Review of Monsters, Miracles & Mayonnaise by Andrew Tan aka drewscape (Epigram Books 2012)

Choy Kam Leong Larry

Monsters, Miracles & Mayonnaise is a charming and rustic collection of short vignettes that presented various personal musings of the author, Andrew Tan. There are stories of ordinary life such as Frozen, Water Bottle, Nice Guy and Moving Forward. In these, he drew on his own up-bringing and emotional journey in his life focussing on the wider significance of his experiences and thoughts. There are also fantastical stories like The Amazing Kelim, Animal and The Giggly Floating Fish and Thingy to stir the imagination and question our normality. Finally, peppered among the longer musings are little nuggets of singular observances which drew humour and even incite greater reflection on us and our own world-view, such as Mayonnaise, Mr Smith (a pun on locksmith), Seat and Cockroach.

Being a writer is both the easiest and the toughest job in the world. It is easy because one could easily draw on one’s life experiences for inspiration and even the simplest moment has a story, an interest, or a moral. It is the toughest job because the writer must inspire interest and mystique to get the reader to continue reading. At the end of it, it must be satisfying if not inspirational or thought-provoking, at least aesthetically or emotionally significant.

This collection has succeeded in appealing to the ordinary Singaporean in every one of us by dealing with issues and stories that we can certainly identify with. Whether it is the sense of overcoming a necessary hurdle in Moving Forward or in dealing with nasty colleagues in Nice Guy or the kiasu syndrome in Seat, Andrew Tan has certainly struck a chord with his depiction of the motivations and world-view of his countrymen. There is a certain innocent charm in our automatic assumption that everyone is as nice as us or our obsession with what we perceive to be of utmost importance to us, precisely because it is out of our reach or because we have yet to achieve it.

There are also issues of personal trauma or questions that persist throughout our lives and which defines us. The simple image of the adult Andrew Tan still going through the normal ritual of checking his shoe for cockroaches because of a childhood incident in Frozen or his cathartic story of Water Bottle illustrates clearly how our life is built on emotional impact and unanswered questions.

In the end, Andrew Tan lives up to his pseudonym of Drewscape to show us various scenarios both serious and trivial. But beneath the simple charm of the stories and even the lessons that they suggest, Andrew Tan evokes a sense of constant speculation and questioning that probes deeper that the simplicity of an initial quick reading. The philosophical questions of why the Amazing Kelim wants to go back to a cage when he could be free or whether deep within the aggressive colleague in Nice Guy is truly a bad person or one who is simply reacting to being ignored by the society because of an automatic classification remains in the air even as the stories draw to a close.

Where authors of books relied purely on words and imagination, comic book writers have an additional weapon in their arsenal with the use of imagery. It takes away imagination but it replaces it with visual impact and direction. This is further reinforced by the use of colour and perspective moving the narrative along. The minimal use of colour serves to reinforce the strong message of the story in Monsters, Miracles & Mayonnaise. It is to Andrew’s credit that he attempted to vary both the colour and the inking of the panels to reflect his stories. Where he recounted his childhood, the mood is light and bright, but when it comes to more traumatic experiences, darker tones highlight the danger, uncertainly and sense of loss.

The final question remains if Andrew Tan will find a sympathetic and supportive audience among Singaporeans who are well-known for being most critical and dismissive of the creative efforts of their fellowmen, and who are more enamoured of Western comic book writers. I feel that Monsters, Miracles & Mayonnaise is a good first effort which deserves closer and repeated readings to be appreciated. However, while it is creditable, it is hardly earthshattering; while it is interesting, it is not truly pioneering. But from humble beginnings are great things wrought.

Monsters, Miracles & Mayonnaise may not be a tidal force but it is a noteworthy wave towards the right direction.