Yeng Pway Ngon (author), Natascha Bruce (translator), Lonely Face, Balestier Press, 2019. 152 pgs.
Yeng Pway Ngon’s novella Lonely Face, translated into English by Natascha Bruce, relates an unnamed middle-aged man’s reflections on his recent divorce and his father’s death as he travels to a casino in Genting in Malaysia. In an interview with Qi Xin included in the book, Yeng described Lonely Face as “a chain of trivial incidents and reflections on… [(the protagonist’s)] life”. While the protagonist is a mundane Singaporean, his personal and social narrative is infused with drama. The blending of internal and cultural anxieties brings to mind the Heideggerian concept of dasein, which refers to the distinctly human capacity for self-consciousness about one’s presence in time and space (Newbery, 2012). Amid his entrapment in existential reflections and disorienting social transitions, dasein is the thread that gives continuity to the protagonist’s life.
The narrator’s ruminations about personal crises frequently insulate him from his immediate environment: objects become extensions of people in his life, strangers morph into family members and cause scenes from the past to replay. The narrator’s encapsulation within his mental world is most apparent in the coffin-like depiction of the bus “in the thick gloom, [in which] bodies sway gently side to side” (p. 59) as it hurtles towards its destination. Within it, his fragmented view of the girl sitting in front of him (e.g. “a flash of red each time the long sleeve of her sweater flutters of the armrest” p. 22, “[Qimin] was just like this girl, fiddling with her vent” p. 22) expresses a persistent yearning for his ex-wife. Yet from the beginning, links between household objects and the protagonist’s disintegrated family life highlight his sense of desolation:
Every single thing in the house reminds you of the life you had with Qimin and Xiaoqiang… The talcum powder you shared still stands on the dressing table; as does the soap and toothpaste in the bathroom and Xiaoqiang’s glass and toothbrush by the sink… After Qimin took him away, you would enter the bathroom and freeze at the sight of that glass and little toothbrush. (p. 10)
Then on pp. 125-126, the seamless alternation between the narrator’s past confrontation with his wife about her sexual encounter with a tour guide and his current interaction with another casino patron illustrates the extent to which his insecurities as a man consume his consciousness. The past takes on a mythical status to further amplify its role in determining the narrator’s current misfortune. Its almost-biblical power is accentuated in the fiery colour palette used when the protagonist’s sister is revealing their father’s secret:
The curtains were made of a creamy-yellow muslin… the bedsheets, pillows and wallpaper were all yellow-y orange. Sitting in the room was like being inside a cup of orange squash… Your sister had her back to the light, and the sun lit up her hair; strands lifted in the breeze, making her flicker like a flame. (p. 93-94)
The protagonist’s self-reflective hazes occur against a background of Singaporean culture teetering along various social cusps. The most notable social conflicts are the fractured negotiations between American individualism versus Chinese collectivism and traditional male dominance versus modern female autonomy. Qimin’s material desires and rejection of filial standards reflect an embrace of middle-class American atomism which conflicts with the protagonist’s sense of duty towards his ailing father. The idolisation of material improvement at the expense of all other aspects of life is demonstrated in the protagonist’s thoughts about his insufficiency:
She [Qimin] used to say she believed in bettering herself. And you could hardly blame her—everyone did back then… Society judges a person’s success according to their material possessions… According to this rubric, I am truly good for nothing. (p. 103)
The cliché of bettering oneself according to the American dream uses the individual’s accumulation of wealth as an indication of his effort. The word “rubric” evokes the image of marking school papers to emphasise the reduction of life to a scoreboard that equates human worth to material properties (e.g. salary, car). The shifting power balance between men and women is clearest in a conversation with another traveller (Liu) on the bus who is unaware of the protagonist’s recent divorce:
“A woman wouldn’t dare [cheat on her husband]!” He laughs.
“You’re not married, otherwise you’d understand. It’s different for women […] Men can carry on playing around to their heart’s content but not women. Society doesn’t allow it.”
Society doesn’t allow it? Who does this fellow think he is, lecturing me about the ways of the world? […] Things change. Society changes. (p. 65)
The dramatic irony highlights Liu’s ignorance to illustrate the datedness and delusional nature of sex-based double standards which accept men’s promiscuity and enforce women’s chastity. The narrator’s uncertain attempts to gauge male-female relationships around him (e.g. a couple on the bus, the marital status of a fellow patron at the casino) reflect his struggle to keep pace with the changing gender standards around him. The casino represents the protagonist’s futile attempts to exert sense onto his world. For example, he tries to systematise his approach to the slot machines even while he is conscious of the fact that they operate on chance.
The importance of dasein in organising the protagonist’s experiences become apparent in the novella’s first reference to the title. Lonely Face refers to the protagonist’s sombre reflection on a bus window. His face becomes a motif that emphasises the theatrics in his everyday life: “Sunken eye sockets, hooding a pair of lifeless eyes, their murky whites threaded with spidery blood vessels” (p. 7); “if there were a mirror here, I would surely find my faux-laughing face unbearable pathetic”; (p.66) “But the nervous face in the bus window does not comply… He pouts slightly, staring at it: exactly the same expression his father had worn…” (p. 148)
The protagonist’s alienation from his own face underlines a hyperawareness of his diminished social status as a divorced man and neglectful son. Existential psychologists saw the diminishment of human purpose and “becoming nothing” as core fears, and dasein as the essence of human character (Newbery, 2012). Considered through existential psychology, Lonely Face becomes the story of an ordinary man perched on the edge of nothingness. The protagonist has failed the prototypical hero’s journey, which is usually marked by an improved world, family relationships and/or romance. Despite his best efforts, the protagonist is emotionally alienated from his father and has lost his wife to a more successful man.
However, the liquid transitions between first, second and third person illustrate the protagonist’s capacity for self-consciousness, dasein, a defining element of human existence. First person immerses readers in his sensory world and immediate irritations. Second person forces readers to participate in the protagonist’s moral dilemmas. Third person affords us distance and pity for the accelerating age of the protagonist’s body. Ultimately, the protagonist’s dasein gives shape to his complex conflicts and keeps him relevant to readers.
Yeng notes in the interview with Qi Xin that Lonely Face is a realistic depiction of men who are not “willing or brave enough to confront their ingrained sense of superiority head on” (p. 149). Lonely Face illustrates the impossibility of identifying a localised source of individual’s unhappiness. Attempts to do so would be reductive. As readers follow an emasculated protagonist’s journey, the novella demonstrates that human character originates not in material achievements or even relationships. Rather, it shows in the uniquely human capacity for self-reflection, dasein.
Newbery, Glenn. Knowing You, Knowing Me: An Integrated View of Personality. McGraw Hill, 2017.
How to cite: An, Frances. “Existential Capsules and Cusps in Yeng Pway Ngon’s Lonely Face.” Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, 20 Feb. 2022, chajournal.blog/2022/02/20/lonely-face/.
Frances An is a Vietnamese-Australian fiction and non-fiction writer based in Perth. She is interested in the literatures of Communism, moral self-perception, white-collar misconduct and Nhạc Vàng (Yellow/Gold Music). She has performed/published in the Sydney Review Of Books, Seizure Online, Cincinnati Review, Sydney Writers Festival, Star 82, among other venues. She received a Create NSW Early Career Writers Grant 2018, partial scholarship to attend the Disquiet Literary Program 2019, and 2020 Inner City Residency (Perth, Australia). She is completing a PhD in Psychology at the University Of Western Australia on motivations behind ‘curbstoning’ (data falsification in market research).