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review: singapore girl by james eckardt

In my continuing quest to become familiar with the Singapore literary scene, I'll occasionally be reviewing books either by local authors or published by local indie presses. The following book was released by Singapore publisher Monsoon Books, which has an impressive catalogue of both fiction and non-fiction titles.

Singapore Girl by James Eckardt [ Select Books | BookSense | Amazon ] is a memoir of an American's visit to Singapore in 1975, when he fell in love with a pre-operative transgender (M2F) Tamil prostitute named Milly. Compelling despite the overly macho tone, a classic western-guy-meets-eastern-girl-and-wants-to-save-her-from-herself story. However, the odd structure, and shift from first person to third then back to first, has the effect of jumbling the narrative.

The overly long prologue has all the tone and context of a "So, no shit, there we were" bar story, describing an LSD trip that has no relevance to the rest of the book, and the sailboat trip with Eckart's friend Erik that ends them up in Singapore, where the story properly starts. The whole purpose of the prologue seems to be to announce, "Hey look what a wild bad-ass I was in my youth!" but it's extraneous material, and at the very least could have been compressed to a paragraph or two of set-up.

The narrative proper, split up into three parts and an epilogue, deals with the love affair, and of the transsexual scene on Bugis Street in the seventies. Among the many lovingly-described scenes of intense sex, Eckart has to reconcile his feelings for a 21-year-old girl who is still biologically a boy, when he has previously established himself through his exploits in the Peace Corps and elsewhere as a staunchly heterosexual philanderer. It is clear that he falls for Milly, but even as he describes Milly's driving ambition for gender reassignment surgery so that she can fully become a woman, physically and legally, and her constant preening in front of the mirror, it's never clear that he understands her as a real person and not just as the projected image of the girl who has ensorcelled him. Being a memoir, the reader can only experience the events through Eckardt's viewpoint, and though the prose flows much more descriptively than in the prologue, Milly never becomes more than a two-dimensional character, a person in her own right. When she dumps him for a Frenchman who has pledged to support her, it feels less like a tragedy than yet another anecdote that he could tell over a pitcher of beer one day.

But that's not all. Two more chapters, "Ten Years Later" and "Thirty Years Later," and another epilogue follow. "Ten Years Later" reveals that the entire previous narrative (excepting the prologue) was the manuscript that Eckardt wrote for Milly in order to win her back (which didn't work). He backfills a few descriptions and experiences in an attempt to flesh out the previous story, but by that point, the reader has established certain images and places in the mind, and the retroactive "corrections" just feel repetitive and too after-the-fact. "Thirty Years Later" brings us pretty much right up to the present day, when Eckart receives an email from the Frenchman, and finds out what has become of Milly during the intervening years, prompting him to assemble Singapore Girl properly and find a publisher for it. The second epilogue is poignant and touching, but it doesn't make up for the clumsiness that is the rest of the book.

The structure of Singapore Girl makes a certain amount of chronological sense, but the memoir form feels unnecessarily constrained in this case. Instead of giving the reader the error-filled manuscript that Eckardt originally wrote in a white-hot 36-hour heat as an unpublished 28-year-old, why not shape it with the thirty years of writing experience that he'd gained since then, tempered by perspective and hindsight? Instead, the reader is left feeling as if he's just endured an alcohol and marijuana-fueled marathon bar anecdote that has left no impression upon the mind, and will soon be easily forgotten.

Comments

( 6 circumlocutions — Add to the Intelligent Discourse )
silk_noir
Nov. 18th, 2007 10:44 am (UTC)
I'd read it as a beach book....
jlundberg
Nov. 18th, 2007 11:22 am (UTC)
That might be the best way to read it, although the price point (US$15.95) is a little high for a book you might accidentally get sand in or dump in the ocean or have bleached by the sun.
dobrovolets
Nov. 18th, 2007 11:47 am (UTC)
Points for good use of the word "ensorcelled".
jlundberg
Nov. 18th, 2007 11:50 am (UTC)
Thanks! I haven't used that one in a while. :)
(Anonymous)
Jan. 27th, 2008 01:49 am (UTC)
Singapore Girl
You must be a very nice man to give such a poorly written book a more than fair review. And what does Eckardt's wife and family think of his writing a book about how he lived with a pre-op. Very strange.
jlundberg
Jan. 27th, 2008 02:03 am (UTC)
Re: Singapore Girl
I appreciate the compliment, although more than niceness it's an attempt to be even-handed as a reviewer and critic. No book is perfect, and I try to explore the goods and bads with as objective an eye as I can. Sadly, there were far more bads to this book than goods.

As for Eckardt's wife and family, I have no idea how they've reacted to the book and to that part of his life. And I'm not as interested in that, as it's a much more personal issue.
( 6 circumlocutions — Add to the Intelligent Discourse )

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