Saturday 22 September 2018

Multi-generational chorus of voices in thrilling debut

Fiction: Ponti, Sharlene Teo, Picador, hardback, 304 pages, €16.90

Blend of genres: Sharlene Teo
Blend of genres: Sharlene Teo
Ponti

By the time I had finished reading Ponti, I desperately wanted to watch Ponti. The former is the highly-anticipated debut novel from Singaporean writer Sharlene Teo. The latter is a fictional cult 1970s horror flick in which Amisa, one of the novel's protagonists, was the star.

We first encounter Amisa as a child, her rural upbringing plagued by loneliness since most of her fellow villagers find her unnatural beauty disturbing. Even her parents "looked at her every day like she might murder them". But eventually Amisa moves to Singapore, where she is scouted by a 'visionary' named Iskandar Wiryanto, who happens to be making a film about a murderous, unnaturally-beautiful woman.

Amisa's life is about to change - she imagines Oscars and billboards and private jets. Appropriately for an on-screen zombie, she relishes the idea that "she would be immortal". However, Ponti turns out to be a resounding flop, leaving Amisa with nothing but a failed career, a failed marriage and an unnaturally unbeautiful daughter named Szu.

Fast-forward to 2003 and Szu is now a fully-grown, fully-depressed teenager. "Today," she groans, "marks my sixteenth year on this hot, horrible earth." Unlike her mother, Szu's upbringing has been entirely urban, wandering the smoggy Singapore streets. At her Convent high school, a hot-bed of playground politics and elaborate eating disorders, Szu admits "Maths and other people were a foreign language".

But just like her mother, Szu's loneliness looks set to be alleviated by a stranger with an intriguing name. Circe's opening gambit is as blunt and unconventional as the intense friendship the girls soon form: "I heard you're like the girl from The Ring," she declares. "You never wash your hair and you're fucking creepy. You climb out of TVs."

Like The Ring, however, the girls' relationship isn't destined for a happy ending. The next time we encounter Circe she is a 30-year-old divorcee who hasn't seen or spoken to Szu in over a decade. Relatively content with her new single status and her work as a social media consultant, Circe's main preoccupation seems to be the horror film taking place inside her, as she wages war on the tapeworm that has taken residence in her gut: "Now I'm killing the sucker, slowly and surely. Poisoning the life out of it."

However, this all changes when her boss assigns her a new account - the 2020 remake of a largely-forgotten, low-rent film named Ponti. This time the studio is certain of success having cast 'a Eurasian model/influencer/singer' in the lead role. But for Circe, the original star - and her daughter - are far from forgotten, rising up from the dead like zombies of a past life. So she is forced to confront her memories of that profound teenage friendship and its horrifying end.

Teo's debut novel won the inaugural Deborah Rogers Writer's Award and is already being compared to the likes of Zadie Smith. Such comparisons can sometimes serve as a lazy default when describing any new young, female BAME writer, however Ponti's cultural commentary and multi-generational chorus of voices do indeed recall White Teeth, while its unflinching depiction of young female friendship echoes Smith's most recent, Swing Time. As Circe herself recognises: "We were symbiotic in the intense, irreplicable way that comes as part and parcel of being careworn teenage girls; we wheedled and resented each other in fluctuating measures."

For me, Teo also resembles an entirely different writer - Paul Murray - whose tragicomic coming-of-age tale Skippy Dies likewise focuses on a group of gawky youths and their cult obsessions whilst yet posing some deeper questions.

Indeed, just as Ponti 2020 the film is intended to be "arty but all action. Like Wong Kar Wai mixed with Quentin Tarantino", so too does Ponti the novel blend and subvert a whole host of genres. There are slapstick set pieces and supernatural subplots; there are astrophysical musings and astronomical quantities of toilet chat; there are coincidences and clangers which lead nowhere at all.

Some of these work better than others, but by the time the novel has finished, there is no denying Amisa's dream has been realised. These three women and their stories will live on; they have been made immortal.

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