Wilde at heart
LODESTAR - Danton Remoto (The Philippine Star) - February 22, 2020 - 12:00am

Filipino-American writer R. Zamora Linmark first burst into the literary scene more than 20 years ago with his novel, Rolling the Rrrsss (Kaya Press). It is a short, brisk novel whose teenage characters speak in the patois of Hawaii – English but not quite like it, since layered over with native Hawaiian argot and even Tagalog.

Since then, his novel has had a successful run in the theater.  Leche (Coffee House Press), his second novel, is a funny romp through Manila as a postcolonial tristesse. The text includes postcards, tips for the weary tourists, and well-curated dictionary entries. He has also published three books of poem. This catalogue is important, since it links us seamlessly to his newest book, The Importance of Being Wilde at Heart (Delacorte Press, New York).

This is Linmark’s first young adult (YA) novel, which is a growth area in world publishing. His novel follows all the motifs of young love, sweet love done by YA novelists, although the characters here are bi-curious, or even gay. And then, toward, the end, he turns the cart of apples and breaks the mould of the YA novel itself.

Ken Z (like a Mazinger Z for the 21st century) is the 17-year-old protagonist of the novel. He is a book lover who lives in the poor south of an island divided into two; the north is where the rich live. At the outset, you have resonances of George Orwell’s 1984, with its divisions of gender and class. It also reminds you of the United States’ north-south divide.

The multi-genre Linmark has written a novel that can be classified as hybrid and post-modern. The form combines several texts, like in his second novel. There are haikus, catalogues, imagined conversations, and snippets of a play. The background voice is that of Oscar Wilde himself, the lord of the English language. The novel also has the post-modern characteristics of play and slippages; of gaps and interstices in narrative and meaning. The point is to show the brokenness of the characters, the fragmentation of meaning itself.

One day, Ken Z goes “bunburying” in a swanky mall in the north. “Bunburying” is a term for one who assumes a new identity to escape from his old world, his former self.  Bunbury is also a character in Wilde’s comedy, The Importance of Being Earnest, which Ken Z happens to be reading when Ran sees him. Ran himself is also reading Wilde’s tragic book, De Profundis.  Ran – rich and blonde – looks like Dorian Gray, the lead character in one of Wilde’s most famous works. And that is when Ken Z falls in love.

Linmark captures the world of teenagers down pat: the anxieties, the fluttering of first love, the “Social Media with Apps like Zap, Talking Bubbles, Howzit, and Chatterboxers.”

He is also a savvy storyteller. One short chapter deals with Ken’s class composition, “The One Place I Want to Visit the Most.” It is Antarctica. “Inside a windstorm, the world of Antarctica becomes invisible. These winds are what shape the glaciers and icebergs of this icy kingdom.” Of course, this landscape at the edge of the world mirrors the arid, inner world of Ken.

Moreover, Linmark is a ventriloquist sketching Wilde for us, in body and words. “I look at him and can’t believe my eyes. It’s Oscar Wilde. He’s tall and stout, like the selfish giant in his fairy tales. He isn’t handsome but his features are striking. He has long, oval face. His wavy hair covered his broad forehead. His large, blue eyes are deep-set; his mouth, small but with full lips. He isn’t handsome but he doesn’t care. He is someone who knows that physique and looks can be compensated. That what is important is not what or how you look, but well you know yourself, the suit of confidence you carry within you wherever you go, whoever you’re with.”

Wilde also shimmers through his bon mots, his dialogue glowing with endearments such as “dear heart” and “dear boy.” “Passion makes one think in a circle,” said Oscar Wilde in one sudden appearance in the novel. In another, he says: “Such is the atmosphere of Desire. It can neither be contained nor controlled…” And then come this famous line, slithering like Seduction itself: “The only way to deal with temptation is to yield to it. Resist it and your soul will grow sick with longing.”

Linmark knows how to create a cohort of memorable teenagers. Ken Z and his best friends, the trans Estelle and gender-fluid CaZZ, belong to a five-member Oscar Wilde book club at school. It’s led by their literature teacher, Mr. Oku, an immigrant and former resident of North Kristol who has moved to the south.

Linmark is a poet at heart, and he describes love in this way: “Inside a minute --/ A blue-throated hummingbird’s/ One thousand heartbeats.” There is also a beautiful chapter on kissing, “which turns out to be a magnificent blossoming. This dangerously delicious jazz called kissing.”

“Skyrocketing” is one of the short chapters here and it fairly bristles with questions after Ken and Ran kiss passionately. “I, Ken Z, am now a big question mark. Did I just kiss a boy? Yes, and it felt like a hundred million volts of electricity surging throughout my body. I didn’t know that a kiss can be this powerful. That it can send my heart skyrocketing to the moon.”

Kirkus Reviews said: “In this earnest novel, Linmark creates a sweet love story that celebrates the diversity of its characters and culture. The Pacific island, while unnamed, reads like an amalgam of the Philippines and the Korean Peninsula. Everything, from Ran’s compulsory military service to the banning of books, feels authentic and heightens the stakes of the burgeoning gay romance.” Indeed it is. Welcome to Wilde at heart.

(This book is available at National Book Store and through online bookselling services. Danton Remoto is the Head of School and Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Nottingham in Malaysia. His official email is: danton.remoto@nottingham.edu.my)

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