Our book club had its 12th meeting last Saturday. Quite an accomplishment considering:
- there is no compelling need to do this,
- members are all voluntary organizers,
- and we don't really get any material rewards for doing so.
I guess all those bullet points just want to say, we do this not because we have to but because we want to. And what amazes me is the energy that drives the members to stage the book discussion events in creative ways, each month's theme, mood, venue, treatment different from the previous months'.
In our book club, which meets once a month, we take turns moderating. The moderator, generally, gets to pick the book or the genre, with a great degree of influence from the members. This enables us to sample a diversity of genres and authors; there is no one voice that dictates what we're going to read.
This month, our moderator Sana Sta. Ana decided first on a contemporary novel. Then she chose Ricky Lee's first novel, Para Kay B. This was not the first time we tackled the work of a Filipino author; the first one was Carlos Vergara's Ang Kagila-gilalas na Pakikipagsapalaran ni Zsazsa Zaturnnah. But this was the first Filipino-authored novel.
Interestingly, our first Filipino novel is in Taglish. I, personally liked that it is so. It couldn't have been credible otherwise. Sana did not choose the book because she loved it and expected everybody else to love it too. She chose it because she knew the responses would be varied. Maybe even violent. And that would make for interesting discussions.
And the discussions were indeed interesting. Different takes. We liked and disliked different parts. No doubt our different personalities influenced our reactions to the book. What made it even more interesting was that the author sat with us to shed light on his intentions for the book. One could argue that the author's intentions are not relevant to the reading. Maybe so. My review here reflects my visceral reactions to the book before we sat with the author, and I suppose I need to let them be. Altering my review based on the discussion strikes me as a tad hypocritical. But I have to say that after that discussion, I can't help but see the book in a different light.
I wasn't fond of the ending of the book. Flipper Blooey liked it for its metafiction. Like I've said before, and forgive me if I dare quote myself, "Frankly, I wouldn’t recognize postmodernism even if it hits me on the face with a metanarrative." But Ricky Lee gave me a new way of understanding it. I still maintain what I said in the discussion that given that the central message and character reveal themselves in the end, I wish the author had injected more cleverly hidden clues in every chapter that would just thread the whole thing better and would make the ending more cohesive for the dense; yes, that's me. But Ricky Lee explained that that ending is what makes the novel Ricky Lee's, that it is his way of breaking norms; blurring boundaries; taking risks; cluttering what others might want to be neat; and then creating meaning, order, and substance in chaos. After hearing all that, I had a greater appreciation, not just for the novel, but for the writing process as well.
The novel is written is what may strike people as light, very colloquial, maybe even too low brow. But it takes talent, skill, a deep understanding of Philippine culture and language, an intelligent sense of humor, a million edits, and hard work to make the reading easy. "Constant rewriting," says Ricky Lee, was the not-so-apparent secret to make the language sound so natural and believable.
I also appreciated how intent shaped the story. Like why Ricky Lee used conventions and stereotypes so that at the end, those conventions can be shattered. I have never tried writing fiction, and after this discussion, I think I never will. It's intimidating how one needs to end a story convincingly. Ricky Lee did not start with the end in mind. But I suspect there was gut instinct that guided him through the writing process. Gut instinct that can only be developed through decades of writing.
But the part that had my inner geek aflutter was Ricky Lee's description of the novel's intertextuality. Okay, I had to wiki that and had to wipe the blood off the computer screen as my brain bled from all that talk about Saussure and Barthes. But I will just phrase what I learned about intertextuality from Ricky Lee in the best way I know how. He talked about the play of words and letters, like how all the women character's roles names start with a letter from the name Bessie. The title, Para Kay B, is also part of this whole thing about intertextuality. The Writer, a character in the book, who plays god by controlling text, letters, words in an attempt to control life, is actually controlled by the same elements in his supposed real life. "Natalo siya ng mga letrang minamanipulate niya." I love how Ricky Lee talked about how we use words to build ourselves up as well as to devastate us.
I do not have enough intelligent words to do justice to the ideas communicated by Ricky Lee. And this blog post could not sufficiently and succinctly capture all the other points I furiously scribbled on my notebook.
But here's my point. The book club is a great way of enhancing the reading experience. Whatever I got from the book was multiplied, magnified by the discussion that followed. And this happens with or without the author's presence because each member adds a new perspective, a twist in the interpretation, a strange conjecture, something you missed in your own reading. But in the case of Para Kay B, the understanding and the appreciation were greatly deepened by Ricky Lee's explanations.
Days after the discussion, I am still chewing on some of the points we discussed. Maybe without the discussion, Para Kay B, would just be a book I enjoyed. The book discussion made it so much more than that. And I learned new things about language and literature. And that's the reward that book clubs bring.