BOOK REVIEWS/REPLIES (2014): Lat’s (1980) Town Boy

21 August 2014

Framing/Background for Replies

If you’ve read this section previously, you can skip it. It describes the aspiration of these “replies”.

Two years ago in 2012, I set myself the task to read at least ten pages per day; last year, I did so. Continuing from then, I now have the task to read fifteen pages per day,[1] and I’ve added that I will write a book reaction (or reply) for each one that I finish (or give up on, if I stop). I plan also to devise a way to randomly select books to read (given certain constraints) from the public library; this, to avoid the tendency only to read books that pique my already existing interests.

These replies will not be Amazon-type reviews, with synopses, background research done on the author or the book itself, unless that strikes me as necessary or if the book inspired me to do so when I read it. Rather, these replies amount to assessments of the ways I found the book helpful somehow. More precisely—and this describes what I mean by a reply, as opposed to a reaction (review) or a response—I try to focus in these pieces on what I could not have said (or would not have known what to say) except that the intersection of this text and my consciousness brought it about.

Consequently, I will sometimes say stupid stuff, poorly informed stuff, &c. Some in the world expect everyone to possess omniscience and won’t bother to engage in a human dialogue toward divining how to make the world a better place. To the extent that each reply I offer provides a I found this helpful in this book, then it becomes up to us (you, me, us) to correct, refine, trash and start over, or do something else we see as potentially helpful as part of attempting to make our world a better place. If you won’t bother to take up your end of that bargain, that signals of course part of the problem that needs a solution.

A Reply To: Lat’s (1980)[2] Town Boy

This is a companion volume to Lat’s earlier[3] (1979) Kampung Boy, here tracking his life after his family moves to a town after growing up in a village (in the first volume). I chose this book (and Kampung Boy) for a reason similar to reading a first volume of Abouet and Oubrerie’s (2007)[4] Aya series; to get a view of elsewhere in the world (through graphic novels) without succumbing to orientalist cryptotourism. To borrow a summary:

Town Boy is the sequel to The Kampung Boy. Published in 1981, it continues Mat’s story in the multicultural city of Ipoh, where he attends school, learns of [U.S.] pop music, and makes new friends of various races, notably a Chinese boy named Frankie. Mat capers through town and gets into mischievous adventures with his friends. He and Frankie bond through their common love of rock-and-roll and playing air-guitar to Elvis Presley’s tunes above the coffee shop run by Frankie’s parents. As Mat grows into his teens, he dates Normah, “the hottest girl in Ipoh”. Town Boy‘s story is a collection of Lat’s reminiscences about his teenage days in Ipoh, an account of “the days before [he] moved to the capital city to venture into life as an adult… and later a professional doodler.” The cartoonist wanted to publicise his knowledge of music and write a subtle story about friendship. Frankie is representative of the diverse friends Lat made in those days through a common love of music.

I’d rather this reply remain cantered more on the book itself and not reactions to it, and the fact remains: Mat does not date the hottest girl in Ipoh, but manages to contrive going on something like one day (seeing a Tarzan movie). At the end of this outing, Mat asks Normah if they can hang out more in the future, and she declines, letting him know about her very strict father.

Other reviewers have found Kampung Boy more satisfying in terms of story; this seems somewhat generous. Whether Lat wanted to “write a subtle story about friendship,” generally this book has no (conventional) story whatsoever. It ends with Frankie having boarded a train to go to London, essentially to disappear out of Lat’s life forever (that feels like the implication anyway), and while Frankie has been a central character throughout the book, the friendship occurs in the much wider context of “life” and thus leaves the ending with a sense of non-ending.

To put this another way, it doesn’t seem that Lat has a story to tell so much as a story to show. By a wide margin, the interest the book generates revolves around the goofy, charming, curious manner that Lat draws . Most of the physical spaces get drawn closer to realistically while the human characters often have wildly distorted heads, bend forward or backward (impossibly), have twisted around their spine, &c. Teeth (a row of squares) figure prominently, and a cursive “w” stands in for a nose in many, many places.

We say “graphic novel” but really the better ones seem more novelized graphics; at least, with the obvious exception of Alan Moore (and he doesn’t always provide an exception), the dominating effect of novelized graphics come through (get carried by) the illustrations. It boils down to the degree that the notion of “visual storytelling” has credibility and to the opportunity for interplay (availed to or not) between text and visual in a graphic novel.[5] This becomes especially obvious, for example, in something like Woodring’s (2011) Congress of the Animals and more difficultyly to sort out in McKean’s (2010)[6] Cages.

Here, the graphics seem to upstage any general attempts by the book to generate a conventional narrative, i.e., we have a novelized graphic literally (and one that paints a picture of a time and place), so that the sort of talk above about subtle stories of friendship would seem to fall flat. This may explain why some reviewers found this book more diffuse (or aimless, less focused) than Kampung Boy.

To return to the inaccuracy of the summary above, not only does Mat fail to “date” Normah but for once, the summary claims Frankie and Mat play Elvis Presley. In Frankie’s record collection, Lat does rough in a Presley album cover, but he much more distinctly includes Bill Haley & the Comets and a Ricky Nelson cover; moreover, Frankie and Mat lip-sync to Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock”, which has a reputation as the anthemic rebel song for 50s youths.

I don’t intend to go bananas and ascribe a bunch of dark intentions to these inaccuracies, but the details from the book seem obvious enough that to get them wrong more readily suggests deliberate misrepresentation than accident, though it would remain unclear why one would deliberately misrepresent the details. In the case of the “date,” Normah approaches Mat to ask for help with an art assignment. In doing so, he finagles going out to food and a movie, and (as noted) she declines more of any such else in the future.

After her initial approach, once Normah has departed the scene, Mat does a hotdiggety jump, and this already signals a possible rift in understanding; that is, Normah has approached him not on a pretext but actually to ask him about her art assignment. Mat clearly does not read the encounter as such. Once they meet, he directs their meeting to a café (i.e., to eat), and there he puts his adult cartoon aesthetic into the mouth of his younger self. This note of (authorial) self-aggrandizement makes a nice and telling detail, since of course the young Mat aims to impress Normah as well. And Lat draws her eyelashes in some frames in a virtually literal starry-eyed way. He then has to coerce her into going to a movie, and when she finally says “OK” we see also Mat’s horde of friends in the background behind plate-glass looking on enviously.

As they walk to the movie theatre (the friends looking on in the background in one frame), Mat’s pretensions to literature get exposed (kindly) by Normah, who has obviously read and thought about the poetry and novels Mat can only claim to have read. If the object remains to impress Normah, this marks the point where Mat falls off the cart. Nonetheless, the next frame offers a two-page spread as they approach the movie theatre, Mat’s friends once again following behind in a forlorn, interested clump. Lat summarises the Tarzan film in two pages: the first, as one of Tarzan’s primal howls, the second a kiss with Jane (accompanied by wolf-whistles and cat-calls from the audience).

Perhaps Lat intends we should infer from this that Mat similarly steals a kiss at that moment, but all we can say with certainty: like his friends, who tag along, we only have the opportunity to assume that Mat has “scored” with the “hottest girl in school”. After Normah declines further “dates” with Mat, his group of friends, now close at hand in the background ask, “Is she going to be your steady?”

This sequence—rather unlike anything else in the book—seems to rather abruptly play up a kind of “big man” aesthetic. The author leverages (a possibly, or likely) fictional request by the “hottest girl in school” to plump his artistic talent and to boast that he (might have) scored with her. Lat at least balances this pretence by including the skewering that Normah delivers to his literary posturing, though even here the fact that the artist generally rejects words in favour of pictures still consistency underscores his visual (rather than verbal) talent; something his book attests to as well.

Still—not at all to claim “boys will be boys”—that Normah cannot ask a fellow student (one with artistic talent and accomplishment) for help with her work without it turning into Tarzan Meets Jane (the movie they go to is actually Tarzan and His Mate) remains problematic; that Mat (at least) if not also Lat and/or the reviewer above who makes the event into a “date” bums me out.

To whatever extent Lat realises this and plays against it—by including the literary skewering, and by including a resonant line from Normah about the book they discuss (“I have a feeling everything in that book is symbolical”; we might take that line as referring to Lat’s sequence)—he still places us in the position of “envious lookieloo”—not simply with respect to his pretence of sexual consequent but also in terms of his artistic talent, where he positions himself as an expert.

A way to read “against” this would arise from finding a way to locate in the text (either as its reader or its writer) a sense that Mat’s interaction with Normah represents an interaction with Mat’s whole community (of friends). Sometimes, some couples take on a wholly social significance; the community’s sense of self-esteem seems to rise or fall with the couple’s vicissitudes. Here, of course, we have nothing but a “brush with fame,” which Mat’s group (including Mat) obtrudes into. As a likely unintentional irony, following this “peak accomplishment” (by Mat and, by extension, his cohort), Lat on the next page summarises the graduating final results of his group of friends.

All the same, whether we can read this sequence as “big man” boastfulness (i.e., “I am the most awesome of you all, because I went to a movie with Normah. And, by the way, she sought me out”) or some sort of more collective thing (“there was a time when a star came down in our midst”), Normah remains wholly an object of representation. The point of view of the book does not permit us any view of Normah not mediated through the “ogling” of Mat, Mat’s group, Lat, or the reviewer who things Mat “dated” Normah.

If I can find an at least plausible reason for the reviewer misrepresenting or misreading Mat’s interaction with Normah, his misrepresentation of the detail about Elvis—beyond writing it off as simple sloppiness on the observer’s part—seems less tractable. Short of some sort of extensive examination about the cultural use of Elvis (as a symbol) generally as compared to “Rock Around The Clock”, dialled in to adjust for its Malaysian accents in the 1950s, there seems little to go on. Nor do the other songs reference in the book help much; Lat has the boys sing a Ted Vann song (Loop de Loop)[7] in one frame and their school band plays the Beatle’s “Ob La Di Ob La Da” for a festive gala. None of this has to indicate anything symbolic (on Lat’s part) or meaningful beyond the actual, autobiographical fact of it at the time, but that doesn’t get us any closer to understanding why the reviewer substitutes Elvis in his review either.

Yes, I know; I could just say, “Eh, fuck it. Doesn’t matter.” Again, sure: people mess up details all the time; maybe I’ve gotten it wrong that Lat includes no Elvis in the performed lyrics by the boys. And sure, I could say as well, “So he got it wrong. So what, it’s nothing.” At the same time, I’d assume if you wrote a book that you would want the summary generally available online not to have inaccuracies.

Maybe the least implausible reason for the substitution involves the greater fame of Elvis compared to Bill Haley & the Comets, although obviously to have used the phrase “Rock Around The Clock” would have referenced an extremely well-known cultural bit. When I think of Elvis, though, I think of someone iconically famous for grandstanding and much less any sort of collective representative for rebellion, such as got associated with Haley’s song. Elvis’ rebelliousness seems more individualistic and Byronic, compared (for example) to how the Beatles became or got leveraged as spokespeople for their generation.

Putting it this way reprises the point above: does Mat’s (non) conquest of Normah represent an individual “big man” boast (a la Elvis) or a more collective encounter between Mat (as a representative of his group, ala the Beatles)? Since the most dominating impression of Lat’s book centres around the time and place of the story (and less the specific characterizations of the people), it seems a “collective” reading of the book would have more merit. In which case, the reviewer may have (inadvertently) distorted the “meaning” of the text by turning the collective experience of Mat’s group into an individualistic “accomplishment” (something an individual in the narrow Occidental sense of the word would brag about), while also re-casting the “meaning” of rock music in the book (turning the social rebellion of “Rock Around The Clock” and social witnessing that the Beatles exemplified) into “merely” individualistic self-aggrandizement (a la Byron or Elvis).

In this “collective” versus “individualistic” contrast, I run the risk of seeming to reprise orientalist categories, but I have in the back of my head what Achebe (1980)[8] noted with respect to the African understanding of “individual” and “community”:

For me it’s not a question of [community] imposing its will [on the individual]; it’s a question of finding a balance which I think is important and which seems to be lost in the Western conception of man and his destiny.

In this balance the individual is important, but his importance is not so overriding that it is the only thing worth considering. This uniqueness and importance of the individual is limited by importance and the will of the community. It’s a question of balancing rather than one dominating the other. For instance, I don’t want to give the impression that the individual is unimportant in Ibo society. I don’t know of any culture which gives the individual a greater uniqueness than the Ibo culture.

Among the Ibo, the individual is so important that he is assigned a distinct creative agency. Every single person is made by his own “chi,” it’s not just one God making everybody in his image. Among the Ibos the individual’s uniqueness is really pushed to the absolute limits as far as I am concerned, so nobody can teach the Ibos about uniqueness of the individual. And you find it manifested in their political system and their social organizations. Heir concept of separate creators makes the Ibos difficult to govern because very man has a clear notion of his own destiny and does not rely on his neighbours for any kind of justification.

Yet this concept of the worth of the individual is always limited by another concept, the concept of the voice of the community. For instance, Okonkwo’s extreme individualism [the Things Fall Apart] leads to working against the will of the people and to self-destruction. And anybody who wanders off beyond what is accepted as appropriate for the individual, or a person who sets himself in opposition, quite often is heading for destruction. At the same time, I have to say that sometimes it’s in the interest of the community itself than an individual set himself in opposition. Because there is trouble, difficulty or pain, does not mean that this should never be done. Because sometimes you find that the only reason why society can move is that one individual comes out and suffers and the community gains by his experience (122–3).

This idea does not never occur in Occidental thinking, although we rarely find it adequately protected against mischaracterization;[9] Jung’s (1921)[10] notion of individuation provides a rare, adequate example:

It is obvious that a social group consisting of stunted individuals cannot be a healthy and viable institution: only a society that can preserve its internal cohesion an collective values, while at the same time granting the individual the greatest possible freedom, has any prospect of enduring vitality. As the individual is not just a single, separate being, but by his very existence presupposes a collective relationship, it follows that the process of individuation must lead to more intense and broader collective relationships and not to isolation (¶758).

A [social] norm serves no purpose when it possesses absolute validity. A real conflict with the collective norm arises only when an individual way is raised to a norm, which is the actual aim of extreme individualism. Naturally this aim is pathological and inimical to life. It has, accordingly, nothing to do with individuation, which, though it may strike out on an individual bypath, precisely on that accounts needs the norm for its orientation[11] to society and for the vitally necessary relationship of the individual to society. Individuation, therefore, leads to a natural esteem for the collective norm, but if the orientation is exclusively collective the norm becomes increasingly superfluous and morality goes to pieces. The more a man’s life is shaped by the collective norm, the greater is his individual immorality (¶761).

In Jung’s remark, “A real conflict with the collective norm arises only when an individual way is raised to a norm, which is the actual aim of extreme individualism. Naturally this aim is pathological and inimical to life,” the diagnosis of pathology and inimicalness to life seems in solidarity particularly with Achebe’s remarks, which come from the “opposite” side of individualism. Jung himself worried about individuality-only (Capitalism, though rarely called out by name) and collectivist-only (Communism) as absolute problems of social life, with history at the very least since the twentieth century showing unambiguously how destructively these form of “only” play out.

I would suggest—again, attempting to avoid exoticising or orientalising Lat’s text—that the “collective” or “individualist” dichotomy already inaccurately breaks up a social reality (in Malaysia at the time) where (as Jung and Achebe describe above) individuation consists of the individualized expression of collectively shared (cultural) values. So, we see neither “Elvis” (an individual) or Bill Haley & the Comets (a collective) nor Elvis and Bill Haley & the Comets, but an image of Mat, as an individualised expresser of a cultural norm.

Thus, we do not have to read Mat’s interaction as nothing but (or only) a covert angling toward romance or sex at the expense of the object (the person) of that desire. Although, having said this, it seems very different to contrast what Elvis or “Rock Around The Clock” might mean symbolically (as neither collective nor individualistic) compared to the motivations, aspirations, or meaning of Mat’s !date. This, because whatever “music” can or does mean in a cultural context that varies wildly in the United States or Malaysia, a baseline patriarchy deeply informs both cultures (however it differentially plays out). Big man politics function as much for social reputation (amongst one’s peers) as for trying to rope in a mate (or to score an erotic kiss in a movie theatre); the similarities render them hard to dismiss as simply “innocent”.

In any case, being attentive to these kinds of misreadings and misrepresentations (like the reviewer exhibits) seem germane when reading occurs across cultural boundaries. A kind of “punch-line” could get delivered to this point if someone proved that the reviewer I cite hails from Malaysia, but the steady incursion of “Occidental individualism” (of the type that Jung deplores), especially as a result of the monetization of social relationships, doesn’t guarantee that “Malaysian origins” automatically must safeguard against such “Occidental pollution”. Not that identity ever plays out in such a tidy monolithic way, but we may also keep in mind that many (if not most?) “foreigners” that late-order capitalism makes available for (orientalist) consumption stand (either deliberately or consequentially) in place of comprador intellectuals: figures who gain a certain limited access to Power within the shadow of empire as mediators and spokespeople for the culture they (advertently or inadvertently) tenderize for further capitalization; or, as Dabashi (2006)[12] aptly puts it, “native informers turned comprador intellectuals serve a crucial function in facilitating public consent to imperial hubris” (¶10).

This has next to nothing to do with Lat’s popularity in Malaysia but speaks only to his use by orientalising forces (all around us). Read less cautiously, we would say the presence of his book in our midst signals some kind of classic form of “cultural exchange” or “diffusion” but to say so disingenuously or naively brackets out the culture industry that benefits from placing it before us, including the socialization that not only makes us want to consume it in the first place but teaches us how to misread the text so that it remains amenable to that socialization. After all, whether we focus on the Byronic self-aggrandizement of Elvis or the merely hedonic individualism of rocking around the clock, both of these hinge on especially Occidental notions of how one enacts their human beingness in the world one finds herself in.

It may seem this all goes too far—that I have made far too complex something very much simpler, especially given that Lat’s book sometimes gets classified as for children. But such an objection (on those grounds) remains fantastically naïve. At root for vast amounts of proposed social change we find an emphasis on pedagogy, on children. I readily detect a general note of hopelessness about adults, who have already gotten formed, and now stand beyond repair or remediation. Far better, or at least apparently simpler, to focus on indoctrinating the next generation instead—and children’s literature, of course, plays an important role in getting “new messages” to “unspoiled minds”.

I will not here and now go into what might be made of the types and classes of physical distortion Lat resorts to when drawing people. However that gets received by (any monolithically constructed notion of) “people” in Malaysia, we might also ask for ourselves how we receive those images in light of our own aesthetic standards, &c. We could ask also to what extent seemingly Occidental standards influence (or pervert) Lat’s iconography. Strictly accidentally, Mat himself reminds me of Buzz Osborne, the guitarist from the Melvins—though maybe I should say Buzz found inspiration in Lat.[13] But, most obviously, Normah often resembles Betty Boop (especially in close-ups), and seems the least subject to the distortions typical of Lat’s human figures.

Ultimately, the two most dominating impressions I read (or misread) out of this book involve the much greater emphasis on visual environment (people and buildings) rather than what narrative story presents itself and the very different vibe that gets into the text when it turns “romantic”. If Lat intends to write a subtle narrative about friendship, it gets wholly hijacked when he lets Normah into the text; Frankie literally disappears over the course of the sequence.

I know that penises think the most important thing in the world involves ducking into some warm place and jumping up and down until they puke, but the assumed heteronormativity here seems strikingly unconscious in a piece that purports to describe life as a “town boy”. The fact that millions would sympathize with this narrative sequence offers no justification for its presence, much less any proof of its necessity. The fact that it comes wrapped up in a sudden deluge of testosterone, disingenuousness, and apparently self-delusion makes it that much more obnoxious.

I much more enjoyed marvelling at the variety and torqueing of figures in Lat’s book. It offered a sort of appropriately exoticized vision of the Other, although I refused to read the “weirdness” of the figure as either ”cool” or “sub-human” (the two main modes of orientalist consumption). The intrusion of such banal or assumed sexual iconography, not made any more palatable for being wrapped in humour, definitely put a gross black splotch on whatever else the book offered. And because this passage occupies an entire eighth of the book, that “wastes” those pages which might otherwise have remained devoted to more fully or more cogently tracking that “subtle narrative about friendship” that Lat claims he wanted to write.


 [1] More precisely, I will continue to read my usual ten pages but I will also read five pages per day of Burton’s (1620) Anatomy of Melancholy, a gigantic book that at five pages per day I will finish reading near the end of December 2014. I have wanted to read this book for a while, but various features of it make getting through it a challenge. UPDATE: I’ve dropped this project for reasons given here.

[2] Lat. (1980). Town Boy: Macmillan, pp. 1–192.

[3] Lat. (2006). Kampung boy. 1st American ed. New York: First Second.

[4] Abouet, M, and Oubrerie, C (2007). Aya. (trans. H. Dascher). 1st hardcover ed. Montréal : New York: Drawn & Quarterly, pp. 1–106.

[5] Woodring, J. (2011). Congress of the animals. Seattle, WA: Fantagraphics Books.

[6] McKean, D. (2010). Cages. Milwaukie, Or.: Dark Horse Books, pp. 1–496.

[7] Coincidentally included along with Haley’s “Rock Around The Clock” on Harry Nillson’s (1974) Pussy Cats album.

[8] Egejuru, PA (1980) Towards African literary independence: a dialogue with contemporary African writers. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.

[9] <href=”#_ENREF_2″ title=”Todorov, 1975 #152″>Todorov (1975) describes the literary genre of the fantastic as occupying a tenuous space between two other literary genres (the uncanny and the marvelous), and notes further that most such stories will lapse into one of these adjacent genres by the end of the work. This sort of mechanism describes the sort of tenuous position that “individuation” occupies in Jung’s writing, between the adjacent genres of hyperindividualism and collectivism, both of which he saw as socially unhealthy. Similarly, the sort of social balancing act that Achebe describes speaks to an analogous individuation (like Todorov’s fantastic), but the Occidental tendency to collapse this distinction (into “community” or “individual”) makes it easy for (Occidental) (mis)readers to construe his point the wrong way. Jung experienced a similar fate.

Todorov, T. (1975). The fantastic: A structural approach to a literary genre: Cornell University Press.

[10] Jung, CG (1976). Psychological types. A revision / Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

[11] In Jung’s text, he italicizes orientation and indicates with “(q.v.)” its cross-reference in the glossary.

[12] Dabashi, H (2006, 1–7 June). Native informers and the making of the American empire. Al-Ahram (797). Accessed 22 August 2014 from here.

[13] I don’t seriously suggest this; I say it only to note that were there in fact some direction of influence it would go from Malaysia to the United States, not the other way around.

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