27 March 2011

The Finkler Question

I am not sure if I should be ashamed to say it, but the only reason I finished reading The Finkler Question is because I didn’t want to abandon two novels in a row. Less than two weeks ago I gave up on The Judgment of Paris, which, thanks to Gore Vidal's prose (it sashays!), I'd found entertaining enough, but which, no thanks to Gore Vidal's prose (it sashays!), after a hundred or so pages I could no longer keep my concentration on. So I started reading the Jacobson, which won the Man Booker Prize in 2010.

Well, congratulations. All I have to say is that I must have really bad taste. Room — one of the shortlisted novels that lost to The Finkler Question — I quite liked but didn't love. I probably still think better of it than The Finkler Question, which, like The Judgment of Paris, I initially thought I was going to fall in love with. The first two, three chapters are really funny. Like I'm-laughing-in-a-coffee-shop-by-myself funny. And then the story, or the long, long reflection, on Jewish identity suddenly emerges and before I know it I'm dreading reading. I must say that it was not solely the whole obsession with Jewishness that made it a chore to finish the book. (Besides, I thought, if I write a book, won't I find myself equally obsessed with Filipino-ness?) But The New Yorker makes an observation that I just have to agree with completely: "Jacobson has a weakness for breaking into one-line paragraphs, so as to nudge the punch line on us." These one-liners work at first, I guess, but the more Jacobson uses it the more I feel like I'm being pounced on. Which would be all right if I weren't reading a novel. But I'm reading a novel, and yeah, sure, while sometimes it's okay to be pounced on, let it please not be one-liners that pounce on me. So, in my humble opinion, the P.G. Wodehouse and Evelyn Waugh comparisons are way off. The Finkler Question reads more like it's written by a British Jonathan Ames. (An awesome writer still!)

Also, Mr. Jacobson will likely generate an amazing number of followers if he ever decides to use Twitter.

This is not to say I don't admire him. I do! He writes great conversation. I even recommended the book to my Kabbalah-practicing lawyer cousin, writing to him in an E-mail, "There are 'light' insights on Jewishness, Judaism, and Zionism somewhere in there — but I recommend The Finkler Question only so that you can be entertained by it. Lawyerly life can get so busy, after all."

16 March 2011

Silver Feather

Everybody’s getting married these days. Those who aren’t getting married are, for career-related reasons, going to Singapore. No, really. I’m Facebook serious.

It usually applies to friends of the same demographic. Twenty-five, like me, twenty-six. Twenty-whatever: they’re not counting too importantly, but thirty does appear terrifying, and it looms on the threshold like an in-law. Also, a college degree. Each has watched and liked at least one art film, not including Lost in Translation; knows at least one huge local celebrity, but outrightly rejects the connection as a claim to fame; has zero experience in manual labor; pledges support for, instead of against, the proposed Reproductive Health Bill, all while feigning utter annoyance at having been unable, for one unamusing reason or another, to do anything to express that support.

Now, mother, you are free to lift an eyebrow over me beginning to talk of being left behind. God knows I did, too. “They’re blooming too quickly for their own good” was what they — we — had pronounced early on in a worry-free game of Chinese whispers among twenty-one, twenty-two, twenty-three-year-olds. “Seriously, how do you make a lifetime commitment to another person at such a young age?” And then one by one, tuxedo by tuxedo, Facebook album by Facebook album, in a series of creatively executed (and often also very silly) engagement announcements and bad dance floor photography, we — they — got married.

Upon receiving these good tidings I now cannot help but feel a growing sense of alarm. Like I’m running out of time or something. Even running out of friends. It’s like armpit hair in high school: you start to look under your arms once you’ve found out that everybody else is growing it. Everybody’s planning their nuptials and buying closets for their new homes, while I’m coming out of the old, I’m-so-normal-and-straight closet and planning this new sort of life. Persecuting congratulations and similarly bitter double entrendes have thus suddenly started to get old. The situation has become a lot less laughable. It’s true that only few of us are left to blurt out devastating quips about the institution of marriage, and about those who chose to protect their love lives under it.

Of this few, a number have left, or are about to leave the country. Which is understandable: anyone who is young, or anyone who hasn’t outgrown restlessness, and who has had to habitually breathe the Manila air is bound to try out some fresh pollution. Regardless of smoking bans, Singapore will seem like a good choice. A dollar there holds thirty-three times more value than does the Philippine peso. The Ministry of Manpower-issued EPEC — or Employment Pass Eligibility Certificate — can be obtained for free by any foreigner with professional qualifications, and it’s valid for a year. Movie stars in Singapore don’t shift to careers in dirty politics, because there are neither dirty politics in Singapore nor movie stars. Ask me any number of times, mother, and I will tell you every time that venturing to support the next left-wing movement or getting involved in any form of politics is going to be so much harder than just buying a plane ticket.

So one by one, kopi tiam by kopi tiam, Facebook album by Facebook album…

I walked into your bedroom the other day to borrow a handkerchief and saw you sleeping. I stopped and thought to myself, God, you’re a beautiful woman. I couldn’t imagine father having married anyone else. There was something about the way you rested your head on the pillow and clasped a rosary in between your hands, something about the way the afternoon wind let a faint silver streak of your hair sway in one soft, natural motion, like feather, made me want to cry, which I did, right after dashing frantically downstairs and shutting the bathroom door. I splashed my face with water and thought that if there’s no other man in the world to do it, I wish I could be the one to make you a grandmother.

I wouldn’t, after all, be twenty-five if you weren’t fifty-nine, and if you hadn’t been twenty-five yourself. Once, you too had to concern yourself with the legalities, the conventions, the sacrifices of surrendering to love. You had to manage what your namesake, Edith Wharton, once wrote of as not being the safe anchorage people were taught to think, but a voyage on uncharted seas. Still you sailed through without being robbed of any of your goodness, to which the crowning touch should be, without a doubt, a grandchild.

Unfortunately, I am in an unpleasant enough position to even think of what it would take for me to help you in that department. I’m probably doomed to be heirless, and – pouncing on the armpit analogy a little bit harder – it’s all because I’m hairless.

Someday — maybe not today, but someday — I will learn to think less of being left behind. Who knows? Maybe I’ll even get married; it may never be to someone I met in a bookstore hunkered over a copy of Vile Bodies, and my getting engaged may never take place on a gondola, as I’ve always imagined it would. Any form of account of how it all happened, you can be sure, will not be published on Facebook. But by then, I think, I’d have ceased to care. The belief that everything was so urgent at twenty-five wasn’t my fault, and it certainly wasn’t yours.

15 March 2011

Comfort Food

I was asked to write about Thai Dara – this little restaurant on Granada Street serving “Bangkok street food” – by its friendly proprietor, whose name, which I won’t tell you, is the same as that of a popular (and fictional) English spy, except it’s one letter short and ends with the letter “n” instead of “d”.

“Sure, why not,” was my equally friendly reply. “If an assignment for a food magazine comes up, we’ll certainly write about Thai Dara. But right now my editor is only covering sports and tech and corporate stuff.”

If you live in Manila, the place isn’t at all hard to find. If you don’t live in Manila, you might have to ask for directions from someone who does. Or you might need a map, and a friend who can point out the names of the streets on that map. Thai Dara is that sort of place: unassuming, unheralded, unpretentious (waiters wear shirts, shorts, and slippers), hardly advertised or publicized, perfectly content to place itself right next to an online gaming cafĂ©, a bargain furniture shop, and a Chinese diner. There’s not much going on inside, which is to say it’s cozy enough: customers come in, waiters take the order, food is served, and videos of Thai musicians in concert are played on a flat-screen TV that hangs on the corner of a wall near the bar. On another wall is plastered a collage of pictures – of male models, city lights, and landmarks – torn from glossy Bangkok magazines.

I only ever order the hot basil chicken and yellow curry rice. Sometimes, the Thai green curry chicken, which is barraged with eggplants. That and some beers or, on a good night, mojitos, which are fatally yummy. I have also sampled the pork satay, of which not even a proper amateur’s assessment is possible, given my fundamental aversion to peanut butter. But servings are huge, and with two to three hundred pesos you’re likely to have on your table more than you can handle. If you have leftovers, have them wrapped in a bag and give them to the little boy in a white sando who waits outside and works for his dinner by flagging down taxis. If you have a car, let the kid assist you in maneuvering your vehicle out of parking, although if you live in Manila and have been driving in the city for years, assistance may not be necessary.

I have not been contacted by a food magazine, and I doubt if that will happen anytime soon. It doesn’t mean I don’t have anything worth writing about, because I do.

07 March 2011

She is Cruel in Her Demands

"(What) is certain is that talent does not protect and that the drive to be an artist may set your hair on fire causing first degree burns. This is what happened with these writers before the height of the sixties and the sexual revolution would bring the rest of America into the party. This happened when I was very young and didn’t understand that a sleeping child’s breath on your neck is worth far more than any novel and that wild drink is not an answer to any inner yearning and that Art is fine but only one of the Mistresses of happiness and sometimes She is cruel in her demands."
Journalist Anne Roiphe writing for The Wall Street Journal on “Why Alpha Male Writers Became Extinct”.

02 March 2011


She would fit in a shoebox, so it was hard enough to recall a time when Mitzie, our Shih Tzu, was noticeably smaller. But she was positively microscopic when we first brought her into our house about six years ago. She liked to hide in impossible spaces (if only because she could): between the fridge and the china cabinet, behind the open front door (flanking the umbrellas), under the coffee table, behind the sofa, her hairs ruining the bejesus out of the living room carpet. She hid under everything. My brother Josemaria would give her a bath, which she sometimes loved and usually tolerated, and afterwards she’d come back in to dry off and we’d have a towel running all over the place. Mitzie must have thought it was a cape.

She stopped hiding when it was time to eat. “Tzie! Tzie!” we sang after lunch or after dinner, and here was this cotton-haired, short-muzzled, marble-eyed, caramel-colored dog, in a sort of mad, funny rush to get some food, her mouth wide open, tongue sticking out, leaping to catch a shred of barbecue or a pathetic chicken bone in the air. I’d kill myself to watch this in slow motion. Mitzie didn’t like her food in a bowl; didn’t like it on the floor. When she was younger, she ate without manners and left the scraps of what she didn’t eat right where the housekeepers had just swept and mopped and polished. Years went by and floor mats became her dinner table. We have other dogs — ugly, disrespectful shits with eye discharge who live at the garage and bark all day, all looking like some sort of science experiment on sewer rats and warthogs gone wrong — but I only ever gave food to Mitzie. Feeding her made me feel — well, I don’t know, I guess it made me feel a little more human.

Mitzie became a mother about three years ago. It was a long wait. In her presence we used to feign utter despair over this impossible search for a mate. We joked about her being the forty-year-old virgin. She’d been ready for a long time. Left blood stains on the floor. Whenever someone came through the door she’d act like a nymphomaniac, raping human feet and lying on her back to showcase her nipples, which slightly swelled. For a time all she did was hump Nikes, Pumas, Islanders, Havaianas, Fred Perrys, Beachwalks. The one that eventually gave her babies was Brutus, a hideous dog who looks as rough as his name. He must have sneaked in and taken advantage of Mitzie while we’d all been away. The bastard. When Mitzie finally gave birth, I was there with father and Josemaria, and we made use of old newspapers. It was a quiet event and I almost threw up. From then on I felt even more sympathetic towards the dog.

I placed Mitzie on my lap the night before we learned she had pyometra, which I’d never heard of. It was the last night she ever stayed in our house. It was a reassuringly ordinary night, one that now seems farther back than a year ago. I was up late, working. She stayed up with me. She watched me make coffee and fill and refill my cup with hot water from the dispenser. She sighed when I told her to get off the Welcome mat. I’d told her other things on other nights, too, things I’d never tell anyone else, and she’d looked at me the way I was supposed to be looked at: like a dumb fool. If anyone made me feel as though I was taking my disenchantments way too seriously, it was Mitzie. Even when we visited her two nights later at the vet’s, she seemed to be taking everything in stride, no matter that the whites of her eyes had by then turned to yellow. Even her skin was jaundiced. It was like looking through cellophane.

She died the next morning. When we went to pick her up, she was already in a carton box. She fit well enough all right. Came wrapped in a sort of black garbage bag. I poked her body, hoping it wouldn’t lie just motionless like that, hoping the damned dog would come back to life. Poor little Mitzie. It kind of tore me up that she had to die surrounded by people she didn’t know, because a world without strangers is where she had always lived in, and what she’d always made our home.