Book review: Dystopian tale Beng Beng Revolution begins promisingly, but lapses into formula

In Lu Huiyi's Beng Beng Revolution, Singapore society collapses after fuel runs out, smog descends and the government is overthrown by a thuggish faction that call themselves the Gahmen, who build a steam engine in City Hall MRT station.
In Lu Huiyi's Beng Beng Revolution, Singapore society collapses after fuel runs out, smog descends and the government is overthrown by a thuggish faction that call themselves the Gahmen, who build a steam engine in City Hall MRT station.PHOTO: EPIGRAM BOOKS

FICTION

BENG BENG REVOLUTION

By Lu Huiyi

Epigram Books/Paperback/213 pages/$20.22/Major bookstores

3.5 stars


Has Singapore literature reached peak dystopia?

The examples have come fast and furious in the last few years. Ever since Nuraliah Norasid won the Epigram Books Fiction Prize in 2016 for her novel The Gatekeeper, the prize's longlist has been bursting with dystopias.

Some riff on such institutions as the education system (Tham Cheng-E's Band Eight) or national service (Teo Xue Shen's 18 Walls). Others head off in fantastic directions with weaponised Merlions and hive intelligence (Kevin Martens Wong's Altered Straits, an example from early 2017, gets points for innovation).

Had Lu Huiyi's Beng Beng Revolution, shortlisted for the prize last year, come out ahead of all these, it might have had a shot at being revolutionary like its title suggests.

Unfortunately, the market is now saturated with dystopian novels more interested in cycling through local variations on genre tropes than finding new paths of resistance to how the purported utopia we live in is already dystopia for some.

In Beng Beng Revolution, Singapore society collapses after fuel runs out, smog descends and the government is overthrown by a thuggish faction that call themselves the Gahmen, who build a steam engine in City Hall MRT station.

Despite their mandate of violent change, they are prone to worshipping meritocracy, using unnecessary acronyms and saying things like "I heard somebody was raising dissent around here".

Amid the chaos, an ordinary family tries to scrape by, the mother taking a gruelling job in a factory, the father loitering about unemployed. Younger son Beng Hock, relatively useless in this new economy, mostly strives to avoid being kidnapped by gangs, sold into slavery or cut up by dubious doctors.

Lu, a writer to watch, is capable of dexterous prose despite the occasional incongruous Anglicism ("kip for the night", for instance).

Beng Beng Revolution begins promisingly with its painfully local scenarios of social collapse, such as navigating red tape at a welfare shelter or fighting the neighbourhood auntie for the last torch at the supermarket.

Lu possesses a rare command of levity, which carries the first half of the novel through a grim, sooty parade of miseries.

But then Beng and his brother Huat join a sinister cult called the Gentlemen that awakens a latent power within Beng.

At this point, distracted by the lure of another trope - the superpowered Chosen One story - the novel loses the levity that set it above its peers and sinks, lead-footed, into a more formulaic mode of despair.

This reviewer is glad that Singapore writers are more alive to the dystopian potential in their realities, but at this point, one must demand that the genre evolve.

If readers are to be dragged through so many bleak visions of suffering, there has to be something to show for it beyond a raised awareness that the world is not going great. We know this. Now what do we do about it?

If you like this, read: Sofia And The Utopia Machine by Judith Huang (Epigram Books, 2018, $18.08, major bookstores), yet another Epigram Books Fiction Prize shortlisted dystopian work. In a future Singapore literally stratified by social class, a schoolgirl accidentally creates a new world and becomes a fugitive from the government.