Author: Chin Jian Xiong

Chin Jian Xiong is a critic and poet living in Singapore.
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An imagined landscape of the Rio Grande from Jessica Schneider's novel, "Human Stuff".

For A Lonely While: On Jessica Schneider’s “Human Stuff”

Art opens within a necessary season.

Indeed, it did in me, for my season primarily wanted succour. Adolescence, unstable time, grew the need to grow against a reality taken in. And, I admit – it was The Catcher in the Rye that placated that need, sent me towards the altar of Art. Holden’s woes seemed mine, drew me, and I turned pages to find my mirror. It was only later I learned Art could be much more, for a mirror need shatter that tells much truth; when behind – infinite lies.

So angsty works will always be in demand: the need will long exist. Yet, a certain arbitrariness resides in therapy when woe wants little but its own identification. The works in which I found my peace were, in hindsight, of variable quality: anime such as Neon Genesis Evangelion, the stories of David Foster Wallace, the novels of Herman Hesse. Some, I would realize, said deeper things, used angst as interrogation rather than end. As many a mature reader of Salinger would note, even Holden has an unreliability that implies a reality beyond him. He is, after all, recounting his tale from a sanitorium, broken, not a voice of authority. But such a work has limits. Nowadays, particularly in YA Lit, there are too many Holdens: clone Holdens, zombie Holdens. In the end, succour is lucrative. […]

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A stylized shot of Nixon with his Cabinet from Oliver Stone's "Nixon" (1995)

Better Than Sincere: On Oliver Stone’s “Nixon” (1995)

The America in me belongs to no exterior reality, a foggy beast that sleeps in a global mind. This piecemeal country I have never known, merely seen, is loud, brash, decadent, and is beautiful as wildernesses are beautiful. I cannot trace where this country began: perhaps in flickers of television, western cartoons imported to local channels. It germinated in the sort of juvenile fuzz that would background the onscreen spectacle of superheroes and caricatures. Soon, the internet would broaden it, and books deepen its avenues. But it is not real, cannot be real. The buildings forever deny trespass; the inhabitants wear shadow faces.

Safe to say, I am not the intended audience for Oliver Stone’s film, “Nixon”. Though I knew brief details of Watergate, bits and pieces of the president’s trajectory into villain of the American political mythos, he amounted to little more than an encyclopaedia entry to me. Stone’s film deals with much of that historical detritus. Nixon sits in conference with talking heads. They spew out names and schemes that whizz by, ephemeralia of the moment. What concerns me is the undercurrent: the way actor Anthony Hopkins poses in his power, fidgety, immersed. It is clearly what Stone’s Nixon lives for, despite the paranoia, the humiliation and gradual distancing of all that holds him close. Oceans away, I recognize that intensity, man’s love for his own show. I see that love within the personages of my own environs. In art, it turns out, the unintended audience is more important. […]

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A bust purportedly depicting Sargon of Akkad.

Great Man Out Of Time: On Dan Schneider’s “A Notch Of Eternity”

Think “tragedy”. What fits? Greek ones, the struggle of gods and mortals. Shakespearean ones, perhaps, involving the grand relations of power, and everyone dying at the end. The more modern might think of Arthur Miller’s dramas, involving little men whose middle-class worlds, desperately clung, are fated to crumble. To call Dan Schneider’s play on Sargon of Akkad, A Notch Of Eternity, a tragedy, is reductive. Great works always escape easy classification. They also illuminate old ones in novel ways. What does it mean to call a play where no blood is spilt, or spilt only in memories, a tragedy? For Dan’s Sargon never really suffers external pangs, is shown mostly in peace, has led what one might even call a rather fulfilling existence. Yet, it is the indifference of the cosmos that pangs in him.

Deftly, the expected tragic tropes are evaded. Sargon of Akkad’s enemy really is time, the fate of being a great man born in a wrong time. Unlike the assassin’s blade, the jealous harem, these enemies are invisible, known little to most even as they wear away their names in eternity. Sargon is aware of this, obscurely. Within, he fights. But little can be done with human hands, without technologies or the accumulations of thought. Sargon is a stepping-stone, cannot be anything more than such. Sometimes, the only course of action is to accept this. I know I will never survive to see art’s greatest revolutions. There is some grief in that, but Sargon’s rings greater. […]

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Chris Ware, author of "Rusty Brown"

Mere Reaction: Why Chris Ware’s “Rusty Brown” Fails

In reading the comics of Chris Ware again, long after the dazzle of his formal novelty had dimmered, a word came to mind: ‘reaction’. Now, let’s excise all narrow political connotations and deal with the essence of the term: that any swing too much in one direction necessarily begets a counterforce, less because it has value than simply that it must exist, as uniqueness is a perennial human want, though little understood. And, as much contemporary media is infantile, democratic in the basest sense, and abusive of well-rooted psychological patterns, alternatives are almost destined to crawl out of the margins of the mainstream. In the most lucrative, and most besieged mediums, that of comics, video games, and animation, reaction creates a mirror-world of seriousness, clutches at ‘the grown-ups table’, an aesthetic to counteract the frivolities, the ‘sell-outs’, that is consciously unfun, unentertaining, uninteresting, and bloated with consciousness itself. None of this determines that the products be mediocre, as Art sometimes has a way of slipping past intentions. Yet what it means is these works are subject to the same dice-rolls that plagues all pabulum. This is because reaction is also a pattern; a nobler pattern, but a pattern all the same. […]

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A stylization of Martin Guerre, French peasant, depicted in Janet Lewis's The Wife of Martin Guerre.

Facts of a Face: on Janet Lewis’s “The Wife of Martin Guerre”

The more one looks back, the more time crowds, with history itself entrapped. Ages slant, personal becomes personnel, while facts flourish. A writer writing about the distant historical past may find such a subject liberating as, already packaged, the facts never blur the way they do in moving time. Yet, art is never about the facts. What the historical fiction writer wishes were true plays as much a role as the truth itself. And, to make great art, the facts must always be a canvas, upon which faces ambiguate.

While reading The Wife of Martin Guerre by Janet Lewis I was struck by how comfortable she was with facts. In this novella, Lewis crafts, with alluring prose, the case of Martin Guerre: a well-known historical episode in 16th-century France where a peasant woman was fooled by an impostor playing her husband for three years, after the real one’s disappearance years back. In about a hundred pages Lewis creates a simulacra of French peasant life, reinventing their customs and livelihood amidst lush nature. The extent of her research shows on every page. She follows Bertrande, the aforementioned wife, first as a young girl marrying Martin in one of those underage peasant marriages, then her married life, the years of loneliness after the disappearance, the deluge of doubts after the impostor’s reunion, and the case that unfolds when she finally brings her doubts before the French courts. Neatly packaged, The Wife of Martin Guerre terminates where sufficient: the real Martin Guerre returns at the last moment and is revealed to be a cur; the imposter is executed, even though he may have been a better husband to Bertrande; and the omniscient narrator of the story adds a bit of historical ambiguity to the ending with the following paragraph: “Of Martin Guerre, nothing more is recorded, whether he returned to the wars or remained in Artigues, nor is there further record of Bertrande de Rols, his wife. But when hate and love have together exhausted the soul, the body seldom endures for long.” Life returns to facts, plunged in their mystery. […]

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Stylized photo of Helen Vendler next to a checkmate chess board.

The Issue To Create: Debunking a Helen Vendler Myth With (Good) Poetry

“The issue of a good poem must be urgent to the poet.”

– The Art of Shakespeare Sonnets by Helen Vendler

…and the issue of literary critics is how they make banalities or bullshit sound pithy. Thus we have the above statement, which, in essence, translates to: “Poets make good shit when they care about their shit”. Contextually, this is excerpted from Helen Vendler’s analysis of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 01, where she makes the case that the sonnet is more limited than Shakespeare’s No. 17, because 17 deals with “issues of mortality and corruption”, which Shakespeare gave more of a damn about, as opposed to the “dynastic question” of 01. Well, Helen is half-right. Sonnet 01 is worse than Sonnet 17. Only, the mechanism is less a matter of the shit Shakespeare cared about, than that, simply, Sonnet 01 was made when Shakespeare’s mind was snoozing, and 17 when that same mind was musing. Having reached the stage where I can call myself a poet who has written a couple good poems, or better, two of which you can see over at Cosmoetica’s Vers Magnifique section, I now have the privilege of saying: Helen, YOU’RE FULL OF SHIT.

Let me clarify a couple things. This article serves as a poetic self-evaluation of my current scant successes in the realm of poesizing. What it isn’t, though, is a step-by-step guide for other amateur poets. Maybe you’ll find clues, a couple of useful hints here and there. What I’ll be focusing on is what didn’t matter. Some myth-busting to prevent the Helen Vendler types from clogging things up with distractions. With the biographical fluff, in other words. Stuff like whether you should write by hand or type. Whether extensive research helps. Whether having a strong stance about your subject really matters. And, unlike other writers who tend to be coy and mysterious about their actual craft, I intend to be thorough and lay it all out, to the best of my memory. […]