PHOTO: LANDMARK BOOKS
Remember parties? This Life Electric, poet Adam Tie’s debut novel, pays tribute to The Great Gatsby by transporting F. Scott Fitzgerald’s motifs into pre-COVID (or perhaps post-vaccinated) Singapore.
If the name ‘Adam Tie’ sounds familiar, it’s because he’s the person behind The Novel Encounter, a curated mystery wrapped book business. He can also write you a customised poem within five minutes. (We asked him to write one for Wonderwall, and boy, did he deliver.)
As someone who adores The Great Gatsby, I was excited, yet hesitant, to read this. Would Singaporean Jay Gatsby live in a Good Class Bungalow? Would all mention of “old sport” be translated into “ah boy”? But after a few pages in, it becomes clear that this is a homage, not an adaptation, with a more tender view of the world than its predecessor.
Even though this book was released last December, I'm only reviewing it now because it took me a couple of tries to get into it (but once I did, I got through almost all of it in one sitting). At times, the dialogue created a distance between myself and the characters. For a book that takes place almost entirely in Singapore, narrated by a character who grew up in an HDB estate before immigrating to Melbourne after finishing his National Service, there are surprisingly few colloquialisms, let alone instances where characters use Singlish. Almost every conversation is highly stylised, peppered with turns of phrase that are far more fanciful than what you would hear in everyday life. Characters say things like, “I’m sure that you can see that she is the apex of attractiveness. Hell, I’d date her in a hummingbird’s heartbeat”, and “My son’s a majestic, eclectic warrior jellyfish that is circling the depths of the proverbial ocean that is boring society”. Er, who actually talks like that?
But what the dialogue lacks in verisimilitude, it possesses in warmth. It took a few chapters, but once I was able to suspend reality – and remind myself that this book was, after all, written by a poet – I found myself plunged into a poignant tale of heartbreak, regret, and learning to live outside of your own head.
This Life Electric follows our Melbourne-based narrator, William, who flees to Singapore after breaking up with his girlfriend and losing his job. He bunks up at The Haven, a shophouse-turned-party spot owned by his former classmate Donny, a rich chili sauce heir on an eternal mission to help people find themselves. One of these people includes Caroline Yum, a popular influencer who has mysteriously fallen off the grid. Meanwhile, William crosses paths with Zephyr, the childhood love whom he abandoned after moving to Australia. He also forges new friendships with his housemates at The Haven, Quinn (“Madam Mischief”) and Lucien, who are reckoning with their own pasts.
While The Great Gatsby made an icon out of mint juleps, this book chooses ice kachang as one of its main culinary motifs (the other being cai png, but the way it’s used is so good, that I won’t spoil it for you). Because like ice kachang, there’s A LOT going on here. You might have to pick out some of the ingredients, but well, the whole is greater – and more colourful – than the sum of its parts. Like one of the characters says, “It’s a dessert of dimension. With ice kachang, you have to dig deep to get to the good stuff…It’s not for everyone, but you cannot deny that it is memorable.”
This Life Electric is a sweet book, full of texture, and which ended right before I started feeling jelak. Would I recommend it? Yes....in a hummingbird's heartbeat.
Read our interview with Adam Tie here