Tale for Gen Vexed


"STEVE got his dick caught in the window. He blames me, of course."

With an opening line like that, you know this is not going to be another ho-hum novel about East Vs West. Mammon Inc., Tan Hwee Hwee's second offering and one of precious few Singaporean novels to hit the international market, does not disappoint. On the surface, it is your standard morality tale about cultural identity, money versus love, and following the wrong god home. But that is where the similarity with Catherine Lim's latest romance ends.

Tan, 27, has constructed a smart, restless, effortlessly cosmopolitan satire -- much more in sync with Gen X sensibilities than the older Lim's traditional prose sortie.

Mammon's plot is as clean-cut as a Hollywood blockbuster: Oxford grad girl Chiah Deng toys with the notion of entering blissful academia with the Yoda-like Prof Ad-oy. But the filial Singaporean in her genes prompts her towards a glam corporate post with mega-MNC, Mammon Inc. (think Microsoft on steroids) as an Adapter -- helping clients blend into the glitterati across foreign cultures.

First, she has to prove her worth by gate-crashing an ultra-glam Manhattan party. She then has to play Emma -- transforming her Ah Lian sister Chiah Chen into an Oxford debutante, and her Brit flatmate Steve into, well, Phua Chu Kang. Much frantic jetsetting, Cinderella angst and comedies of manners ensue.

It is a fun read. Tan infuses her sharp, snappy prose with hip urbane wit, pop culture allusions and a perceptive eye for the soundbite, punctuated by moments of lyrical grace. And she handles vernacular dialogue smoothly -- switching comfortably between British lad-speak to Singlish where appropriate.

Singaporean readers might want to skip the obligatory passages footnoting key concepts of local living, like scholarships, the GDP and durians.

Naturally, the novel is also a chance to explore some good old-fashioned issues: the cultural impact of globalisation, finding spirituality in a materialistic world, and the dilemma of identity for those caught in-between unequal value systems based on culture or creed.

It even ventures a definition of that protean creature, the "citizen of the world": "Young, creative geniuses in glamour jobs, with nerd-high levels of education but a hip sense of humour ... equally at home in a 212 or 0207 area code, equally well versed in the work of George Lucas and Joseph Campbell to be able to analyse the mythological archetypes in Star Wars."

Of course, the novel is not uneqivocally at ease with this glib, faux-sophistication of Gen Vex, a world built entirely on "bright surfaces" and global lifestyle choices. The process of cultural "Adaptation" demanded by Mammon soon begins to take on a more insidious sheen.

It is no surprise that the novel's dark gods, even as they own the world, have themselves been appropriated by the uber-cult of corporate capitalism. Old-world demons, from the Norse Jormugand to the Asian Yama and Kali, now head regional Mammon offices. Also on the world stage are New-Economy deities fresh from the popular imagination, particularly the Star Wars franchise: Sidious, Tarkin, Sith.

Ironically, the allure of the Dark Side is not money but love. It is the deep-seated Gen X dream: a community which embraces their hopeless diversity of interests, contradictions and cultural affliations, without threatening to homogenise them.

That, and a secured place among the global elite, the promise of being "somebody" instead of a mere statistic among the teeming masses.

Yet the alternatives presented to Chiah Deng, such as the monastic serenity of academia and mystic theology with Jedi Master Prof Ad-oy -- come across as intellectually compelling, but somewhat escapist and altogether inadequate options. Erstwhile boyfriend Tock Seng Edwards -- himself a cultural hybrid -- is set up as Chiah Deng's bohemian foil and soulmate, but never quite gets enough airtime to be a fleshed out, viable get-out clause.

Like the movie The Empire Strikes Back, Mammon Inc. is a compelling but somewhat inconclusive ride which cries out for a sequel: a chance for the Rebellion to thwart the Evil Empire. Then again that is not how the real world works, is it?

If you still believe Singaporean writers have nothing to offer the world except florid period family dramas in cheongsams and orchids, it is time to catch up with reality. Mammon Inc. is a great place to start. Sign up now, but be warned: The price could be your soul.