“It’s human to live life your own way, ignoring everything else. Sometimes the choices you make to live in a certain way can screw the other stable things in your life, but what can you do?” O Thiam Chin regards the mechanics of existence.
In his newest longform fiction, The Dogs, O maps out life’s purpose through Guan—the middle-aged man revisits his childhood after moving back into a flat that once belonged to his late father who sold it off before his demise. Flashbacks follow and Guan reminisces a friendship with Heng Chong and the stray dog they’ve adopted.
Set in 1950s Singapore, this tale focuses on Guan’s perspective and his desire to tie loose ends that baffled him back then. In doing so, he also unexpectedly attains a clearer understanding of his present predicament and learns to cope with his own losses and find ways to redeem himself from his past acts. Through this exploration, Guan finds optimism in solitude faced currently and a new life he’s rebuilding with hard-won resilience and fortitude.
Unlike O’s past acclaimed novels that involve a number of protagonists, The Dogs centres on a solo lead that allows him to fully realise the retrospective idea of this story. Details aren’t perfunctory. Although he first conceptualised it in 2017, O has constantly returned to this piece and honed its narrative intricately before sending it to publishers.
“The Dogs is a meditation on life and its cruelties and pain, but also an elegy of its joys and resilience,” O describes the novel. “You are only who you are, and sometimes it takes a long, long time to be just that. Cat lovers will also love this book, too, I think.”
His debut novel, Now That It’s Over, won the inaugural Epigram Books Fiction Prize (EBFP) in 2015 and the Best Fiction title at the 2017 Singapore Book Awards, and his second novel, Fox Fire Girl, was shortlisted for the EBFP in 2016. Besides gaining attention and awards for his full-length works, O’s short stories have also been featured in various local and international literary anthologies and thrice longlisted for the Frank O’Connor Short Story Award, along with a 2014 Singapore Literature Prize shortlist for Love, Or Something Like Love. His most recent short stories collection is Signs of Life, published in 2019.
Short narratives and long-form writings have their own significance. “Like a gem or a crown, the former a beauty all on its own, and the latter an assemblage of such gems,” says O. “Frankly, it’s only the length that separates one from the other, all else is just stamina and imagination and writerly preferences. I always want to expand some ideas from my stories into something larger and more expansive.”
O describes himself as an oddball, but I think he’s eclectic and receptive. “I’m still trying to know who and what I’m doing, while writing and figuring things out. I started scribbling when I was in my early twenties, and then managed somehow to turn these scribblings into stories later on, thanks to the supernatural forces, like the mysterious ways of the Universe,” he adds.
“We will always need stories; in whatever form they take. Literary works are just a part of it, albeit dressier and more suited-up. It may not be everyone’s taste, but it needs to be out there, it needs to exist, because such works are mirrors and testaments to and of life,” O speaks about his motivation in churning out narratives still.
When it comes to zoning a core narrative, spontaneity is key. “There’s no other way to get into writing, but to leap blindly into it, hoping you will at least make it through a day of writing. The rest is just perspiration and manic hair-pulling. I never know what I’ll get out of a story or novel until I write it, and then it’s like, ‘hmm, what do you know?’” Hence, the birth of The Dogs, which explores the past’s role in the present. There’s bound to be some fact in fiction.
“The past is always present, and we can only live in the present, and so the past is always with us, like a system flaw, so they say. I always like the idea of how one thinks about the past, and how one imagines and constructs certain episodes or events from it. The past is never stable, and its instability, or malleability and fluidity, is what is so fascinating about it; we actively shape the ideas and forms of our past as we live.”
Binding all factors and events is a stray dog, which is a catalyst that triggers associated past memories. And there’s more to it than activating remembrance. “The stray dog is the fear and the unknown, the wild beast that prowls at the borders of our minds, our lives, dominating our thoughts. It represents what is savage and primal and unconscious; it’s very alive, and it’s never going away. It is the bloody, bleeding heart of the story.”
The Dogs is published by Penguin Random House SEA and available for purchase at bookstores including Kinokuniya.