending, but the story has to end in a manner that the reader doesn't feel cheated.
I was cheated.
Throughout the novel, the author doesn't describe much about the protagonist, Aaron. We only get to know that he has a wiry frame, and that he has brown eyes (his mother had green eyes). Maybe it's a plot device for the climatic revelation. However, no one in his right mind cannot identify a person with a mixed heritage of Caucasian/Chinese, Caucasian/Malay or Caucasian/Indian. There are distinct features to differentiate these parentages. The author, in a typical Mat Salleh manner, has the audacity to assume that all Caucasian/Asian mixes are the same in order to pounce a trick ending on his readers.
Ending spoiler alert: don't read further if you intend to read the book.
Talk about deus ex machina. An author absolutely cannot introduce a new element in the climatic scene. That's cheating. Major cheating. Total breach of contract. I bought the book, all excited and ready to fall in love, got turned off by the agendas this novel tries to cram in one sitting, but I finished the book at half-past one in the morning pissed off.
"Son Complex" should be shelved under creative non-fiction or social studies. I stand by my view that it's more a dissertation on the social and political scenes of Malaysia than a novel. It doesn't have a stake. Aaron has nothing to lose, and as a character, he is not changed at the end of the journey. Sure, Iskandar is involved in a road traffic accident after he is told that Aaron is (allegedly) his half-brother, but their relationship & the horror of losing Iskandar should have been developed more. The characters are inconsistent. For someone who thinks himself as superior to third-worlder Malaysians, Aaron at times acts like a villager thrust into a big city. He tries to exit the house by scaling the gates. Like, what? For a prominent, silver-tongued politician, Nasri accepts Aaron's allegation that he's the father, and invites Aaron to stay at his house. Come on. A politician will do whatever it takes to protect his reputation. He should have demanded a paternity test right away. But no. Then he spews this crap about only acknowledging Aaron as his son if Aaron becomes a Muslim. Because everyone knows that Muslim is Malay and Malay is Muslim. The hell. For a pious Imam's daughter, Datin doesn't don a hijab (because Datins don't wear hijabs, I suppose), and is quick to judge others. I guess the only significance of being an Imam's daughter is the revelation of incestuous rape. Because seemingly pious Malay men rape their daughters. Iskandar, who leads a double life, is the only one that seems real. Oh, and also Mina, the silent maid.
This novel is all about the agendas. If you have issues against certain political parties and the class and racial dissension of Malaysia, this book will surely tickle you at the right places. If you don't really care for story and characterization, sure, this book is an accessible, cheap read.
At RM18.90, this book is certainly a steal, considering that the average price of an English novel is RM30. However, the story itself should not be cheap. After all, among pulp writers were the venerated and highly celebrated Ray Bradbury, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Issac Asimov and Agatha Christie.
Would I buy another Kris Williamson's novel? If he promises to respect his readers and follow the absolute rules of fiction, sure. I don't have anything against the author; I just have everything against this book. "Son Complex" is a major disappointment. I sincerely hope the author will do better next time.