Learning, Again: On Reconnaissance

by Andrea Macalino

▶︎ Over the years, I’ve heard a lot of people diss chick lit. I know all the arguments: It’s shallow, pretentious, and all about romantic love showered with a helpful description of choice branded items when the protagonist goes on a shopping spree to cure her heartache: four-inch Manolo Blahniks, a tube of MAC Viva Glam Nicki, or an eighties-back-with-a-vengeance structured party dress from Mango for a Saturday night out with the girls.

But I’m not here to overthrow those (mis)conceptions.

It’s been some time since I last read Tara FT Sering’s Between Dinner and the Morning After–once, to sample the genre, and again, to make a paper for my sophomore year in college (Want to read it? Don’t…). To make the long story short, I was blown away, not because I was treated to the usual elements of chick lit (a modern-day city girl, the “perfect guy”, hilarious but tasteful descriptions of sex, a bevy of girls ranging from chic best friend to shy young woman), but because the narrative used all these to turn the usual concept of the protagonist in chick lit on its head.

Oops, here’s another but!

But I’m not here to talk about Between Dinner and the Morning After. Just this week, I bought myself a copy of Tara FT Sering’s Reconnaissance, a collection of her short fiction. Now if there’s one thing I noticed recently about my reading habits, it’s that I’m a slow-goer when it comes to short story collections. I either get too hung up on this one story which makes me reluctant to read the next, or I go through them at snail’s pace, always somewhat bothered that what I’m reading doesn’t have one absolute plot supported with minor conflicts along the way (as is the case in novels).

So while I knew that I certainly liked the author’s writing style, I was still surprosed to find how quickly her first protagonist in “Preview” pulled me in. The character might as well have said, Here, you see, is where I am; see the meal finished, here is my new family. This is the taste it leaves in my mouth; this is what makes itself clear to me. The first thing you have to know about Ms. Sering’s fiction? It’s captivating. It’s simple. It’s concise.

I’ll refrain from discussing all the stories (particularly “Getting Better”, as I want to write about it in length vis-a-vis her novel Amazing Grace), although I will say that my preference for her writing stems from two things: first, a value of fiction that I learned but have yet managed to successfully apply to my own hopes of writing, and second, my personal context (Ah! The so-called glory of the twenties!)

I learned a long time ago that there are different kinds of stories. There are loud, fast-paced stories, with expressive protagonists and exciting points-of-view. There are melancholy stories that leave you almost catatonic. There are stories that will leave you wanting to turn society upside down.

And then there are the quiet kind of stories; the ones which, if you don’t read carefully, you’ll breeze through and reach the endings of, with an expression of complete bafflement. These are the ones that’ll leave you asking if the author really did just waste all that ink and paper to tell you a story about nothing.

And I only want to know that we are having a family crisis. That this is a crisis so bad it blurs our view of the future. I don’t want to know for sure if we will all be fine after this; it’s too soon to tell. I want to know that now is too soon to tell. But already they believe themselves to be fine. So alarmingly certain are they (Sering 24).

That’s what Tara Sering’s fiction is like. To those convinced that chick lit belittles women by subjugating them to the shopping mall or glorious office halls where the sound of heels echo everywhere in the beat of the city and by reducing them to needy lovers, her fiction will seem the prime example of why chick lit is substandard literature, no capitalization required.

The secretary whose desk is stationed right by the door of the small inner room glances up at me every so often while her hand goes on writing and her lips resist, it seems, parting from the thin, stern line they form. She checks to make sure I don’t fold the magazine into my bag, my enormous bag of folders, full of papers, full of information about who I am, where I’m from, what I’ve attained educationally, and what job I want (Sering 10).

But to the women who are puzzled as to why a movie with cars, guns, and male leads can be considered valid while a movie about a group of women trying to balance their careers, love lives, and personal growth (with a healthy mix of makeup, fabulously-named cocktails, and designer clothes) is considered shallow, this is the kind of fiction that goes straight to the heart of the aspiring young woman who is baffled by society’s expectations of her family life and is constantly trying to find stable career ground.

What I’ve attained educationally is so much more than what I want, my mother says and gives my shoulder a reassuring squeeze. This whole business of getting work will be like finding a small brown table on which I can arrange family pictures, over which I can put a nice vase with pink, plastic flowers (Sering 10).

Personally–and here I talk about context–it is the kind of fiction that, as I told T, gives me that treasured moment of reading about yourself, right at your own narrative’s unfolding.

So here I end, with a quote I read as I sat waiting on the eleventh floor of a building in Makati, wondering.

 When it is over they ask me to step out, please, and pick out something nice to read while waiting. I step out and pick an ancient, almost brittle copy of Time. I make myself comfortable on the couch inside the waiting room, inside the office, on the eleventh floor of the building, a building among countless, nameless many in a gray forest of a city… (Sering 10).

Reconnaissance, indeed. ***

Andrea Macalino is a graduate student of Comparative Literature. This was published in her blog in May 2012.