MBS, chewing gum and bad English are icons of Singapore in American short fiction?

I’m just going to go to town on Jonathan Lethem‘s shitty New Yorker piece, “A Gentleman’s Game”.

 

Let’s start with the beginning. He wrote:

“Casual Western dress wasn’t frowned on in Singapore, so long as that meant appalling tourist pastels, striped Lacoste polo shirts, and rack-fresh sports or hip-hop gear, Juicy Couture, and so forth. “

What?? Then what do you think people wear around here?? Loincloths and neck rings?

 

“Billy Yik Tho Lim, the former director of the I.S.D., Singapore’s secret police.”

What kind of a name is that?? Is he Cantonese, Cambodian, or Hokkien? Also, why on earth is his surname last?

 

“No dens of iniquity?” she teased. “Chewing-gum orgies, nothing?”

“ABC gum… Already Been Chewed”

“What’s a horny deaf girl to do? I was going to suggest chew gum, but then I remembered.”

Did this guy just google Singapore and decided that he needed to riff on chewing gum not once, but three times in this endlessly obnoxious piece?

 

“Shit, that’s no better than a Budweiser,” Stolarsky said at the bar, when he’d slurped off the top inch of Tira Harpaz’s Tiger.

“Every nation needs its Budweiser,” Bruno said.

“Now, let’s bring Tira her indigenous Budweiser…”

Lethem really doesn’t let up on his references. His idea of scene-setting is taking a thing which he considered mildly witty, and beating the audience to death with it.

 

“Fair enough. We can easily walk to Lau Pa Sat for some food from the market stalls. Or in the other direction, to Orchard Road, if you like.”

As Jon Gresham has noted – who the hell walks to Lau Pa Sat or Orchard Road from Raffles Hotel?

 

“Inside, they plumped themselves in a vacant corner of the Swissôtel’s modern lounge and ordered iced coffees from the waitress… Christ, this stuff is like maple syrup.” Tira had swigged half an iced coffee, set down by the waitress during the course of her monologue… Bruno had realized the startling sweetness of their exchange at the last instant, like the condensed milk at the bottom of his glass, which crept between his lips only after he’d drained the black coffee above.”

WHY ON EARTH DO YOU THINK YOU WOULD GET CONDENSED MILK IN YOUR ICED COFFEE AT THE SWISSOTEL???

 

“Falk’s Singaporean “butler” was a houseboy, really, supplied by the hotel but soon usurped to Falk’s local purposes…

“Mister Edgar is massage,” the butler said.

“He asked me to come by. I can wait, or come back—”

“No, he want you come in.”

COULD YOU HAVE BOTHERED TO RESEARCH SINGLISH IF YOU WANTED A REASONABLY AUTHENTIC NATIVE SLAVE?

 

“Your luck is no good,” Lim had said at first, making no direct reference to the hickey. The former secret-police director’s English was governmentally genteel, but with a blunt overtone.

“Not at the moment,” Bruno admitted.

“You shouldn’t have played tonight,” Lim said, grinning. “You been kissed by an octopus.” It was then that he pointed at Bruno’s neck.

COULD YOU HAVE BOTHERED TO RESEARCH SINGLISH IF YOU WANTED “GOVERNMENTALLY GENTEEL, BUT WITH A BLUNT OVERTONE”, AS OPPOSED TO GRAMMATICALLY WTF???

 

 

Joshua Ip is a poet, writer, editor and literary organiser with his own blog.

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