CP Goes to the Philippines: Manila Noir (a review)

MANILA: A WOMAN OF MYSTERY, A FEMME FATALE

by NOEL KING

 16057198

Manila Noir ed. Jessica Hagedorn (New York: Akashic Books, 2013)

WHILE THINKING about what to mention in this review it occurred to me to contact Akashic Books much as, a few years ago, I had contacted a number of small-independent presses in Australia, the UK and the US (Fremantle Arts Centre Press, Scribe, Serpent’s Tail, Bitter Lemon, Steerforth Press, Dennis McMillan Publications) to try to get a sense of how they managed to continue, even thrive, in a much-changed world of conglomerate publishing. In the case of Akashic, their sequence of City-Suburb Noir books was a sub-series among their various other publications. Already fifty-six Noir titles had been published, with a further fifteen announced on the inside cover of Manila Noir. So far, twenty-nine US cities or places within cities (e.g. New York has Wall Street Noir, Manhattan Noir, Brooklyn Noir) were represented. Some cities or suburbs had generated two volumes (Los Angeles, DC, San Francisco) while Brooklyn had generated three volumes, perhaps because of the number of writers who live there rather than the amount of noirish activity. And so far eighteen non-US countries had figured.

So I emailed Akashic Books’ Johanna Ingalls and asked if she could provide any information on how the series was going, more specifically, what size the print-runs were, and whether any particular titles were doing better than others. Her kind response outlined aspects of Akashic’s strategy with this series:

The better selling anthologies in the series have sold to date (and continue to sell) in the range of 20,000—35,000, including Boston Noir edited by Dennis Lehane, Los Angeles Noir edited by Denise Hamilton, Brooklyn Noir edited by Tim McLoughlin, DC Noir edited by George Pelecanos. To date not one volume has lost any money which is pretty remarkable from a series of short stories published by a small, independent company. Print runs vary greatly depending on size of market and also if there are some famous authors and/or editor. The low end would be about 3,500 for a first print run, though many start out several thousand higher and we often do multiple printings—Boston Noir is in its 6th printing. We sometimes solicit editors to work on an anthology with us (i.e. we approached Dennis Lehane and asked him to edit our Boston volume as we couldn’t think of a more perfect person for the job!), but at this point, many of the editors approach us as fans of the series and with ideas for their home city/state/region. We do hope to add additional Asian and African cities.

FOR MANILA NOIR, let’s start with malls or shopping-towns, those social spaces described so superbly by Don DeLillo in White Noise (1984), locales that seem distinctly American, especially when we remember how well Minnesota’s “biggest mall in America” worked to attract Japanese tourists to come to shop, play golf, and have an entire holiday in a quite circumscribed venue. Cultural analysts see such malls as continuing the tradition of the grand nineteenth century European arcades identified by Walter Benjamin as perfect locales for the flâneur to stroll around and practise his arts of observation. It is well known that the flâneur has a direct line to the role of the detective, so perhaps we should not be surprised to find malls, crime and noir fitting together.

Former Adelaide-based sociological researcher of youth, subcultures and crime, the late Mike Presdee, coined the phrase “proletarian shopping” to characterise the way young people accessed shopping towns in Elizabeth, Adelaide, a working class suburb to which a great many English migrants (“ten pound poms”) were sent upon arrival in South Australia. In his participant-observation-Birmingham-School-of-Contemporary-Cultural-Studies-style-work, Presdee observed how unemployed youths managed to spend lengthy periods of time in these vast social spaces, occasionally being moved on by shopping centre security officers when it became apparent that they were not a demographic with the kind of discretionary income hoped for by shops in such centres. It’s one thing to deliberately construct a system of moving people up levels in such a way that they must walk past endless arrays of shops in order to reach the next escalator to take them to the next floor, it’s quite another to know what to do with people who are being so moved with no money in their pockets, who are there to be in air conditioning on a blazing hot Adelaide day, or for warmth in winter.

Two stories in Manila Noir are set in malls, one—the terrific opening story, ‘Aviary,’ by Lysley Tenorio—is set in Greenbelt Mall in Makati, and the other—Gina Apostol’s ‘The Unintended’—is set in Ali Mall, Cubao, that mall’s name a legacy of the famous 1975 Ali-Frazier ‘Thrilla in Manila’ boxing match. In ‘Aviary’ a group of poor, disenfranchised youths go “proletarian shopping” as their way of protesting about a sign that allegedly says, “poor people and other realities” are not welcome at the mall. Dressed in their best possible clothing—black “Polo shirts and corduroys, our only good clothes, the outfits we wear to baptisms and funerals”—they roam the mall, amazed at the prices of even the least expensive items, and ask storekeepers where are the heads of headless mannequins, always being told to move on. Having “heard that an aviary once stood on the land Greenbelt now occupies,” they have brought with them dead birds found in the suburb where they live and, in one of the mall’s expensive bag shops, they “drop a dead bird into the smallest compartment of each travel bag, one by one.”

Their non-shopping continues. “We leave Louis Vuitton behind, continue through Greenbelt 4, passing stores with nonsensical names—BVLGARI, BOTTEGA, VENETTA—and others that sound like a sneeze—GUCCI, Jimmy Choo,” and having “breathed enough of the Greenbelt air,” they exit only to encounter “a domelike structure resembling the top half of a UFO.” The structure is the Greenbelt Chapel. “A place for worship between shopping.” Adventitiously encountered, it provides the perfect spot for them to leave their final mark. Under a church pew they carefully place “a segment of metal pipe wrapped with blue and red wire, with a cell-phone duct-taped to it.” The bomb is fake and will not detonate but upon discovery its effect will “have created unease here, severe emotional distress, a disturbance they will not soon forget.”

In ‘The Unintended,’ Gina Apostol runs together an exploration of “the first multilevel shopping mall in the Philippines,” a structure “that rises in tribute to Muhammad Ali’s victory” over Joe Frazier on October 1st, 1975. Two female characters engage warily with one another, Magsalin, our ostensible narrator, and Chiara, daughter of a filmmaker father who made, also in 1975, a cult film whose description runs together bits of Apocalypse Now and The Godfather films with aspects of Philippine history. The story entails parent-child relations, cinephilia, ideas of translation, but always the looming presence of the mall presides. Its first description is unflattering: “During the best of times Ali Mall is a decrepit, cramped cement block of shops hosting Rugby glue sniffers, high school truants, and depressed carnival men on break. It was built in 1976, a paean to the Thrilla in Manila, which took place directly across the street at the Araneta Coliseum in Cubao.” As a result we learn that Cubao now carries the trace of Frazier’s destroyed boxing career at the same time as it offers “the omen of Ali’s shambling shadow. Cubao heralds an incommunicable fall.” As Magsalin wanders the mall “in a daze” she notices that it is “now quite modern, practically Singaporean,” yet there is “a schizoid confabulation between the new upscale fixtures, such as the gleaming escalators and neon in the food court, which now looks like a strip club, and the ratty hair accessories wrapped in dusty plastic that seem to have been in the Cardam chain of shoe shops since they opened in 1976.” Since a central “motif of the renovated Ali Mall is a series of commissioned portraits of a boxer framed in glass at strategic points, like altars,” Magsalin seeks out all the Ali images in the mall and while recognising that “the corporate intention of co-opting the Greatest in order to shill shoes is obvious,” still, all these “reflexive signifiers, most of them tacky, are not tongue-in-cheek. They are serious gestures of veneration.”

In his most recent novel, Others of Our Kind (2013), Phoenix-based James Sallis (Drive) creates a central female character who was abducted as a child, kept in appalling circumstances by her abductor-abuser until one day she escapes into the secret spaces of a shopping mall where she lives many years as a kind of wild child. Eventually she is returned to what for her will never be “normal life,” studies successfully at university, and later proves to be a brilliant news editor at a small-town TV station. One day a cop comes calling, possessed of knowledge of her past, to ask if she will help with a case of a shockingly abused young woman they have just found. And so the story moves along and we get more information about this kind of child-kidnapping and abuse.

At the same time as he pursues this narrative line Sallis explains that the era of the “biggest mall in America” alluded to above is now past: “Malls, a long piece in today’s Washington Post makes official, are on their way out, have been so for some time, in fact… High vacancy rates, low consumer traffic, a shift toward renovation of the central city, big-box stores such as Fry’s Electronics and Walmart, all have taken their toll.”

Hundreds of malls lie “empty, gutted, abandoned.” Roofs are “ripped off, sidewalks, canals, and palm trees laid in, town houses or apartment blocks added, select malls are being reworked by developers into quirky small villages. Interestingly enough, the first American malls were intended to resemble just that.”

As depicted in Manila Noir, Manila’s malls have yet to reach this historical point; they still inhabit a time of refurbishment, expansion, of building newer, larger malls. To this extent they resemble the Bangkok malls described by Lawrence Osborne in Bangkok Days (2009), his wonderful account of many years spent in that city:

I often went wandering through the neon of Wireless Road or the electronics market at Pantip Plaza—a fine place to stroll around at night because it retains the energy of the daylight hours… the intensity of the neons stacked around several floors stung the eyes, and the words they projected meant nothing: Kensington, Epson, Zest Interactive, Hardware House. The plaza (actually a vertical mall in which the floors are stacked on top of one another) is a hip hangout for the young, who flock there at night to see and be seen…

In another mall where youth collect at night, the Siam Center—which is devoted to the cause of fashion—I noticed that the illuminated English ad panels were even more textual. It was as if the present age needed to bring certain thoughts and expressions to the surface, and that these needed to be as aphoristic as possible. Like the strange assertions that might adorn a temple or church, these were lit up like holy text, and were just as enigmatic.

In her excellent introduction to Manila Noir, editor-contributor Jessica Hagedorn describes Manila as “a woman of mystery, a femme fatale.” Lest we think this characterisation too cute or too pat, she expands on the analogy: “Sexy, complicated, and tainted by a dark and painful past, she’s not to be trusted. And why should she be? She’s been betrayed time and time again, invaded, plundered, raped, and pillaged, colonized for nearly four hundred years by Spain and fifty years by the United States, brutally occupied from 1942 to 1945 by the Japanese army, bombed and pretty much decimated by Japanese and US forces during an epic, month-long battle in 1945.” Shorter than a travel guide, and spot on.

Six of Manila Noir’s fourteen contributors are women and they provide some of the strongest pieces in this impressive collection of stories. Most of the contributors have a publishing presence beyond this collection, many have published other books or graphic novels, in some cases very many. In addition, many contributors are multiply nominated for literary awards and several are multiply awarded, so it’s a strong team assembled here. Several contributors blend meta-fictional strategies (offering alternative endings to the “same” story, shifting across different point-of-view perspectives within the “one” story) with the inherited, enabling conventions of noir, but in this case noir realised in a city beautifully described by Hagedorn as “one of the wildest cities on the planet.” Her comment finds support in some words from Manila-based novel The Tesseract by Alex Garland (author of The Beach): “Manila changed most of the people it touched… Nothing to do with coming of age or prices paid. Just the dark city.”

Mention of Garland’s novel reminds me that many Anglo-Australian readers might be familiar with some other non-Filipino fiction set in Manila, such as William Marshall’s Manila Bay (1986) and Whisper (1988), and the eminent non-fiction writer James Hamilton-Paterson’s novel Ghosts of Manila (1994). One immediate function of Manila Noir is that readers like me, who have no expertise whatever in respect of Philippine fiction, will become acquainted with a batch of indigenous (even if sometimes diasporic) Filipino writers.

Hagedorn’s contribution touches many noir bases, exploiting tropes that come with the turf of ‘Old Money’ (the story’s title) such as fallen circumstances, a bed-ridden matriarch, and the next generation with their contemporary clubs and drugs. Characters are permitted nice lines of metaphor mixed with historical summary. We are offered two endings (consistent with the ambiguity, “openness” and multiplicity exhibited elsewhere in the collection) and the final line returns us to quintessential noir terrain as rain comes.

Another female contributor, F. H. (“Ichi”) Batacan, wrote a terrific short first novel called Smaller and Smaller Circles. Published by the University of Philippines Press, it won the 1999 Carlos Palanca Grand Prize for the English novel, the National Book Award in 2002 and the Madrigal-Gonzalez Award in 2003 and is regarded as “unique in the Philippine literary scene—a Pinoy detective novel.” Purely in terms of analogy and orientation towards a national writing unfamiliar to most Australians, not at all meaning to indicate imitation, think of the start of Gorky Park plus something from Brazilian Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza in one of his “Espinosa” books plus perhaps a touch of Henning Mankell, and you’ll have some sense of how the novel lures you in. The main investigative character is compelling, a fifty-something Jesuit priest who is also a forensic pathologist (Father Augusto Saenz) who has a younger, equally engaging Jesuit priest working alongside him (thirty-seven year old Father Jeremy Lucero), as they investigate a series of deaths of young boys, each death accompanied by facial disfiguration. Batacan’s story in Manila Noir, ‘Comforter of the Afflicted,’ finds Father Saenz investigating a different type of death, and it is a delight to encounter him again. Batacan has been contracted by New York’s Soho Press to deliver an expanded version of Smaller and Smaller Circles. The manuscript is completed (the original 155 pages or so now extended by more than half) and will be published in the US in 2014. It’s nice to know that soon a wider readership will encounter these beguiling Jesuit priest-investigators.

Two other contributors, Jose Dalisay and Rosario Cruz-Lucero, hold Professorial positions at the University of the Philippines, where they teach, respectively, English and Creative Writing, and Philippine Studies and Creative Writing. Dalisay’s personal-political history saw him caught up with the vicissitudes of politics in the Philippines. He was arrested and imprisoned for seven months in 1973 after participating in student politics in the early 1970s. Ferdinand Marcos imposed Martial Law from 1972 to 1981 as a tactic to protect his own rule rather than protecting the situation of his people. Many Filipinos were killed, imprisoned or sent into exile during this period.

Dalisay has published several other novels and has received many awards and nominations. For many years he wrote screenplays for various Philippine filmmakers, but especially for Lino Brocka. His second novel, Soledad’s Sister (2008), opens with a casket arriving at Manila airport, allegedly containing the body of a certain woman, one of more than six hundred overseas Filipino workers who come back to the Philippines as corpses each year. “On a cloud-curtained evening, one Saturday in August, a corpse arrived in a zinc casket in a wooden crate at Ninoy Aquino International Airport, 237 kilometres west of Paez.” Of course the woman in the casket is not the woman in question and so Walter, a suitably morose, put-upon police officer who goes methodically about his daily routines, sporadically recalling details of how his wife and child left him to go to England four or five years ago—his son was then only nine years old—is called upon to initiate routine administrative work that later will become investigative adventure. Dalisay has a sure grasp of the mechanics of noir-investigative fiction and uses it deftly to interlace aspects of Philippine reality, whether it concerns the down-side of the fact that overseas Filipino workers (overwhelmingly female) contribute tens of billions of dollars to the basket-case Philippine economy, or the crucial presence of music in Philippine culture, or the distinctiveness of regional places and spaces outside metropolitan Manila. Dalisay’s contribution to Manila Noir, ‘The Professor’s Wife,’ is a “campus story” and it too has a great opening: “Someone died in this car I’m driving. That’s why I got it so cheap.” A postgraduate I chatted with briefly at the Diliman campus of the University of the Philippines, where Dalisay’s story is set, told me that Dalisay, in his capacity as Professor of Creative Writing, once set that first sentence—”Someone died in this car”—as an exercise in one of his Creative Writing classes.

Cruz-Lucero’s work combines oral history, feminism and socialist perspectives. She has done a lot of research into the history of labour, struggle and storytelling in Negros. She is soon to embark on a history of Philippine Noir. Her story in this collection draws on the Imelda Marcos period of building various kinds of “cultural projects,” one of which is Casa Manila in Intramuros, a kind of Disney-post-modern structure that offers a “replica of a nineteenth century Hispanic House” built in 1979. Tourist-visitors can see the grandeur of this house and also see shantytowns, thereby experiencing “the cross-section of Manila without the muck and stench and danger.” Cruz-Lucero’s story figures the past of plantations and exploitation, and a contemporary moment of ruined buildings or buildings altered to become offices and schools to cater to a transient population. Isabella and Elias, childhood friends, encounter one another again in this Disney world, and revisit the moment from their childhood involving the Davao Death Squad assassination of Isabella’s father, for which act Elias was a suspect.

One contributor to this volume, Sabina Murray, has an Australian connection, having been raised here and in the Philippines, although she now seems very settled in the US, like several other contributors to Manila Noir, six of whom work or hold teaching positions in San Francisco, New York, or elsewhere on the US East Coast. Murray has published several acclaimed novels since her initial novel, Slow Burn (1990) which applied some lessons from Jay McInerney and Tama Janowitz to a contemporary Philippine context of wealthy young things angsting, drinking and drugging and hanging out in night clubs. Her contribution here is stylish and elusive in all the right ways.

In short, this excellent collection has something for every reader’s interest. Kajo Baldisimo has a “day job drawing storyboards for Manila’s top TV commercial directors” and he combines with Budjette Tan (“creative director by day, copywriter by night, comic book writer after midnight”) to create Trese, a fetching and feisty graphic novel heroine. Trese won the Best Graphic Literature Award at the 2009 and 2012 Philippine National book Awards and there are now five books in the series. Other Manila Noir contributions involve tender tales of transvestites, manic-edgy stories involving car crashes, long-delayed familial revenge killings, murder by eye piercing after arguments about whether someone is scamming/skimming while dealing shabu (meth). So there is plenty of Philippine Noir to go around.

[This review originally appeared in Contrappasso: Noir Issue (2013)]

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

NOEL KING has worked in many Australian universities, in a variety of media and cultural studies contexts: at Griffith University (1977-1980), the South Australian College of Advanced Education (now the University of SA, 1980-1886), Curtin University (1986-1989), UTS (1989-2001), the University of Tasmania (2002-2003), and Macquarie University (2003-2012). He has co-edited two special issues of Contrappasso on Noir and Writers at the Movies.

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