Dave Chua’s award-winning Gone Case takes a familiar literary genre, the bildungsroman, and sets it in late 20th-century Singapore, with poignant results. Twelve-year-old Yong struggles with schoolwork, develops a crush on a friend’s older sister, weathers threats of violence from a bully, and takes care of his younger brother, all while watching his parents’ marriage fall apart. Although it’s told in present tense, it’s clear that Yong is recalling events of his youth from a more mature perspective, maintaining his younger self’s innocent interpretation of life as he knows it, while telegraphing to readers the significant truths that the young boy cannot yet see. He narrates with quiet, impartial restraint, from a distance, gradually unspooling a story in which major events are observed and recorded though not yet fully understood.
Gone Case takes place primarily in an unnamed government housing estate, one of many built by the Housing Development Board, where the majority of Singaporeans live. Composed of utilitarian, identical flats, more recent projects piled into hi-rise tower blocks, they are a far cry from the colorful cosmopolitan sights that casual visitors are likely to encounter at Orchard Road, Sentosa, Universal Studios, Clarke Quay, or Raffles Place. Referred to as the Heartlands with equal parts affection and irony, these tend to show up more often in Singaporean literature and cinema, perhaps because this is where the grind of day to day life takes place.
If Gone Case is any indication, it can be a soul-crushing grind. The action transpires on building rooftops, in stairwells, hallways, and playgrounds, all indistinguishable from one another in their concrete drabness. Despite being occupied by human beings, the Heartlands seem to constrict people into living similar lives, regimented by routine. The narrator hears a child crying somewhere in his building and tries to locate its source, but is thwarted by the other sounds of human activity echoing through the complex, and gives up.
Two other isolated moments are emblematic of the sadness of living in such conditions. In one, Yong and his friend discover a tree growing in the darkness of a storm drain, its leaves almost touching the grate. While his friend waters it with urine, Yong wishes out loud that it doesn’t grow any further, “[b]ecause if grows too well sure get chopped down.” In another, Yong and his brother Ti come upon a kingfisher perched near another storm drain, its vivid blue and orange coloring standing out against the brown water, concrete, and garbage. Almost automatically, Ti runs towards it and scares it off, understanding that such beauty would never survive this environment.
These young characters sense that to blossom beyond the norm is to be pushed back, forced into conformity by laws of family, school, or government. Throughout the novel runs a pervasive sense of cautiousness, and a concern for propriety and following rules. Happy endings are reserved only for those who submit to these conditions, and the narrative itself seems to understand this as well.
The title of the novel signals its main challenge—getting past the idioms of Singaporean patois, a pleasant dialect that teaches you its logic the more you hear or read of it. While the narration is in “correct” English, the characters’ speech is rendered in accurate Singlish, effectively evoking the novel’s milieu.
—He already studying for PSLE liao.
—Holidays also study? Xiao.
—He got tuition teacher right?
—Yah, everyday. Got computer quiz, got mother, got assessment. Kiasi. Kiasu.
—Kiasi, Kiasu. You? Got study or not?
—Don’t have lah. Don’t even know what the books look like. You?
—Wahleow. Your ma make you?
—OK OK. Means I must also start.
—No need lah.
—See how man.
This, along with other details, such as the metal grill front doors on flats, British nouns, and the humid weather impart a strong sense of place. It’s this immersion, a full year in this locale, and this boy’s life, that the reader obtains from this novel. Although the narrator’s days are bound by routine and monotony, life-changing events jar his world before being subsumed into the past. The phrase “gone case” translates loosely into “lost cause,” and it bespeaks a kind of fatalism that allows the novel’s characters to shrug off setbacks and tragedies so that they can keep moving forward. In this novel, there is no overarching goal for the hero to accomplish, no significant epiphanies, no episodic adventures; just things happening and life moving on implacably. The impact of events is flattened over time, an effect coming partially from the restraint of the hero’s narration.
One of the running storylines of the novel concerns Yong’s inability to keep up at school, perhaps because of the stress he experiences at home with his grandmother’s death, the pressures from his extended family, and his parents’ separation. This lagging is a serious matter, for a crucial exam is coming up, one that will allow him to advance to a higher academic level if he passes. He applies himself obediently, and his story ends on a hopeful note.
His friend Liang, the more compelling, memorable, and tragic character, is not as lucky. Already portrayed as a kind of rebel because he steals and collects stones and pebbles that he finds beautiful, he becomes unable or unwilling to cope with the demands of society. His older sister is consorting with the local bully and petty criminal, who uses her for sex and beats her. When her boyfriend is jailed, she attempts suicide and is rescued by Liang, who recounts the incident with a perverse lightheartedness. Later, she falls by default into the only sort of job (and life) suitable for a girl like her.
Liang becomes more and more depressed and nihilistic, and in the end, he is neatly dispatched in the narrative, without fanfare or mourning; we learn that his family has moved elsewhere, out of sight and mind, in the same way that the bully is locked away in a boys’ home. Order prevails and protruding nails are hammered in, though perhaps at the expense of the kind of beauty found in the odd, unusual, or unexpected.
Next: An interview with Dave Chua.