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[BOOK REVIEW] Red Dot Irreal by Jason Erik Lundberg

Genre: Fantastika, Magic Realism
Paperback: 164 pages
Publisher: Math Paper Press
Publication Date: October 22, 2011
ISBN-13: 978-981-07-0134-5
Author Website: Jason Erik Lundberg

Jason Erik Lundberg describes the stories in his collection Red Dot Irreal as “[f]iction where the strange is made normal and the normal is made strange.” Combining elements of realism and the fantastic, the ten stories of this collection range from the merely folkloric to the utterly bizarre – all set in the exotic “red dot” nation of Singapore.

Lundberg finds himself uniquely situated to create slipstream stories that cross the border of the real and the magical. An American Southerner, Lundberg is currently a professor of English in the tiny metropolis of Singapore. Married to a native of that island nation and father of a biracial child, Lundberg’s interest in the blending of cultures, styles and aesthetics shines through each carefully constructed narrative of this collection.

In “Bogeymen” Lundberg reaches into the history of colonial Singapore for a tale of pirates (known as bogeymen in the local parlance) and a young English sailor. In Singapore, our hero and narrator encounters a pistol-like device that can share memories between individuals. But there is a catch. The device is addictive and both pirates and English mercantile interests want control of this unique device. One of the lengthier stories in the collection, “Bogeymen” is a complex blend of steampunk, magic realism and Oriental history. Lundberg deftly weaves a fascinating narrative of a man who transcends, Buddha-like, both body and mind “to become one with the world.”

“Ikan Berbudi (Wise Fish)” is a modern folktale. Mrs. Singh, a local fish merchant has been blessed with unique luck ever since she discovered a talking fish. Lundberg inverts reader expectations by choosing not to tell of the moment where Mrs. Singh finds the fish (as in many wish-fulfillment folktales), but rather than of its sad death. By juxtaposing the mundane fishmonger work of Mrs. Singh with the immanent death of her unusual friend, Lundberg eloquently highlights the transience of life and the impact all beings have on each other. Joy and loss are simultaneous emotions, and nothing makes use more aware of both than the death of a favored friend – even if that friend was just a fish.

Lundberg creates a “magic moment” out of what I suspect is the real story of his meeting with Neil Gaiman on his world tour years ago. “Hero Worship, or How I Met the Dream King” plays off Gaiman’s regal authorial appellation to mythologize the transference of the writing craft from an expert to an up-and-comer. It is a sweet story that is made more powerful by the real sense of Lundeberg’s affection for Gaiman that bleeds through the black and white text.

“Lion City Daikaiju” is a flash fiction that is a metaphor for Singapore’s search for a place in the global culture. Landmarks take flight and a “jewel of the future world” is born in Lundberg’s appreciation for his adopted city.

Time is fluid in “Dragging the Frame.” Taking (I suspect) directly from his experience as a young professor in Singapore, Lundberg then jumps into a story of family strife complicated by the young professor’s time traveling daughter. Lundberg again plays with expectations by positing a story where changing the future may actually be a good thing. Deeply personal and anciently wise, this story has finely wrought characterizations that are only heightened by the exotic location. Far from didactic, the moral ambiguity and the need to better oneself are tempered by pragmatism, rendering the narrative poignant and universal.

In “Kopi Luwak” American tourist Troy views the wisdom of the East as serving his needs and forgets to respect the culture that gave him his desire. Lundberg’s story of the small animals that produce (through their digestive systems) some of the most expensive and tasty (so I hear) coffee in the world is a sardonic warning tale about the arrogance of foreigners in lands not their own. Though such stories have been told in many milieus from ancient times to now, Lundberg’s provides its own unique twist and the quotidian details of the story (as with all of Lundberg’s stories) serve to make the magical elements brighter in color and emotional effect.

“Paper Cow” is a flash fiction of an evil man being destroyed by his origami obsession. Again, it is likely a type of story the reader has seen before, but which Lundberg gives a uniquely Asian twist. For me, it was again the juxtaposition of the mundane with something incomprehensibly evil that gives Lundberg’s writing a unique power. That the evildoer gets his just desserts is just the icing on the cake of a tasty tale.

In “Taxi Ride” a professor of English transcends the hurly-burly of his life for a moment of magic. I found myself not liking this story as much as the others, perhaps because I was trying to superimpose a logical meaning on the story, rather than just allowing, as the professor does, the luminous event to enrapture.

Arthur floats into a dentist’s office in “Coast.” A metaphor for the disconnectedness one can feel when on your own for the first time in the new country, its is through the physical touch of the female dentist that the protagonist becomes grounded again, able to leave loneliness behind for love and friendship in a new land.

I cannot honestly say I understood “In Jurong.” An unpredictably weird story made all the more confusing for the disconnected narrative voice of the protagonist; it appears to be a story of a man lost in the wilderness of far future Singapore where the island has become a giant cage for two individuals, the reader and his sister the Undine. Perhaps the best way to explain this haunting and peculiar tale comes from the text itself in speaking about the island-cage: “it is not for us to obsess over why, or to dwell on it, but move on.” No matter how you try to move on from “In Jurong” you won’t be able to as you obsess over its many layered meanings and metaphors.

I am not usually a fan of magic realist tales or stories that blend the contemporary mundane with magic, but Lundberg’s collection of “equatorial fantastika” may make me a convert. Each of those stories are carefully crafted and make exceptional use of Lundberg’s own time and space for narratives that are equal parts Kafka, ancient folklore, and travelogue. Lundberg proclaims it truly when he calls, in his preface, this collection “an outsider’s exploration of what it means to live in [Singapore].” I enjoyed exploring this exotic locale with Lundberg, its beauties and its mysteries found at crossroads of the real and the magical. You absolutely must read Red Dot Irreal.