Culture Diary (Dec ’21)

My 2021 in Review for Penang Art District

Recently, I was kindly asked to write a Year in Review of Malaysian Art for Penang Art District, for the third year in a row. I’m not sure why they keep asking me – after 3 years, I still consider myself a pretty marginal figure with little to no knowledge of what’s really going on. I think my reviews get more and more cynical as the years go by, but I’m not sure whether this might just be because I have less of an idea of what’s going on.

Anyway, you can find my 2021 year in review here.

I’m not too proud of it. It reads as too cynical, and it doesn’t convey accurately the sense of “dislocation” I feel. (It will become clearer later why I’m using air quotes.) The post comes to the conclusion that “things fall apart, the centre cannot hold,” but lumps together so many examples of “decentralisation” — from NFTs to site-specific exhibitions outside the art centre of Kuala Lumpur — without distinguishing between them. Overall it comes off unnuanced; and in hindsight I feel like I was just striving to arrive at a conclusion — striving, really, to actually conclude the year rather than just repeat disparate events that happened during it; to put a narrative spin on slippery, fragmented time, but losing nuance and generosity in the process. I really have no idea what’s going on most of the time. Most of the time, I’m just overwhelmed. I think the review conveyed that, at least.

I feel like I should clarify that I don’t think Sharon and I-Lann and Mok Yee’s exhibitions were part of this trend of using decentralisation as merely a fashionable buzzword. I think these people sincerely love the places they work in and their exhibitions strive to reflect this love. No, I think their works are sincere but, put in a wider context, I think they are examples of a growing self-sufficiency that is the result of the pandemic.

As the pandemic deepens, so too these overtures toward decentralisation. I’m not all sure how I feel about this concept, because maybe I mourn the “centralisation” of the art world. To me, KL is just a dream that never materialised, and I don’t see why people are rebelling against a concept of the city or art centre that isn’t even that powerful anyway. That all art events and their subsequent press coverage are centred in KL, to the exclusion of stuff happening elsewhere is true, but so what? What are these art events anyway, and who even wants to be part of them? Why would anyone on the fringes invest any libidinous energy in being jealous of what’s taking place in Kuala Lumpur anyway? Why even any overtures toward decentralisation, as if the city is so powerful to be deserving of an overt disavowal? When what’s going on in the centre is often just so exhausting, draining, and unnatural? When what’s going on in the centre is often just so superficial and transient and egoistic?

My thoughts on NFTs however are the same if not worse. They’re a firecracker spectacle meant to induce a sense of panic that the world is rapidly changing when in fact it’s very much the same. They’re a promise of technology’s revolutionary virile power, when in fact whatever virility it has has failed to elevate people out of their general depression and anxiety, which unique specimens of depression and anxiety are also new phenomena arising from new technologies. TLDR: FOMO. Making people feel like they’re not making enough money. Making people feel like they’re missing out on this huge movement that’s “disrupting” conventions. When it’s really just failed artists capitalising on the hype to spin their failure and downright tastelessness and lack of artistic skill into a narrative of victimhood in the traditional art world. When there’s no traditional art world anyway. When, like, when’s the last time the so-called “traditional” so-called “art world” has enjoyed any relevance in the wider scheme of things?

It’s impossible to “review” a year or even condense such a thing into a narrative to form the basis of future predictions. As Covid-19 has shown, things can easily change on a whim. What I would like to see in the future is more artists embracing and leaning into this sense of wild unpredictability and just being free.

Kok Yew Puah: Millennium Mambo

I also recently appeared on BFM’s Everyone’s a Critic platform alongside show host Sharmilla Ganesan to review the Kok Yew Puah retrospective at ILHAM. You can listen to it here, I haven’t and I likely never will… (Sorry Sharmilla.) I’m such a coward when it comes to listening to recordings of my voice; I just know it won’t be good, but Sharmilla just keeps giving me chances to blow hot air on air.

Many things I wanted to say regarding the exhibition I didn’t manage to. One of those things is my impression of how this exhibition fits into the current 90s / Y2K revival in culture and fashion. I felt this keenly when looking at the works on the centre wall, featuring cityscapes at night, cityscapes in an uncanny light. Those are 90s colours: green and black (a la The Matrix), purple and ultramarine — colours that are shorthand for technology and transactions. You can practically hear the sound of routers whirring and the cash register sound of money moving, of cars and motorbikes zipping down highways in the night to the end of the world. These paintings contain a sense of anticipation towards the then-oncoming millennium, and I can’t tell whether the anticipation is foreboding or optimistic, or something in the middle.

Akira vibes in a painting by Kok Yew Puah.

I’ve been thinking so much about the 90s — but the symbolic 90s, the 90s of ideas and fixations, not the actual time because of course I never lived in the actual time. (This Fisherian notion is also something I wanted to explore in the Wawasan 2020 Directory exhibition organised by Cloud Projects, this sense of growing up in the shadow of something … the ways its distant light scatters into the present like temporal glitter.) When I think of KL in the 90s, I invariably think back to Amir Muhammad’s film Lips to Lips (which I only watched ONCE, three years ago!), and how everyone in it looked so 2000, obviously because of the interiors and the sets and the clothes and the quality of the film, but everyone really LOOKED so millennium, like it was etched into the lines on their faces. And I don’t know what looking like the second millennium means aside from wearing baggy T-shirts, but they looked exactly like the people in Kok Yew Puah’s paintings. An example: the theatre-maker Mark Teh has a minor role in Lips to Lips, and I’ve met him in person a few times, and in person he looks like a completely normal guy living in the 21st-century, but in Lips to Lips he looked exactly like Kok Yew Puah’s riff-raff teens, who hardly anybody really looks like anymore. And the Zoomers now try to copy that look, but it’s simply not the millennium, they do not have that Y2K post-Asian Financial Crisis-Petronas Twin Towers je ne sais quoi, and it’s just not the same.

James Lee in Amir Muhammad’s Lips to Lips (2000). Kids these days may try to dress Y2K, but they simply do not get it. They think it means wearing slouchy jeans, chokers, dark lipstick, and platform shoes. But it’s certain details like that WWF panda shirt that really transport you.

It’s the sense of promise in the air, the carelessness, the lack of awareness of what the future holds. The innocence and heedlessness towards Internet technologies, which must have seemed as foreign to KYP as cryptocurrency seems to me now. The way a phone is really just used to call people. The way Kok Yew Puah paints viewfinder frames onto his paintings but the angle is still a painting’s angle, and not the proper angle for a photograph. The way cameras and their viewfinders are presented as fascinating new ways for observing and contextualising the world before you, rather than, as they are now, THE primary way of viewing the world, where experiences and surroundings are registered through our brain’s viewfinder-cum-filter as candidates for Instagram posts. I’m trying to see what he saw, or perhaps trying to find his same energy for the world — the energy to be fascinated and observant with what’s going on around me and the changes taking place in people, instead of feeling what I mostly feel, which is tired and insecure.

Matrix greens in KYP.

Seeing the world through his eyes, people take on the proportions of myth, of tableaux. The paintings mentioned above, the 90s cityscapes, feature foreground characters obscured by ethnic tribal masks. (The paintings take up the centre wall in ILHAM and the team have chosen to paint this wall a dark blue-black, which was an interesting choice. Since it’s the first wall you see after the grass green and sky blue of the introductory walls, it’s rather a visual leap). These characters all seem to be different manifestations of the artist himself, either naked or in a business suit. In the two paintings where there is a suit, he stands menacingly out of place with the rest of the picture. On the one hand, you could read this as a statement on the monstrousness and alienation of 90s and Y2K personalities, the same way such tribal masks and what they represented (what they obscured) are so foreign to us now. The paintings convey a sense of dislocation, an anxiety that he’s not able to keep up with the changing times, and everyone with their newfangled clothes and professions just seems like a bogeyman in a strange mask, like Patrick Bateman peeling off his own face to reveal nothing. This anxiety of being out of touch, of people seeming like sudden demons, is something I can deeply sympathise with, hence why I kept dumbly repeating the words “dislocation” and “bewilderment” in the BFM segment.

The interesting thing, as a 21st-century viewer, is that of course the businessmen and suits of KYP’s portraits are no longer the bogeymen of today, which is why his paintings have this dated and nostalgic aura. In KYP’s paintings, there was still a certain familiarity to people, and an identity to a place that grounded you. Things certainly seem slightly more unmoored now, and superficial, but perhaps it’s the attitude you have towards it that makes all the difference.

Really BIG.

And regarding the recent non-drama where the National Art Gallery and ILHAM both used the same KYP artwork for a Thaipusam greeting? I just don’t think it’s such a big deal. I don’t think festive greetings in Malaysia should be taken so literally, I think it’s a blessing to live in such a genuinely multicultural environment where people actually make the effort to remember and wish kind blessings for festive seasons outside their own cultural upbringing. I’ve lived in the UK, a nominally multicultural city with a significant Muslim population, but hardly any non-Muslim acknowledges Ramadan, for instance. (Chinese New Year? Diwali? Thaipusam? Non-existent. St Patrick’s Day—maybe.) Anyway, my point was that Kok Yew Puah seems to have had such a genuine interest in the generation after him, and his paintings reflect such a wide eyed fascination with the visuals and aesthetics of this new world emerging all around him. The kids at the Hindu temple are all there to hang out and take pictures, and they’re all garbed in wild branded clothing announcing bizarre slogans, and all this seems to have been as marvellous and mythical to him as Hindu-Buddhist idols seem to us. The world is marvellous, the world is so weird, people are changing all the time.

Culture Diary

Some long thoughts on Air Con and some brief thoughts on the announcement of selected artists for the Ilham Art Show 2022. 

I really don’t know what to call this thing where I just comment on aspects of art and culture. The last time I did it was in the form of Capsule Reviews for a few things. But sometimes I really just have thoughts for a bunch of stuff that I just stir fry together in the same pan (read: post). “Culture Diary” will be the way I categorise them for now.  

Air Con 

Last Sunday, I watched a fantastic theatre production — Shanon Shah’s Air Con, directed by Instant Cafe Theatre co-founders Jo Kukathas and Zalfian Fuzi. It premiered in 2008. Instant Cafe Theatre revived the recording of the 2008 performance for a single weekend, streaming it online via this new Malaysian-founded pandemic-baby site called CloudTheatre. The play made me laugh. The last time a piece of Malaysian art got me laughing with it rather than at it was I don’t even know when. At times, it surprised me with the twists it took; it was a real ride, I barely registered its 2.5 hour runtime. 

The play centres on an all-boys boarding school in the Malaysian state of Kedah. Behind the boarding school is a railroad track which is also, at night, a spot where transgender prostitutes meet their clients. The play opens with the news that a “Mak Nyah” (local slang for transwoman) has just been found dead in the sewers by the railroad tracks, her skull bashed in. Rumours have long abound that boys from the boarding school get their rocks off with those prostitutes, who offer a service known as “air con”: in which they suck on a cough drop before delivering a blowjob. The spectre of the murdered prostitute haunts the boys’ school as its students are suspected of being clients, murderers, and fellow transgenders alike… 

On the surface, you could distill it as a pedestrian story of bullying and acceptance. But Shanon Shah’s ambitions were greater than this. Air Con is more than a moral tale that simply “sends a message” or “raises awareness” — the play deals with daring, thorny Dostoyevskian questions of spiritual redemption. And it dares to consider that most perpetrators suffer a greater torment than their victims, even if their victims are dead. This is a something I’ve suspected of being true myself. The play resists the neat and simplified social narrative of perpetrators being irredeemably bad and evil, a narrative that has become the modus operandi of 21st-century cancel culture which seeks to deplatform grown adults for opinions they had and actions they committed in fits of folly or even in their youth. But Air Con’s not about posting the n-word on Facebook when you were 13 — it’s about big boy stuff, it’s about murder! Under the mandate of the law, a murder is a murder and must be punished, but what of the Mandate of Heaven? And can any corporeal punishment ever be enough to effect spiritual redemption and transformation? How to reach that hard nub of consciousness from which springs love, evil, and all manner of things we can never understand? 

Air Con begins with a wound, and it progresses by digging and digging at it until it starts festering with a phantasmagoria of awfulness. It burns slow, offering many entertaining vignettes of life in this school and nurturing its characters’ development. Dramatic back stories, rumours, minor confrontations, but also momentary respites where you see the joyfulness and foolhardiness of male youth. The turbulence of young men growing up in such close proximity to each other, without any mediating female presence, is treated with sensitivity and tenderness. The play had an easy sense of humour and didn’t let itself get bogged down by the weight of its themes. (Some Malaysian artists can’t pull this off — they go straight into serious buttoned-up mode and eschew any attempts at humour under the guise of taking their topics “seriously”, in the hope that audiences won’t realise that they don’t have a sense of humour or personality to start with. OK, rant over. In short, this play’s got jokes.) 

Boys will be boys — unfortunately for them. The play treats maleness like a prison, something itchy and claustrophobic. Some of them go out to the railroad tracks to escape. There are two parallel friendship arcs in Air Con, one slightly healthier than the other, and there’s an implicit insinuation that the less healthy one is undermined by the boys’ own “toxic masculinity” and the need to project an appearance of toughness. Both sets of friendships require immense feats of self-introspection to maintain them, and a certain incident in a science lab gives you a sudden wrenching insight into the volatility of life in an all-boys’ school. The friendship between Burn and Chep is the less entertaining one, but the most fascinating: it makes a great demand of the audience to care about the fate of their friendship. But we do, or at least I do. It demands us to think about the most difficult thing of all: death. Death and death and death and the dissolution of all things and whether any salvation is possible beyond the beyond. 

The online stream only offered like 30 seconds of intermission, so by the final half hour I was dying for a pee. So I’m not sure whether this physical urgency within me exaggerated the way I perceived what I was watching, but the final half hour of the production seemed to spiral into this surreal, claustrophobic thing. We’re talking Shakespearean levels of tragedy and hysteria. The acts were shorter and the supernatural had crept in. Flashing lights. Only thing is, it seemed to me that Hamlet’s madness came a little too late here. The play’s ending had a slightly tacked-on feeling, a skinny tragedy. Maybe Shah should have tossed one of his characters a monologue? 

The actors were a revelation. I felt like I was watching Malaysians for the first time rather than actors. Every boy seemed tailor-made for their roles; you get the impression that they are exactly like their characters in real life; they inject so much life and tenderness into the story. All close-ups of Burn’s face are hypnotic, “someone handsome but lonely”. I suspect that I will not be forgetting this kampung boy for a long time. And all interactions between William, Asif, Mona, and Mimi have a natural ease that makes you envious—makes you wish you could be, for a brief moment, a persecuted gay in an all-boys’ boarding school, if only so you could have camaraderie and jokes like these. 

It’s impossible not to be conscious of the temporal distance between now and when the play premiered. Something about the writing feels so very much of its time, and impossible or at least rare now. Here was a thing aware of its own intelligence, which had no qualms nodding to Shakespeare and other facets of the Western canon, but which also breezed through a dialect-inflected bilingual script. This is something with a great respect for plot — for the classic form of the thing, and for the audience. What I perceive as the art of today sees the audience mostly as a mass to be “enlightened” or messaged to or raised awareness at. People these days don’t have compelling narratives, they have things they want to Say to audiences who likely already agree with them anyway. They have pithy statements, they have takedowns of the government. But they don’t have the personality, the tenderness, the quality of being compelling, if not “real”. What makes Air Con great for me is that it is not a morality play but rather a classic tragedy. Plain and simple in its complexity. Teach it to boys in schools not for the message of acceptance, but for the craft. Many people fail to understand that so long as the craftsmanship is good, you don’t need to worry about getting the message across. 

The Ilham Art Show 2022

A couple weeks ago, Ilham Gallery—which is, I dare say, the leading art institution of Malaysia—announced their selections for their inaugural Ilham Art Show triennial. The Ilham Art Show will be an open call exhibition programme (like the Royal Academy summer exhibition) and its first iteration will take place sometime next year. 

The gallery received 360 applications for the show. It’s unmistakable for me now that Ilham is the highest form of validation that artists can receive in Malaysia. Some of the names on the list were surprising to me: a couple of artists who had previously expressed in private conversation their distaste of being asked to “apply” for stuff (as opposed to directly invited), another artist who has had his works sold for five figure sums. One of my artist friends told me, “I submitted because I wanted to see if I’m good enough to get selected.” This isn’t meant as an indictment, but rather a remark on the awesome reputation that Ilham has. For many Malaysian artists, I think, it’s a ticket outta these dumps.

Nobody cares about Balai anymore because they’ve stained their own name through one too many misdemeanours and non-apologies throughout the years. Once a mighty institution with regular themed competitions, now it seems that they’re left with only Bakat Muda Sezaman which… did anyone even apply for this year? After the fiasco that was 2019’s influencer storm and after going into total closure for all of 2020, Balai has erased themselves out of the moment’s cultural relevance. Which is a shame… 

Everything in the pandemic is about giving out opportunities, about applying for things. Cendana has also been churning out grant after grant, some of which are undoubtedly useful and beneficial. With some good insight, they finally opened a grant just for art production. But nevertheless, I’m starting to wonder whether all this applications, funds, and grants might not be a little damaging. Everyone is just applying for stuff, but why? I think many of our better contemporary artists are a little bit of school swots — if you dangle a prize in front of their faces, they’ll apply not for the prize itself but just to see whether they’re brilliant enough to win. The winning is what matters; the prize could be fuck all (and usually it really is just fuck all). Did anybody apply for the UOB Painting Award this year? Did anybody apply for CENDANA’s multiple grants for visual artists, which have a huge total value? Did anybody apply for Bakat Muda Sezaman? But 360 artists applied for the Ilham Art Show. Kudos to UOB, Cendana, and Balai for trying, but they quite simply do not have the regional (if not international) recognition, the intellectual credibility, the temperature-controlled frigidity, or the sheer sleek appearance of Ilham Gallery. Everything just looks and feels more serious there. That’s just how it is. 

Of course, it works both ways. Applications make artists feel productive and, when one is successful, flatter their ego, but applications also flatter an institution’s perception of itself. I think this was the impasse faced by the shortlisted contestants of the Turner Prize in 2019, when they decided to split the prize amongst themselves. Grants and funds are a way for both artists and institutions to reinforce each other’s prestige. When the Ilham Art Show results were published, I perceived a lot of disappointment from non-selected artists.

Where am I going with this? I don’t know, nowhere in particular, I just find the whole thing interesting. I feel like I’ve gained a new perspective on something. Everyone seems to be shitting money out of all possible holes and yet. Last year, this is exactly what everyone thought they wanted. Give artists money. The arts are essential too. And yet. The money keeps gushing out, there’s not enough artists to receive such a deluge of money. And yet, was it ever really about money? The hunger feels deeper, much deeper than the superficial wound of money: it’s about institutional recognition. And deeper than that, it’s probably about recognition more generally and the audience factor in the making of an artwork. Even if people mostly make art “for themselves”, there is still an implicit and persistent awareness of “the audience” — there is a need to touch the lives of others, or to influence the way they think, or to have one’s own personal struggles seen and validated, or some such thing along those lines. As one of the panellists on the selection committee, Zoe Butt, said in a press statement on the announcement of the selection, “artists are the true jesters in our 21st century”… Jesters need an audience and Ilham offers the widest variety of audiences (including the potential for regional recognition) and the best-looking stage. 

Selected Ambient Work #3

In which I can’t figure out whether I’m a conformist or a contrarian.

2 months into Malaysia’s third movement control order. All economic sectors are (allegedly) closed except for essential services. 

I turn 25 this year. Since the announcement of this third iteration of a full MCO, I have, for some reason, just conformed and followed all of the government-issued directives not to leave my house except for essential matters. I’m so busy with work – it would be more accurate to call them “tasks” – that I’ve just lost the will. Most days, I feel bewildered and confused and tired. 

I’ve not really been in physical contact with anyone for months now. I’ve been trying to figure out why it is that I’m so willingly conformist, maybe it has something to do with my childhood. I think that I’m still a child, and I’m scared that with this lockdown in place I’ll never grow up. Something about the atmosphere is weighing me down, telling me it’s not the time. Something about the world outside seems bizarre, freakish, and out-of-bounds; it seems stranger than what I thought I knew. 

I’m not used to rebelling, and I don’t know how to do what’s right or how to act in a crisis. I’m scared of Twitter and scared of the news. Each new piece of information does not seem to make sense with the existing pieces; I have no idea what’s going on. These days it feels wholly possible for people to just drop dead. There’s a sense that time has run out. Somehow, I’m still alive. 

Am I the only one who feels embarrassed to be working during this time? Whenever people ask me whether I’ve been busy I say yes in a vague way, I tell them I’ve been “getting jobs”, but that could mean anything. My approximate schedule these days, for anyone who’s been trying to reach me: 

  • Wake at 12pm 
  • Get out of bed by 2pm 
  • Fix lunch by 2.30–3pm 
  • Idle from 3–6pm 
  • Have dinner at 6pm
  • Idle at 7pm
  • Work from 8pm to 3am–4am 
  • And then I sleep. 

I don’t like people knowing when I’m working or what I’m working on because I’m embarrassed by all of it. I’d rather they think I don’t work than know what I’m working on. What is it that I do? Well, most days I struggle with myself, I berate myself, I push things too close and I miss deadlines, miserably, pathetically, childishly. On Instagram, I only post about movies I’ve been watching. I’d rather let people think I’m caught in some state of suspended childhood, whiling away my time watching movies, listening to music, and reading books, than for them to know that I’m actually trying to be an adult and trying to work. So, I tell people that I’m OK, just chilling at home. Why would I want to advertise how much I am struggling to grow up. 

One thing that never fails to surprise me is how willing and polite most artists are when you ask them for an interview. The ones who are willing are always polite, and the ones who are unwilling just don’t reply to my email; nobody is ever mean or contemptuous. I have one of those temperaments that flinches in the face of friendliness, that always lives in anticipation of being shouted at and cussed out despite never, in fact, having been shouted at or cussed out in my life. Knock on wood. Most artists are so kind and gentle, they never want to do anything wrong by you, they treat each interview like it’s some big opportunity. Yeah, an opportunity for me to make some money. I always felt that interviewees should be paid, especially for pieces that are almost entirely dependent on them. But the people in art are so good-natured. They congratulate me, tell me that people like me are “necessary” in the art world. I flinch. “Necessary” is not a word I’d ever use to describe any piece of culture writing. What I do is an elaborate and subtle form of – more or less – lying. 

Do I ever dare hope that they need me as much as I need them? Highly unlikely, but their compliments give me brief moments of gratification.

Art has taken a serious L this time round. I’m not sure whether it’ll recover. Everyone is just off doing separate things. Anyone writing about art during this time is just telling bold-faced lies. 

The premier art institution in our country, ILHAM Gallery, launched an open call for their inaugural ILHAM Art Show 2022, a triennial open-call exhibition programme.  

During the application period, I helped four different artists to prepare their artist statements. This made me feel like a sort of contributor for once, rather than a talentless leech on the art world. Of course, artist statements are mostly also a form of lying, but at least I’m servicing artists this time, and not using them to service a pay check for myself by writing some article that maybe 12 people read. Throughout this lockdown, I’ve been both anxious and relieved about the state of the art world – nobody has asked me to write any art-related reviews or articles for over a month now. Anxiety: Nobody in the art world wants to hire me anymore. Relief: Considering the (non-)state of art these days, I don’t want to write about art-related matters anyway. These four artist statements allowed me to feel some kind of relevance. Either the art scene is ending, or I am. Worse, both.

I find out through secondhand sources that a local artist who seems to be going thru it has started a new series of works in which he makes wojak memes out of local art world gossip. Coincidentally, I had just a few days ago noticed that this artist had unfollowed and removed me as a follower on Instagram. At the time I thought it was weird and I felt a stab of guilt at having potentially committed some unknown wrong against him, but in the end I figured that, whatever his reasons were, at least he had the decency to remove me as a follower too. It is surprisingly rare for people to display this kind of courtesy. After this new piece of information though, I’m thinking that maybe he’s going to make a meme about me, or about people close to me. This is somewhat titillating to think about, but I can’t know, since his profile is private. The plot thickens. I guess this is what idle people in lockdown occupy themselves with, him and me both. Then again, one of my favourite celebrities is Azealia Banks. It could be interesting to watch this play out. 

There’s movement in the streets. For a long time now, discontent has been brewing. People are losing their jobs, small businesses are closing; there are maybe more fundraisers than operational businesses now. I can’t fathom how anyone is still alive and, of those alive, still working. 

A young woman got put in police lock-up. For 5 hours. She posted a testimony about its traumatising effect on her. She was advocating for a mass gathering during a pandemic when new cases are nearing 20,000 per day and the Delta variant is rampant. The youth vanguard up and down the nation is making TikToks to recruit new cadres and explain why protesting now is good, actually. The young activist leader who got put in lock-up for inciting an illegal activity during a pandemic said that she was traumatised from spending 5 hours in lock-up. Said that the police made her strip down to her underwear…to change into their lock-up clothes. 

Forget Netflix and chill, it’s time for TikTok and trauma. It’s not fair to compare, maybe. I can sympathise with her; the concept of the police just generally scares the shit out of me (look, artists already scare the shit out of me, and they’ve never even done anything). But I’m not a leader and I’m not telling anyone it’s their civic duty to do anything. I think I’m going to die alone and I’m trying very hard to live with the fact that I may never be more than a depressive, weak, lying loser. In some other parts of the world, in a different era, people trained their cadres to go on hunger strike, to take beatings to the face, and to withstand torture. In a different era, pity was not equivalent to respect; in fact, it was the complete antithesis of respect.

I’m sorry for her, sorry that she was launched into something she wasn’t prepared for. Sorry that everyone around her kept making her out to be something that she perhaps wasn’t able to be. Sorry that she wasn’t able to handle 5 hours, because she was raised and surrounded by people who operate on emotions like pity and anger, rather than cold nerve and respect. 

It can be just as useful to assess what the police don’t do as it is to notice and pick apart everything they do. The fact that all this was allowed to proceed, the fact that the police stood silently by and followed basic procedures, the fact that they did not implicate themselves in any way at all is probably significant. The dialectical relationship between the police and civil disobedience – between the activists who need the police to ‘take the bait’ and react in order to justify their cause, and the police who need activists to wild out so they can depict them as troublemakers or snowflakes – is probably significant. For better or for worse; till death do us part. 

If you want to silence a movement: let them do what they want, and ignore them. This is a proven parenting method that has led many children to grow up into troubled individuals. 

The other day, in a casual Zoom call, I got carried away. Got heated up about something and felt this burning need to keep defending my position to the four other people there, who all could not find any sympathy with my position. I got carried away, I could feel my adrenaline pumping. Threw off the Zoom call’s entire vibe. 

The problem with me is that I’m obsessed with words. I can’t go along with things if I don’t understand what someone is saying. And I can’t swallow contradictions, I can’t ‘go with the flow’, because I cannot feel the flow for all my brain is trying to process the words. Some people would say that some things don’t have to make sense, that regardless of all its internal issues, some things are absolutely good. That you should just support the movement anyway, because it is more conscionable than doing nothing. 

In a time like this in Malaysia, where despair is rampant and cabin fever has reached itchy levels, people have started saying that it’s our civic duty to protest, and to donate money, and to get vaccinated, and to etc. etc. etc. Every act is charged with a political and moral weight. Among my friends, the people who signed up earliest for the Astra-Zeneca voluntary vaccination programme are the same ones who say the world is overpopulated and that they’d rather kill themselves than get old. Many of my younger friends cannot wait for the loosely-defined “boomer” demographic to die off. 

There’s a difference, I think, between free thought and being a contrarian, but I’m unable to see it. For some reason, I enjoy pushing back against everything. When I’m the only one in a conversation persisting with an unpopular position, I feel my adrenaline rising. I have to keep pushing it until it makes sense to me. Maybe, when I was younger, my father entertained me for too long when I played the “But why?” game. Maybe that is Why. 

They are thanking them for protesting, they are calling the protestors brave for taking on the risk of contracting Covid-19 in order to fight on behalf of the country. In a news reel I watched, the protestors mostly seemed lost. They peacefully sat in socially-distanced rows on the road by the Masjid Jamek train station, since the police had closed off Dataran Merdeka, where they were initially supposed to gather. People were turning their heads, looking around everywhere, photographing things. They had their funny placards. Cars passing through the road were made way for, and the protestors shouted at these cars as they passed. It seemed like everyone left when they said they would. 

My friend who had been idling around the protest area texted me at the time, “I’m getting food and going back. Peaceful protest is for pussies. I’m going back to eat and nap and will wake up if I smell burning cars” 

Maybe I am not alone? Will God grant my misery company?  

A vow of silence doesn’t seem like such a bad idea, as far as ways to honour the moment go. 

I’m a cruel person and I will die alone. Last year, after a very brutal takedown on my part, the same friend had told me, “It has been taking a toll on me to tell you how I feel since yesterday, and your message successfully killed any possibility for me to be able to look you in the face again. Thank you ellen.” 

I feel very cold and detached sometimes. The videos and photos of the protest make me want to cry, in fact, for some inexplicable reason. I feel like things will never get better. I feel that I will never understand what people really want. I feel like I grow further and further each day from the people who could save me, and once this distance reaches a certain limit, they will simply stop caring. I always have the feeling that I’ve misplaced something, like I’m going through life forgetting to do something very important and urgent, but I can’t remember what it is. 

It’s too late for anything, it’s always been too late. 

Header image: Lynn Davis, Iceberg #23, Disko Bay, Greenland, 2000, gold-toned gelatin silver print

Dying of a broken heart

Reading Michel Houellebecq’s ‘Serotonin’ (2019) in eternal lockdown

3 A.M. is an odd thing. You’re sitting on the toilet simultaneously wired and tired, thinking about a factoid you saw that claimed that men’s sperm counts will decline so low as to reach zero by 2045, which is really not that far away. And you’re thinking that everything you do in life is just cope — from the work you do, to your writing, to the things you post on Instagram, to the movies you watch and books you read. Everything is just a method of distracting from the weight of existence. A few weeks ago you re-read Michel Houllebecq’s novel Serotonin. And at 3 A.M. on the toilet thinking about global declining sperm counts, you’re thinking that you might understand then how someone could literally die of sorrow.  

As of the time of writing this, I’m experiencing my fifth (?) week of a full homebound isolation, because the country has gone into another full-scale lockdown again. Lately, memories have been flooding back to me in a terrible wave. At one point in Serotonin, the narrator Florent-Claude is reminded of his ex-lover and the memory nearly knocks him out. This is how memories have been coming over me too, bowdlerising me at vulnerable times in the night, or when I’m trying to focus on a paragraph in a book. They come in a complete package with their attendant emotions — mostly shame or sadness — and they paralyse me, they force me back into time with them. Maybe I’m not old enough yet to have the accumulation of memory as hopeless as the ones that completely wind Florent-Claude, but if it’s already this difficult now, I tremble at what’s in store for when I’m older. 

I’ve been remembering everything. Staying home for so long, not receiving the sun, you start to feel dry and ashy all over. The other night I caught myself picking at dry skin on my lips, a habit I abandoned when I was in primary school, and the pain when I pulled off a ribbon of skin transported me back to memories of the girl I used to be. All the years are so awkward and painful, and — sorry to be melodramatic — existence really is full of pain, the most abject pain. Work, exercise, entertainment, culture, society, all of these offer much needed fictions to silence the horror of consciousness. Otherwise, as I’m realising now during lockdown, the weight of it all becomes too much to bear. As to how much of these distractions actually feed into the widening abyss, I don’t know. As to whether we were better off before, I don’t know. All I know is that memory in combination with stagnancy is a real killer.

By the end of Serotonin, its central middle-aged narrator Florent-Claude has resigned himself to a desperate solitary life in a high-rise apartment on the outskirts of Paris. The city of lights and romance is dead to him. He has no friends, lovers, or family, but he has a generous inheritance on which he lives off the rest of his days. He doesn’t leave the house, he nourishes himself “with the new food delivery service that Amazon had just launched” and is delighted to discover that the apartment comes equipped with a garbage chute, so that he really never has to leave the house. He spends his days watching television, hardly leaving the bed let alone the house, until he gives up on even television and feels himself starting to rot to death. It was all a mere matter of time. He has a few capsules left of Captorix, a fictional SSRI that had been prescribed to him months earlier, which had done a good enough job in numbing him and allowing him to achieve little feats like maintaining personal hygiene, but which has also made him impotent and shot his cortisol levels through the roof.

But, hang on. Record scratch, freeze frame. How did he end up like this? What was the great tragedy that brought him so low? 

It’s too bad this isn’t a late-90s/early-00s comedy, because if it were, Florent-Claude might have an American accent, look something like Chandler from Friends, emit a few drunken burps, and then there would be a satisfactory narrative for it all – because surely such an exaggerated ending can’t have come out of nowhere, right? Well, that’s the difference between Europe and America maybe; Americans have so much optimism, even when they think they don’t. The great tragedy of Florent-Claude’s life is just that he is alive. 

Well, there was some action in the book. Michel Houellebecq somehow has this talent of writing the most outlandish, extravagant, and extreme things in the most banal manner.  The thing one remembers most from Serotonin isn’t the revolutionary facedown and shootout in the middle, nor even the attempted murder of a child; the thing that leaves the greatest impression is Florent-Claude’s utter hopelessness and inability to control his life. Similarly, in Submission, Houellebecq’s previous novel, the thing one remembers is not so much the speculative fiction of France becoming an Islamic state, even though that is the entire point of the novel. In fact, it hardly takes place at all. Most of the time people are doing nothing except thinking about their sad POS lives. 

I guess it’s time now for a proper introduction. Serotonin is the eighth and latest novel by French author Michael Houellebecq. On the global stage, he’s somewhat of a controversial figure, but the French seem to love their own, and he’s been dubbed France’s greatest living writer. His novels contain what some might consider sexist and racist screeds, but always towards the purpose of illuminating a difficult truth about 21st-century Western society. In Serotonin, for example, there is a brief scene at the beginning in which Florent-Claude meets two young women on a road trip in Spain, a scene that could, with some mental gymnastics, be construed as “sexist” given the lascivious ways he describes their youth and the inspiration they provide for his masturbatory fantasies later, but the masturbatory fantasies are really just redemption fantasies. There are later a few passages reflecting his musings on the conflict between the sexes, which, again, you could call “sexist” but which I think he provides sufficient reason for, and which are at times even inspiring. 

Houellebecq’s controversial novels have covered hot (read: sensitive) topics like prostitution, third world sex tourism, Islamic fundamentalism, and such like. These controversial topics are entry points into the real questions, about globalism, late-stage capitalism, the war of the sexes, the dissolution of then traditional family, the scientific revolution, all of which underlie the major conflicts of our current age. Have we really learned to live with women entering the workforce? Has progress so rapid, the pace of which has never been matched in the entirety of human history, actually set back the overall happiness of the species? The real heated topics that are heated because of the resounding silence over them in the liberal agenda — because we’d rather talk about, uh, body positivity or workplace micro-aggressions or whatever — are the transactional and convoluted nature of heterosexual sex in the modern age, and the replacement of older forms of moral guidance such as religion and the family by impersonal market dictates and professional psychologising. And also the dissolution of clear boundaries between nation-states under globalism. 

Serotonin is the third book of his that I’ve read, the other two are The Elementary Particles/Atomised (which the New York Times’ Michiko Kakutani called “a deeply repugnant read”) and Submission. Personally, I don’t find anything about these books repugnant because nothing repugnant actually happens; they mostly consist of the melancholic ravings of sad, sexless, middle-aged men. And yet, Houellebecq remains controversial enough to the people who matter that he’s stacked up a nice little collection of lawsuits against his books (all of which have led nowhere, btw), along with a reputation for being an enfant terrible. The publication of his “controversial” novels always seems to precede some sort of disaster that is depicted in his books: the 2002 terrorist bombing in Bali (after Platform), the Charlie Hebdo attacks (Submission, the aforementioned book about an Islamic transformation of France, was coincidentally published the same day), and the 2019 Yellow Vests movement in France (after Serotonin). Reading his Wikipedia page and considering the uncanny resonance his books end up having to real life, you might think he was some major terrorist leader announcing his plans in plain sight, or some bizarro prophet. 

I first read Serotonin when it came out in 2019 and thought that it was just alright. But reading it in 2021, after nearly two years of living with the legally-enforced nationwide lockdowns, curfews, and declarations of emergency brought about by the Covid-19 pandemic, the force of its despair really takes your breath away. The book follows a first-person narrator, rather sissy-ly named Florent-Claude, who opens up the book by whining about how he doesn’t understand why his parents gave him such a foppish, florid name, then immediately conceding that he had never taken any measures to change his name, not even by taking on a nickname. His name is just the first of many things about his life that he’s failed to assert any control over, not because he’s lost control but rather because he’s never made much of an effort in the first place. Anyway, the novel then continues in such a fashion as Florent-Claude, 46 in the novel, deeply depressed, an executive lackey in the Department of Agriculture, not so much trapped as bitterly resigned to a loveless, sexless relationship with his Japanese art-world adjacent socialite girlfriend who’s half his age and openly cheating on him, as Florent-Claude finally makes the first conscious decision of his life by choosing to disappear off the face of the Earth. 

The process of disappearance is terrifyingly easy. Within a day, he submits his resignation to his supervisor at the DoA (a governmental department only in name, since it had long submitted to the totalising forces of globalism and given up on protecting the rights of French farmers), ends the lease on his condominium, creates a new bank account, and, by clicking a few buttons online, effectively settles all his outstanding bills and obligations. He doesn’t even see his girlfriend before he leaves. Apparently, as he learns from a documentary titled Voluntarily Missing, it is not a crime to abandon one’s family in France, and in 2013 the French had stopped conducting missing-person searches on behalf of families. In France, it is perfectly legal and permissible to drop all responsibilities and leave to start over again as someone else somewhere else. 

It was startling that, in a country where individual liberties had tended to shrink, legislation was preserving this one, which was fundamental — in my eyes even more fundamental, and philosophically more troubling, than suicide.

Serotonin, Michel Houellebecq

Though the technical aspects of his life are easily settled, Florent-Claude finds that renouncing all other responsibility over his life is not as easy as it first seemed. After his “voluntary disappearance”, he loses himself within a labyrinth of memory. He whiles away his time watching television in hotel rooms, smoking, and sometimes going out for a walk to the nearby Carrefour. (Hey, at least he got to go out for walks.) The Captorix he had been prescribed by a quack doctor helps greatly with damming up his despair, allowing him to execute a few simple daily tasks. For most of the book, this pill saves him from sliding into the insectile existence he eventually succumbs to by the end. 

Like the Spanish college-aged nymphettes he meets at the beginning of the novel, Florent-Claude’s “psychologist” Dr Azote is another saving grace in un-PC disguise. By many modern standards, he would be considered a “quack”. On top of breezily signing a Captorix prescription before even assessing his patient, he also gives him the contacts of a few prostitutes: cutting past any bullshit about therapy or SSRI’s and prescribing what he intuits to be Florent-Claude’s problem. What our narrator is suffering from is a spiritual malaise to which there is no chemical solution. While Dr Azote may horrify today’s science-worshipping liberals, he performs a greater service as a doctor by not pathologising Florent-Claude or selling him on false promises. 

The journey through the labyrinth of memory becomes actualised when Florent-Claude gets overwhelmed with loneliness and starts dialling up people from his past. He first calls up an old girlfriend from his early 20s who, he discovers, has wound up in as dire straits as his — in fact, worse, because she’s morbidly alcoholic. Then, as Christmas and the New Year approach, Florent-Claude makes a visit to Aymeric, his old college mate from Agricultural college. 

Aymeric is the only one from their graduating class who actually pursued farming instead of a bureaucrat job with the government, or an exec job with a private corporation. (Florent-Claude, for his part, had gone to Monsanto after college.) When Florent-Claude travels to the Normandy countryside to spend Christmas with his old college buddy, he finds everything in an utter mess. Despite his aristocratic lineage and extensive lands, Aymeric is doing very badly indeed, as production at his farm is unable to compete against cheaper South American imports and the totalising force of agricultural monopolies like Monsanto. His inherited land is no longer valuable for farming, and he’s forced to develop kitschy AirBNB bungalows to be rented out to tourists. Because the French countryside is now the province of scenic tourism—a green getaway for the urban bourgeoisie when they tire of their concrete playground—and not agriculture. The great line of kings ends at Aymeric. 

(This castration of once-noble professions can be seen in other titles too, like those of scholars, artists, and even global leaders, many of whom are still imperial leaders. Back in the days, kings would hang people in public gallows, dismember them, and skewer their heads on sticks if they even so much as thought about betraying them. The other day though, Emmanuel Macron got slapped in the face and the guy who did it only got four months in prison. Think about it, all our leaders now are spineless nerds in suits, many of them not even as young as Macron is. The revolution doesn’t need guns or Molotov cocktails or Bolsheviks. These days, you can just slap people.) 

Is it possible to live a dignified life that’s also a solitary one? Yes, I think so, but it’s difficult. You don’t get a choice these days. Somehow, despite being more populated and better connected than ever, more people seem to be living alone than at any point in history. And not out of some ascetic spiritual mission or because they’re a modern-day Diogenes; no, this loneliness isn’t the kind that’ll make you stronger. 

Alone, with nobody to watch you, nobody to care for you, nobody to even check on you… the terrible part is how easy it is. In fact, it’s even rewarded, if French law is anything to go by. The worst part is that you’ve done it to yourself, for no reason, for no purpose; you just seem to wake up one day in the middle of your life and find yourself profoundly alone. By the age of 46, Florent-Claude has weathered so many disappointments and failures, most tragically of all in the arena of love. 

The incident with Aymeric is dramatic and tragic, but only because it is enacting on a political and national scale the spiritual erosion that is already happening on a personal scale. The most genuinely heartbreaking parts of the book are the ones where our narrator remembers Kate and Camille, the two great loves of his life, and how they came to a sudden inexplicable end. Of course, on the surface of it, their endings are very explicable — in both cases, FC cheated. Both times with some ethnic broad in what was clearly mutually narcissistic and pointless sex. But the gaping mystery that remains unsolved is what it is that makes people hijack their own happiness, and why they seem to do this over and over and over again. This reflects the farmers’ crisis on a personal level: Western man sacrifices what is simple, local, flavourful, and fulfilling — something that has proven to work for decades if not centuries — for something cheap and exotic. 


Just to experience it. Just ‘cause it’s there. Just ‘cause white girls and nationalism are so last season. There’s a parallel to be made here between FC’s heading straight into Monsanto after graduating and his failure to remain loyal to his girlfriends. We would like to think that we stand for certain principles, but the truth is that real life turns us all into repeated traitors. To the point where anyone who “believes” in anything at all — let alone enough to die for it, as Aymeric does — is considered a naive schmuck. It’s part of being human in the modern age. Just the act of getting by requires such a tedious amount of effort that leads us towards choices that provide short-term pleasure but leave us with a long-term emptiness. We inevitably succumb to that reality and as we age we know that we had not stood for anything, that we had remained loyal to no one. 

The relationship between Florent-Claude and Camille disintegrates when she has to return to university in Paris (they had met in a rather un-PC way, when Camille arrived at his company as an intern). Here, a heartbreaking passage (well everything is heartbreaking in this drippy and deeply painful book): 

I could have suggested that she give up her studies and become a housewife, my wife in fact, and in retrospect, when I think about it (and I think about it almost all the time), I think she would have said yes […] But I didn’t, and I probably wouldn’t have done; I hadn’t been formatted for such a proposition, it wasn’t part of my software; I was a modern man, and for me, like for all of my contemporaries, a woman’s professional career was something that had to be respected above all else — it was the absolute criterion, it meant overtaking barbarism and leaving the Middle Ages. At the same time, I wasn’t entirely a modern man because I had, even just for a few seconds, been able to imagine the imperative of her leaving it; but once again I didn’t do anything, didn’t say anything, and let events run their course, while I essentially placed no trust in this return to Paris: like all cities, Paris was made to generate loneliness, and we hadn’t had enough time together, in that house, a man and a woman alone and facing one another; for a few months we had been the rest of each other’s world, but would we be able to sustain such a thing? I don’t know; I’m old now and can’t really remember, but I think I was already afraid, and I’d understood, even then, that society was a machine for destroying love.  

What are we crying for — it’s always been like this, hasn’t it? The only constant in life is its cruelty. But it wasn’t always so easy to leave people, to betray each other. Now, if someone wants to just disappear off the face of the earth, we’ve somehow all agreed as a society that the right thing to do would be to just leave him be. The lonelier you are, the more painful the memories are when they come, and the more painful they are, the less inclined you feel to ever dabble in human relationships ever again. 

In this phase of Malaysia’s lockdown, the government has just announced a string of new areas to be placed under “enhanced” lockdown, which is a stricter form of lockdown reserved for cluster areas and where a resident can only leave the house to get essentials or to get vaccinated. Many of the areas under this “enhanced” lockdown are working class neighbourhoods or flats. At the same time, a “white flag” campaign has also taken off on social media which calls on desperate Malaysians not to suffer silently, and to place a white flag or cloth outside their house if things are getting bad, as a way of reaching out without having to say anything. Everyone is encouraged to check up on each other and to keep an eye out for any white flags flying in their neighbours’ windows. There is something about this that is deeply sad, despite the genuine and good intentions behind it. If we really cared for each other, maybe we shouldn’t have allowed it to get to this. In the past few years, online crowdfunding and charity have become widely mainstream, and there is something about this that is good and empowering, but something else that makes me think that the betrayal has already been completed, if this is what our social relations have become. Some part of me thinks we shouldn’t have allowed each other to be siloed so easily, that we embraced the initial lockdown and the urgent messaging surrounding Covid-19 a bit too readily. (I implicate myself in this.) That there was a line last year we shouldn’t have crossed, but which we did, without questioning it, and that has led us to where we are now. No matter the cause or rationale for it, people should not be so alone for so long. 

I don’t know the degree to which Florent-Claude is autobiographical (and because Houellebecq likes to write so many sad losers for his protagonists, I assume that all of them are, to an extent, autobiographical), but in his role as an author, Houellebecq is also Dr Azote. He intuitively senses the deep, inconsolable frissons between humans in the modern century, and he is reflecting (rather vulgarly sometimes, for effect) ourselves back to us so that we may see what we have become, and potentially understand ourselves better, if not save ourselves. Lorin Stein, in Salon, testifies on Houellebecq’s behalf with words as generous as many of us can only hope to one day hear spoken about ourselves by those whom we love (let alone those who barely know us), 

Houellebecq may despair of love in a free market, but he takes love more seriously, as an artistic problem and a fact about the world, than most polite novelists would dare to do; when he brings his sweeping indignation to bear on one memory, one moment when things seemed about to turn out all right for his characters, and didn’t, his compassion can blow you away. 

Lorin Stein in Salon

In the end, Florent-Claude literally dies of a broken heart: one of Captorix’s side effects becomes too alarming to ignore. His cortisol levels have shot through the roof, slowing down his metabolism and making him gain an unhealthy amount of weight. Slowly but surely, his life and body lose all their contours, and he becomes this sludge alone in his apartment, the last thing to push down the garbage chute. 

He came to his own isolation after decades of trial, failure, heartbreak, and bitter sadness. Sure, he never amounted to anything, but at least he had a few years of freedom to disappoint himself. (*Insert “Catskills” joke here from the opening of Annie Hall*) Under a pandemic lockdown, especially one as extensive as this, the isolation is embraced seemingly by everyone… By this point, in Malaysia, it’s only natural. It’s as if we never left, like we’d never known anything else. 

What I’m wondering is the following: how can we live a meaningful life under lockdown? How can we continue to be apart, ostensibly for each other’s own good, but still care for each other? Is love actually incompatible with the idea of individual freedom? What can I do with the memories? Where can they go? What is the connection between memories and the present; what are we supposed to do with them? How can I live through this and still have the strength to continue as normal? If lockdown is a dress rehearsal for what old age will be like (tired, lonely, confusing, with nothing truly to our name except our memories, and our failures), then how should we prepare ourselves? Is it possible to create a society where memories and failures don’t induce such a gut-wrenching desire to flee? How can we learn to embrace the pain and the suffering? How can we avoid people slinking off into the void, disappearing forever? Is it true that society destroys love?  

I have a lot of questions. 

As a narrative, nothing much happens in Serotonin. Some dramatic events happen, but the things that happen don’t seem to matter as much as the things that fail to happen, or the things that could have happened differently, as a result of Florent-Claude’s failure to take responsibility for his own life. This is why it has been the book I’m turning to for answers during this lockdown, because Serotonin is also about a man who spends most of his time not-existing within the four walls of his room.

The lockdown has given me an inordinate amount of time to think. Most of the time I’m finding ways to distract myself. The answers I sought from Serotonin turned into more questions, but the vision of a future that it presents is believable and vivid enough to be a sort of answer. The critics who ignore it, alleging “racism” or “sexism”, do so at their own risk. Just as how racial and sexual differences aren’t morally real (they’re only real as biological technicalities, like the fact that some people have more/less melanin than others), racism and sexism are also not real problems. They’re superficial problems that will sort themselves out with time. The problem of loneliness and the self-hating tendency to hijack one’s own happiness, however, feels very much more real to me. 

You plunge into the past, you begin to plunge into it and then it seems as if you’re being engulfed by it, and nothing can put a limit on that engulfment.

Serotonin, Michel Houellebecq

Selected Ambient Work #2

Day 4 of Malaysia’s third movement control order. All economic sectors are closed except for essential services.

Prep time: 5 minutes
Cook time: 15 minutes (including boiling the pasta)
Movie run time: 2 hours
Eating time: < 5 minutes
Cleaning up time: > 5 minutes 

And so it goes, the interminable self-subsistence that will last for at least another two more weeks (most likely longer, perhaps months longer) as the nation enters its third (or is it fourth?) “full” lockdown.

Well, it’s not all bad. I get more time to sit in bed reading before I start work for the day. (If I do indeed start work at all.) I get to watch more movies and amuse myself with little new interests like, for example, Shakespeare. I’m currently reading James Shapiro’s The Year of Lear: Shakespeare in 1606, after having watched Akira Kurosawa’s Ran, Ian McKellen’s King Lear by the RSC, Roman Polanski’s and Orson Welles’s productions of Macbeth, and a local production of King Lear on Zoom by the KL Shakespeare Players. I like to watch interpretations of these two stories over and over because their poetic violence offers so much for actors, directors, and stage designers to work with, and I also tend to like things where everyone ends up dying. One interesting thing I discovered from reading the Shapiro book is that, even as late as the 17th century, people were still disembowelling traitors in public and sticking their heads up on stakes, exactly like in Roman Polanski’s production. I had thought that his version of Macbeth, made in 1971, was just particularly violent because the 60s was over and his wife and child had just been slaughtered, and that Macbeth’s 11th-century setting had offered him an excuse for barbaric catharsis, when in fact people still retained all these medieval rituals even up till the 1600s. Next on my watch list is Throne of Blood.

I was never taught Shakespeare in school, and I’m discovering that Shakespeare is one of those perfect things to get lost in when you’ve got way too much time on your hands, because there’s already such a glut of content related to him, from the extensive original source material to the ever-expanding amount of interpretations. When people ask what I’ve been getting up to, I tell them I’ve been watching movies. When they ask what sort of movies, I say samurai movies. Saying that I’ve been watching a bunch of Shakespeare productions sounds not only nerdy but also kind of juvenile: oh, you’re only having your Shakespeare phase now? 

Anyway, aside from that I just bought one of those ergonomic laptop stands, the ones that will prop up your laptop so that you can look straight at the screen instead of bending your neck too much. I got it in pink, just to feel something. It cost RM 7 on Shopee, it would have been more with shipping but I used one of Shopee’s infinite free shipping vouchers (their vouchers are an entire stable of gift horses, and it feels immoral). It hasn’t arrived yet, but, buying it, I felt like a total loser — buying anything ergonomic feels like a concession to techno-capitalism’s global enslavement. I wish I could be a hot underaged TikTok star and never send an email or open a laptop ever again.

Two weekends ago, I ordered fried chicken and it arrived in an oily mess, the fries had spilled out of their fry holder and gone everywhere, they were crushed. I didn’t ask for a refund, but I did write a review on Grab: “Received in an oily mess. Fries everywhere. Unsure whether fault of driver or vendor.” It doesn’t and won’t do anything, but I am running so short on feelings that I just pick up on any little thing, just to hold on to it for a moment. Just to talk to someone, maybe. The other day, I sent an email to an editor of a newspaper, which I’ve never done before. I feel like a deranged castaway, marooned on a desert island, turning over rocks to talk to the insects. 

People have written about the depression of lockdown, the one that stems from being separated from the emotional support of your friends for a long, unnatural period of time, and people have also written about their experiences of paranoid anxiety at the thought of re-entering the world again after lockdown, but I haven’t stumbled upon an article yet that combines the sentiments of the two to talk about how lockdown, whether you support it or not, actually creates a depressive ecosystem that makes you never want to re-enter the world again. Not for fear of the virus. I guess a separate article doesn’t need to be written about it, because this is an obvious defining feature of depression, which is a dull cycle. All it takes is not leaving the house for a few days for you to never leave the house again, to not even be capable of imagining leaving the house again. It’s as if you’d been born here, and you’d always been here, really: everything else, all the other moments had just been lies, fantasies to help you cope, when the truth is that you’ll always be here even if you’re somewhere else, and eventually you’ll realise this, stop chasing all those illusory elsewheres, and give in to your fate, which is here. Sometimes I feel bad because I haven’t made any effort to check up on any of my friends since this lockdown started, not even by replying to their stories. But then I realise that nobody’s asked for me either, and I feel a sense of relief.

I actually like lockdown, I wanted it. When the cases were climbing up to 5000, I echoed what many people in the comments section on The Star’s Facebook page were saying, that the country should go into lockdown until the case numbers come down. Isn’t it the case that you always want things to be another way, and then when things go that way, you wish they could go back to the way they were before, etc. I never learn from all this. But I’ve experienced enough lockdowns to know by now that I’m an inconsistent dumbass and I should just admit that I like lockdown, and I enjoy this stagnant depression too, it’s calming and mechanical. Days pass without event, sometimes I go an entire day without saying more than one or two words. My brain is a gentle confused fog. I have more time to read books, watch movies, and to just spend time alone with myself. I don’t feel anything towards any piece of breaking news or fresh conflict happening around the world, I don’t have “takes”. I’ve really cut down the amount I post to my Stories now. There’s not much I care to say. 

Before the lockdown, I went for a last cycle with P — gentle P, another friend of the abyss. We get along well because, at the end of the day, we’re both very lonely. Sometimes a successful relationship just depends on understanding that, and not asking anything from each other beyond that understanding. 

I arrived late, I left my house at 10 when I said I’d arrive at 10. When we set off, it was probably already approaching 11. Right behind P’s house is an entrance into the sprawling Kwong Tong cemetery compound, and we walked our bikes up because the incline of the hill leading there is way more than I’m capable of. Sun was out, no sign of rain on the horizon: a late morning that’s testament to how nice the weather must have been just a few hours earlier, if only I’d bothered to wake up earlier. 

The cemetery is the biggest Chinese cemetery in Malaysia, acres upon acres of headstones as far as the eye can see; and then the Kuala Lumpur skyline beyond a horizon of trees, with the awkward, brutish PNB and TRX buildings sticking out. Yap Ah Loy is buried here, and he has a great big black marble commemoration plaque where his grave is. The graves have pictures of the deceased on them, some have many Chinese words on them, some have illustrations that represent the Twenty-four Filial Exemplars. Some of the graves are larger than others, practically pavilions really, and better maintained. Some other sections are just thickets of tall grass and weeds that scratch you when you try to walk through. There’s a narrow road for cars, and it’s fringed with a number of interesting trees and shrubs. Frangipani, hibiscus. I’ve been to the cemetery multiple times with P, but each time I feel like I discover some new section of it that I don’t remember noticing before. Near the edges of the cemetery, where it opens up onto the Japanese War Memorial and Alice Smith School, there’s a building that looks like a ramshackle old mini mansion, seemingly unoccupied, except that there used to be a little cafe operating from the corner where some friendly Chinese folks would sell you cold beer in bottles. It was called the “Graveyard Bar” on Google Maps. That bar is closed now though the building still stands, and dogs fill the compound, barking at you if you cycle too close. I just followed P blindly and I still don’t really know where all everything is, and we were the only living people around except for the occasional Foodpanda rider. 

It’s hilly and bumpy up there, with a bunch of minor potholes. Each time I pushed myself up a slight hill I would be rewarded with the smooth decline on the other side of it, and then P would turn around because we’d reached some dead end, and the decline that had been my friend now became an inimical incline. We made a few circles before I ran out of breath, and the entire time P hardly broke a sweat. I love cycling, and up in that cemetery among the mottled sunlight and the rows of still grey stone, utterly alone, I felt like I was in Studio Ghibli’s Ponyo when the moon-change of tides turns the entire city into a Paleolithic forest. It was peaceful and regenerative, the breeze upon my face felt clear and pure. 

To tell the truth, the intermittent lockdowns have hardened my heart, and I go through the days not feeling anything except boredom and some low-level despair. I don’t miss seeing my friends much, my soul is too tired to miss anything or to hope for anything. But I miss cycling. 

Signing off for now, ‘As a cyclist’,