A Review of The Proper Care of Foxes by Wena Poon
“Catch us the foxes,
The little foxes that spoil the vines,
For our vines have tender grapes.”
—Song of Solomon 2:15
Perhaps we travel because we are following something — chasing something that is often getting away too quickly, before we can ever catch it. I had been travelling a little way off, past the Riau Islands, further east towards a more remote, young nation that few visit. I had no companions, but I had a driver — I needed him for the difficult four-wheel treks. On the slippery road, besides this guide, I also had Wena Poon. Could Wena’s foxes have steered me in other directions, running ahead of my weather-beaten Pajero? I think of a verse in an ancient love poem, “Catch us the foxes“, and strangely my route is turned…
The Proper Care of Foxes took my mind away from my pursuit, from the potholed poverty that weighed on my conscience, from the unfettered jungle that frightened me. For at least brief moments at a time, Poon’s laughable characters and comfortable, cosmopolitan settings proved a respite from the more arduous journey set before me. Her own epigraph — Voltaire en français, “Il faut cultiver notre jardin” — urged me to tend to the rainforest of my mind. Upon those words, I flew with her into other places.
In this collection of 11 short stories dispersed throughout the urban centres of the world, the routes Poon’s characters take are braided together, interwoven in unexpected ways. Many of these intersections take place at serendipitous points between East and West, making the book a perfect travel companion wherever you are going. Her protagonists are frequent flyers, liberally educated abroad, disaffected Gen Xers. But within each of their little spheres, it is not so much the cityscape than their own beguiling, peculiar obsessions that distinguish them from the mundane humdrum of contemporary life.
The most intriguing of them all are Siegfried Mansfield and Regina Tam. Though polar opposites in every way — one a depressed but flamboyantly wealthy transvestite from New England who is engrossed with opera, and the other a repressed, conformist accountant from Hong Kong who is drowning in emails — the best friends make a magnetically winsome pair. They recur in three stories, from their meeting by sharing a dorm in a New York university, to the dramatic ski slopes of New Hampshire, through “the sulky crowds on the Hong Kong subway”, unto an intimate finale on a junk boat in the sweltering heat of Ha Long Bay. These stories trace their young adulthood to middle-life, a movement that brackets the entire collection from beginning to end, and their unfolding relationship provides a structural scaffolding and sense of character development that is relatively rare in a series of otherwise unrelated shorts.
Regina and Siegfried’s long-distance correspondence peeks into the edges of a quirky, chance romance between Regina’s brother, Max and a young Welsh woman, Katie. In Max & the Biscuit, The two are intertwined by their fixation with collecting everyday objects, so much so that they become oddities. Max accumulates the names of biscuit brands for a dissertation in linguistics; Katie completes a series of Hello Kitty’s franchised by 7-Eleven, and the couple tumble into love.
Throughout the book, there is a webbing grafted through the concealed fringes of the markets of these megacities: a common convenience store, a Japanese-run luxury consignment shop, suburban real estate, and the annals of eBay’s hoarders. The untold histories of consumer objects catches two other characters in the midst of the slipperiness of their personal lives. In Reuse, Recycle a freelance writer finds herself inventing backstories to her late mother’s paraphernalia, marketing them on the second-hand web-store. Vanilla Five features another writer — also somewhat stuck in a long hiatus — who entertains a voyeuristic interest in the clothes of an elusive woman. Alison Ford acquires them from the eponymous consignment shop downstairs from her apartment, and through the mysterious salesmanship of its owners, becomes involved with Sato Murakawa, a British-born Japanese-adopted indie rocker. Upon the breakdown of Alison’s marriage, the fabrication Sato weaves around the silk and perfume of this unknown woman seduces her.
As I emerged from the foxholes of Wena Poon’s characters, I wondered if the distance between my own travels and my home city of Singapore was allowing a greater feeling of fantasy and sensuality to emerge from her already bizarre everyday. Driving through that wilderness, these flighty stories about urban consumerism and the outlandish habits, fetishes and coincidences it generated seemed doubly strange to me.
On the road, I was catching on, and leaving things behind.
When I returned, I changed my mind about the city, and never looked back.
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ARTICLE BY CHRISTINA CHUA
Christina Chua lives out of a suitcase, her affinities divided between the urban and the islands in Singapore and Hawaii. She survives the split by reading a poem a day and cultivating a lifestyle of gratitude.
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