Globalization and its discontents: Narrating change and continuity in Claire Tham’s The Inlet

By Ang Jia Jin

The Inlet  is constituted of complexly interwoven narratives that accrete into the story of how the naked body of Wang Ling, a young, educated and attractive woman from a small Chinese village, came to be found in a swimming pool in a bungalow situated in an ultra-exclusive neighbourhood. The tragedy of her drowning implicates the inhabitant of the house, and the novel explores how the histories of the victim, the suspect, the case’s investigators and their associates contribute to unravelling the mystery surrounding the death of Wang Ling. Claire Tham thus limns a fascinating illustration of the psychic condition of contemporary Singapore, in the textual rendering of the existential uprootedness that attends globalization and its related contrivances to cosmopolitanism and social mobility, and I find the novel to be a highly instructive text in connection with the broader themes of this class.

The text effectively captures the irrevocable changes in Singapore society. Markers of selfhood are remarkably fluid in the novel, enabling the never-ending evolution of characters’ identities. Characters continually define and re-define themselves, jettisoning and embodying new structures of existence. Working-class figures within the novel possess the impressive capacity for social mobility, and in their pursuit of socioeconomic betterment become entirely different people, with radically changed lived experiences. The novel is unequivocal about the totality of this change: Winston, the head of the investigations and an Oxbridge scholar, abandons his identification as a person of very humble origins, his localized accent and his birth name, for an Anglicized name and the clipped tones of the educated class. Kristie, the housing agent who facilitates the sale of the Inlet, carefully constructs an image of “glossy perfection” through a laborious daily regime of makeup and grooming, while Willy Gan, the very wealthy owner of the bungalow, retains his unostentatious, modest office only as an affectation towards working-class unpretentiousness. Sociological typologies thus fail to contain and organize existences. This fluidity is propounded by the novel’s shifting, non-linear spatial and temporal boundaries, and its allusion to the variegated places of origin and inhabitation (such as Hong Kong, New York, India, the UK, and China’s rural and urban spaces) among the complex cast of characters, and the overall effect is to blur the demarcation of Them and Us, and our sense of rootedness in class identities, time and place.

The sense of a protean narrative space emerging out of the absence of fixity is supported by the motif of movement in the novel. Homes are deserted, indicative of how they are just physical spaces devoid of permanent personal attachment. The text alludes to the rapid succession with which homes are built, inhabited, evacuated and sold, then re-inhabited and renovated. The transience of space, the discarding of place, suggests that the land on which homes are built and existences are lived out is essentially developmental tabula rasa. The title of the novel, and the name of the enclave within which Wang Ling met her tragic end, also takes on symbolic value in this aspect. Inlets are apertures to the flux of the sea, and it is in this opening of possibilities that attends hyper-globality that characters of the novel are thrown into the psychic condition of transitory instability.

The articulation of the national condition of flux is the value of the text to this module. I do, however, have a few reservations. Tham, in an interview, stated that she set out to write a novel that enunciates the “change”, “tensions” and “ferment” of contemporary Singapore, and I reckon that the first goal has been adequately expressed in the text. I am less convinced of the success with which she has achieved the latter set of concerns. Despite the focus on class tensions in the novel, the discontentment of the 99% is not adequately represented, much less those of the economically disadvantaged: Wang Ling’s peasant family is represented through the vantage point of Willy Gan’s quasi-socialite wife. Additionally, the heavy-handed, belabored explication of the rather specific criticisms that have been volleyed at the establishment sits jarringly and uncomfortably with the fluid, intimate tenor of Tham’s prose, and gives the narratives within the novel a somewhat uneven quality. Tham has remarkable facility in expressing middle-class disaffection, and has in her previous works effectively limned the interiorized condition of restlessness and anomie of urban characters. (Her earlier short story collections are especially strong.) The Inlet is a marked departure from Tham’s usual approach to displacement within the sociopolitical entity, and I am not entirely convinced that this change is successful.

In all, the novel is a text in that contributes to the debate over what national literature might look like. It documents the changes to the composition of the national body and the nation-space in its construction of amorphous identities and senses of place, and is for the most part a nuanced, sensitive representation of the modern Singaporean condition.

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