Friday, 28 December 2007

All Paris, No Hilton

Why don't you read it?" she challenged me. She was not getting away with it.

I kind of regretted it.

Are all chick-lit pieces like this? "Yes, they're all like that," a friend replies, to my horror. It'll be a while before I could gather the courage to pick up another one.

Lightweight chick-lit

first published in The Star, 28 December 2007

To me, the word "chick-lit" is synonymous with Japanese, Korean and Thai horror movie titles. However, somebody found my Achilles Heel by practically shoving a chick-lit title up my nose and challenging me to read it.

Sweetheart From Hell is May-Zhee Lim's sophomore effort, after the chick-lit version of Harry Potter, Vanitee Bee. The first book must have been successful enough to encourage her to write another one. While both the lead characters have the same last name, it’s unclear if Sweetheart is the sequel to her first book.

Think Paris Hilton – but with 10 times the Paris and no Hilton – and you have Vicky Vanitee, the titular "sweetheart" who divorced her husband over a runaway lipstick; lied to her friends about a glam job in the tropics and a mega-celebrity husband; flew halfway around the world (to Kuala Lumpur, no less) to take up a position that is about to be terminated; and tormented her current beau – along with his friends, associates and ex-girlfriends – with random acts of deception, sabotage, fits of jealous rage and profligate spending. All told in her own words.

Reading this felt like riding the nightmarish theme-park attraction, "In the Wake of the Darling from Hades". The narration has the aesthetics of a burning 20-car pile-up. The over-the-top hi-jinks evoke a mixture of disbelief, consternation and amusement. Her chronic, self-centred, bombastic neuroticism makes you weep in pain – from all the cringing and wincing. The plot is fairly straightforward; the adventure lies in surviving the experience with your mind and intelligence intact.

It's easy to sympathise with every single character – except Vicky. She craves attention, thirsts for affection, hungers for recognition and begs to be taken seriously, but everything she does leads to the contrary. Instead, you feel more for the victims of her schemes. It was satisfying to see her finally get her just desserts (quite literally, in one instance).

Just when you're about to reach the end of your rope, begging, "Please, no more, oh God please, please, please put me out of my misery", you spy one of the creative cliff-hangers among the pages – a journal entry, conversation snippet, or blueprint of her next scheme – and once again, morbid curiosity overpowers everything else and you're back into her chaotic slipstream.

Overall, Sweetheart is the literary version of comfort food: it's not healthy, but it is fun – totally mindless fun at that. Its release seems well-timed, given the number of voyeuristic reality shows that are mushrooming all over the airwaves lately. Though it's clear Lim is putting her beloved lead character through the wringer for our enjoyment, one wonders – is she eulogising or parodying aspects of American and regional pop culture?

Fixations for brand names, multi-talented megastars (Jay Chou in particular) and their devotee-like fans, and the paparazzi's hungry gullibility – it's all there, and more.

In spite of the language and drama, there were times when I couldn't help but laugh. The cliffhangers were the funniest parts. From the atrocious narration, in-jokes, and cameos by her friends (and possibly an enemy or two), it's obvious May-Zhee had fun writing the story, which I suspect is that of her alter ego, the pompous, overbearing prima donna hidden behind the fa├žade of the straight-A student.

However, her novel yarn-spinning method may not have a wide appeal. The pink cover is a loud and clear KEEP OUT to sheltered bookworms and stiff-upper-lipped literati. To those who dare, beware of its vampiric vacuousness.

Now, if you'll excuse me, it's time for my Discovery Channel fix. It's been two weeks and I'm still salvaging my IQ.

Sweetheart from Hell
Written and published by May-Zhee Lim
382 pages
ISBN: 978-983-43144-1-5


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