There aren’t a lot of books that take place in Singapore. Wikipedia’s category page for Novels Set in Singapore lists only twenty-six. Now, there are books missing from that list (I added one to the list while writing this), but let’s take this as a sample group. A cursory glance shows that many of these books are not set in contemporary Singapore, but rather around the second World War or before the country was established as it is now. None of them are books you’re probably gonna happen upon, and a few are long out of print.
Point is, not a lot of books about modern Singapore.
Which is why, upon finding it on display in a bookstore in the Village, I added Crazy Rich Asians to my reading list. The blurb sounded interesting enough; a Singaporean-living-in-New-York (Nick) brings his ABC girlfriend (Rachel) to Singapore for a friend’s wedding and to meet his parents (who are crazy rich). Should be fun.
Of course, the main reason I picked up the book and read it was because it was a book by a Singaporean about Singapore. I haven’t read a book that would fall into either category since… well, I can’t remember.
And for most of the book, it’s why I kept reading. The prose of Crazy Rich Asians, is passable at its best, perfectly perfunctory and rife with massive chunks of exposition. Most frustrating of all, it is bereft of a voice. It could almost be excused as just lackluster writing, except that we catch glimmers of one in the footnotes used to translate bits of Singlish or explain a reference to a Singaporean institution (but, for some reason, not to excise the paragraphs of stilted exposition that exist in the text). Writer Kevin Kwan does shine through in parts, particular when capturing the idiosyncratic speech pattern of Singaporeans, or small details about the food (and importance thereof) in Singapore. But it is, for the most part, a bit of a dull read.
But I can forgive lackluster prose. Michael A. Stackpole is not the most deft writer, but his X-Wing books are well-plotted and offer a fun, pulpy read with distinct, memorable characters. Crazy Rich Asians, however, has only the barest bones of a plot. Rachel gets a chunk of culture shock when she realizes how rich Nick’s family is, meanwhile Nick’s mother tries to break them up, seeing as Rachel doesn’t come from an established family. There’s also Nick’s cousin who suspects her husband of infidelity. There’s nothing inherently wrong with these plots, except that they’re all stretched out over the book’s five hundred-odd pages, with little development for whole swaths of the book and interspersed with small subplots that offer little insight into characters or the bigger, overacting plots. It’s like an open-world video game with too many sidequests in book form. The big issue, besides the whole pacing thing, is that so much of the conflict is contrived. Which, again, wouldn’t be an issue were the characters interesting; but Nick, Rachel, et al. feel more like ciphers than characters, hollow shells who act and react however best to move the plot along or, more often add to The Drama. When the book finally resolves with the most overdone trope ever, it’s more an eventuality than a culmination. Characters don’t make choices, character’s don’t have inner conflict, characters don’t have character.
So why the hell did I keep reading? Besides, y’know, my aversion to complaining and criticizing material I don’t watch/read/play. Simple answer: Singapore. I’ve spent around half my life in that country at various points and have a complex relationship with the place. There’s a thrill to seeing it in fiction and recognizing places and foods. I suppose for people without a connection to the country would find the book intriguing for the, well, exoticness of Singapore and it’s super-rich elite. It leaves a weird feeling in my gut. To me, Singapore isn’t exotic; it’s pretty normal, so exoticizing someplace like Singapore is odd in and of itself, and downright bizarre when the book’s appeal seems to hang on that hook. We get it, Singapore is a unique place, but you’ve gotta do something with it. Tolkien didn’t just create an encyclopedia of Middle-Earth, he sets epic stories in it to flesh it out. Kwan’s characters never become more interesting than Singapore, and a location, no matter how exotic, shouldn’t be what drives a story.
There are two more books in this series, and I’m mildly curious about whether they improve. But as it stands, Crazy Rich Asians is an immensely frustrating book. I want to see Singapore and all its idiosyncrasies in fiction, I just want to see it done well. I guess I kept reading with the hopes that hey, it’d finish well, but so much for that.