SINGAPORE – Author and musician Kelvin Tan shows up to this interview looking every part the maverick, clad in a Death Grips (American hip-hop group) T-shirt and quoting Kierkegaard, Franzen, Joyce and Adorno. He is 58 this year, “one year older than Singapore”.
At 27, he self-published his novel All Broken Up And Dancing (1992), which clocked in at nearly 400 pages. It was not quite a commercial success and a second print run did not follow. Today, only a few copies can be found in the public libraries. The same lukewarm reception greeted his second novel Nether(r);R (2001).
He brings up his contemporaries whose books have become staple O- and A-level texts with perhaps a tinge of jealousy, saying he remains an outsider looking into the writing community.
But through the years, he adds, All Broken Up And Dancing has been discovered by those who see themselves in tormented protagonist Brinsley Bivouac – a self-isolating but headstrong Singaporean teenager who pursues music and poetry at the expense of examinations and relationships.
“Every year, I’ll get e-mail from people saying, ‘This book made a difference to me’,” Tan says. “Through the years, the young have been hooked onto it and that’s enough for me.”
To mark the 30th anniversary of the novel, he is releasing a 12-track spoken-word album, Off-Tangent Towards Mars – 30 Years Of All Broken Up And Dancing, on Spotify. He reads his favourite passages from the book – set to delicate ambient sounds composed by local musician Patrick Chng and played by indie rock group The Oddfellows. Both Tan and Chng are in the band.
With titles like The Sadness, Cambridge People and Brenda Stefanie Chiong, the tracks recall moments when Brinsley skulks in Orchard Road or has a shot of vodka with Marilyn Monroe-esque friend Brenda. Tan likens it to musicians Lou Reed and John Cale’s 1990 album, Songs For Drella, a song cycle that pays tribute to their mentor, pop artist Andy Warhol.
“It means a lot to me. I managed to muster the courage to do something, which is hard to do, and now I think it is a good time to give it a different spin,” he says. “Hopefully, it’s a new medium that can help people connect to (the book) better.”
His album, he adds, comes at a time when the music scene in Singapore is more dynamic than ever, with bands like Sobs, Subsonic Eye and BGourd making waves locally and internationally. “They look better, sound better and play better. Who would have thought?”
“Singapore is still a very young nation, but as a result of the years of us trying to strive towards perfection, what’s happened is we have excluded this sense of cultural consciousness among society. It has affected everyone’s well-being. Now, we need to give them all the help we can.”
So what has become of Brinsley 30 years later? In the final pages of the novel, he was dancing to loud music in a rented apartment to forget his woes, thinking to himself: “It could be Jazz, it could be Rock, folk Classical, Rap... Turn on the volume, and don’t bother if the landlady screams.”
Tan says: “I believe he will find some way to stay true to himself and struggle to the very end, but whether he ends it or continues also depends on whether he finds a way to master the will, which I believe is a very powerful force in history. There are a lot of Brinsleys in society and they come in different forms – not just in the young, but also grown Brinsleys.”
To get a copy of All Broken Up And Dancing, e-mail Tan at firstname.lastname@example.org. The album Off-Tangent Towards Mars – 30 Years Of All Broken Up And Dancing will be out on Spotify on Nov 27.