æ: Is The Narcissist a gay story? A love story? Briefly tell us about it.
I must say that this is not a gay novel per se. This is a novel with a gay protagonist. Briefly, the book starts at a male pageant where the central character is a participant. Then, it picks up and goes on to show why he decides to go to London, then Paris. The story delves a lot into the mind of the character and gradually reveals to readers how his mind developed, changed; how he, as a person changed in the course of events as he carries on a personal battle within - this inner battle of his values, principles, etc. After all, we all have an inherent duality in our nature. This process is later inked out to show how and why he made his choices.
æ: The Narcissist is about a young gay man in London who gradually discovers the darker side of men; you've lived in London and Paris from 2001 to 2003 as a socio-political correspondent. The book begins with the protagonist taking part in a male beauty pageant; you were also once a contestant of the Manhunt contest (2000) in Singapore. How much of the book autobiographical? What parallels would you draw between yourself and the protagonist?
edmund: This is not a roman à clef. No one would be interested to read about my life, and I would not want to write an autobiography, at least not at this point in life, if I ever do. Yes, there are incontrovertible parallels: London, Paris and a male pageant. I would say that every author draws inspiration from things that surround his life; be it place, time or social environment. An author also draws inspiration from the things he has been through plus from the imaginations of his mind, or both. Every writer does that, and I am doing exactly just that.
æ: The Narcissist is your first novel. Why did you choose to write about a young gay man who reluctantly went with his boyfriend to London in to keep the relationship from falling apart but serendipitously finding himself and love in the process?
edmund: Foremost, I must clarify, if you would want to say that he found 'love in the process' as you have put it, then the only person the young man fell in love with was himself. The premise of the novel lies into the head of a narcissist; his thoughts, his ways, his mentality, his rationale of things. More importantly, it trails the path of how he becomes a narcissist: his development from giver to taker; the development from a seed of narcissism to its full-blown form; from one who possesses empathy to one who chooses to give that up. Trailing the route of how his identity changes, how his definition of things in life change, especially those of love.
Thus, in order to understand why I used the relationship as a setting, i.e., using the context of the 'relationship' and the 'love' aspects, I think you must realise that they are crucial to The Narcissist because love is the best measure of a person's magnanimity. If one considers himself to be in love, then, he surely would do everything and anything for his loved one. Bearing in mind the correlation between a narcissist and his characteristic self-centred nature, what better way to illustrate this nature, this side of him which is narcissistic or rather, selfish, self-possessed, etc. Of course revealing his thoughts about love becomes the best way to reveal his changing nature.
æ: How were you inspired in this story?
edmund: I was inspired by the people I know; people very close and dear to me. Also, how else not to be inspired when you see narcissistic people all around you today. It's so common. I see so many narcissists around. Take just one example, there seems to be this Sex and the City syndrome here (and maybe wherever there are fans of this show around the world) where people take to the values literally from television. There's much trash out there and it's brainwashing people. Of course, it's also brainwashing a lot of Europeans, not just Asians. Self-indulgence becomes elevated into a virtue, like in Sex and the City. It's always about 'Me, myself and I', doesn't it. And people are literally buying into it.
Don't get me wrong, I ain't no conservative. I like watching Sex and the City but I draw a line somewhere. But all I am saying is that these people should do some critical thinking on their own rather just plain absorbing of values; values imposed by another entity or the environment.
æ: Why has the protagonist no name, and why did you choose to do it in a first-person narrative? Wouldn't you be more afraid that it might give people the idea that it is an autobiography?
edmund: I chose a nameless protagonist because I wanted to do something different, something which would allow people to feel a certain sense of intimacy when they read the novel, as if they were the ones who were experiencing everything first-hand without the baggage of names which comes into one's head whenever you hear or see them. Each person, after all, has a preconceived idea of an accompanying personality to a particular name, say Mark to me may represent someone who is goody-two-shoes or John could be someone boring.
I chose a first-person narrative also because I wanted to heighten this closeness I want readers to feel. It's true that readers would be more inclined to think this an autobiography but then, you can't please everyone, can you.
æ: Can you share some of the highlights of the book?
edmund: I find the part where the character turns conniving interesting. The pace of the book picks up when it shows his dark side immensely. The transformation of his personality, from unsure with that tentative, hesitant charm, to being self-centred.
Another part is the part where the character turns a little self-deluded and how he convinces himself of things the way he wants them to be. It is a classic syndrome, isn't it?
Then, there is this struggle of individuality of the protagonist and characters in the novel. I suppose coming from an Asian society, this issue is just more glaring in a certain sense. Conservative societies tend towards 'mending' and 'healing' of their communities, trying to be as cohesive as possible.
In the West, especially say the Nordic countries (of course not all, there are some countries in the West which still value a lot on the community like Greece, Spain and Italy) individuality is key. That's one of the main themes of my book as well. This constant fight between individuality and the greater, between personal interest and responsibility, and so forth. I think for the West, they're not really grappling with it. Why? Because I think that for them, it will always be an issue. There's really nothing to grapple with. This discordance and conflict will just continue to pop up in art movies, in shows, or whatever other art mediums or literature or whatever. This is part of a man's nature. Contradiction is the essence of life and so presents its contradictions, its opposing nature, its opposing direction which causes us that conflict. The Narcissist discusses this conflict, between a man's needs and a man's responsibilities and conscience.
æ: Why does the book talk about searching and finding?
edmund: A narcissist is one who hopes to search for something new, to try new things. That's one of his most prominent traits. Routine is counter to his nature.
æ: There is a strong moralistic undercurrent in the book. There were plenty of dialogue which discussed about morality, individuality, choice and others like the flesh vs. the mind and heart, etc. Tell us more.
edmund: This book discusses about the things that go on in the narcissist's head. Of course, they are conflicting, very often. This is just part and parcel of what I want to write about. To show people that everyone is constantly struggling, fighting inside. Urges against irrational thought and whatever else that lies under this surface of rational consciousness.
Of course, I think the morality 'debate' going on in the conversations in the book are very real and personal to the hearts of many people because I believe these are the exact things that people are constantly thinking about, fretting over and confused about.
æ: How have your attitudes towards gay life and gay culture changed or evolved since you began writing your book? What is your personal take on the gay culture here?
edmund: Attitude? What attitude can one have towards the gay life or culture? To me, there isn't that much culture to it. Rather, I would say that the gay culture seems one-dimensional (I use the word 'seems'). I know its common for gays to start out callow, giving. But in time to come, they've somehow managed to become disillusioned.
Disillusionment seems to be the quintessence of the gay circuit. No doubts about that. You start out young, as prey, get preyed upon by predators, then you continue and perpetuate that cycle because you are angry and disappointed and feel short-changed.
On the whole, I think people generally tend to be shallow, and are disinterested about life. They don't seem to have an interest in anything else other than to find a boyfriend. Yet, you don't blame them because it's all part and parcel of their personal development as a being. They are like this or that because of circumstances and the way the entire circuit works only further moulds them into such beings.
But no, there has not been a change in my attitude. My friend was just telling me that day that there are all kinds of strange people and weirdos in the gay circuit, that you get your fair share of weirdos in the hetero circuit, but in the gay one, 95% probably are confirmed cases of weirdos.
I think the ones who stay at home are always trying to tell themselves that they are ok, doing well, coping fine with life, with solitude. Solitude is key to the homosexual's life. Some are always partying to deal with it. Others are a bunch who stay home and do nothing, or try to do everything else to deal with it. Basically, it's always about trying to suppress this solitude. This is key to the gay culture. It is part of it. Perhaps that is why many gays are perhaps creative in some way or other. As contrary to the masses who are mostly aimless and drifting, some of them really are capable of channelling their energies and inspiration into art, for I truly believe art can only come from pain. Pain, angst or whatever else there is in the package produces art. And there are many gays who produce good art.
æ: What made you become a journalist and then writer since you first graduated with an honours degree in Management?
edmund: Nothing in particular. It was just a path of chance, of opportunity, totally unplanned. Things happened, I wound up in radio doing writing, then later in other areas of the writing field. Isn't life like this, things happen to you which have not been planned, and you cannot explain things and you wonder: did I really have a choice at all or not? Hmm.
æ: Speaking of narcissism which is the theme of the book, psychoanalysts in the 1940s through the '60s were convinced that homosexuality results from clinical narcissism which perhaps isn't too far from the truth as evidenced by many urban gay men today are card-carrying members of the muscle cult (and of course, the gym and GNC) and many only date members of the same cult. Marshall Kirk and Hunter Madsen Ph.D., authors of "After the Ball: How America will Conquer its Fear and Hatred of Gays in the 90's" (1989), say gays suffer from a "narcissistic" personality disorder and provided this clinical description: "pathological self absorption, a need for constant attention and admiration, lack of empathy or concern for others, quickly bored, shallow, interested in fads, seductive, overemphasis on appearance, superficially charming, promiscuous, exploitative, preoccupied with remaining youthful, relationships alternate between over idealisation and devaluation." What are you thoughts on this and would you agree that some of the issues above are some of the issues mentioned in your our book?
edmund: Clinical narcissism, possibly leads to homosexuality. Firstly, I must say that I used homosexuality as a metaphor in the book. To allude homosexuality as a theme, by saying that 'man loving man' because he is narcissistic would be more accurate than to say that scientifically, a man falls in love with another man because he is narcissistic and he wants to fall in love with someone who looks like himself, something that I think is too simplistic an explanation. I believe in the omniscience of possibilities, that anything is possible and that some people do, 'suffer' from homosexuality in this sense. But on a general level, I doubt it. If it were true that the earlier assumption about men being attracted to men because of the flesh, thus making them somatic narcissists (a simplistic assumption, naturally), then it would have great repercussions in the world. If I may, for instance, many women would probably turn lesbians because they can and are more narcissistic than men to a larger extent, if we're talking about somatic narcissism.
So, we have to look carefully and examine the other aspects of narcissism. Isn't too insular to link narcissism with the flesh? What about other aspects? There is the intellectual narcissist who prides his intellectual qualities above all. So, really, I think my book just tries to use narcissism as a theme in general, alluding and riding on the qualities of narcissism rather than just narcissism itself per se.
Narcissism, in your earlier part of the statement, is being given too much credit for causing homosexuality. People today still can't establish if homosexuality is hereditary or whatever. And one more thing: I believe a hetero narcissist and a gay one isn't that much different in the sense that they both like to prey, to hunt, to get a thrill, from victories, adoration, admiration, acceptance, and most importantly, attention: whether man, woman, straight or gay.
æ: Why do you think that there are so many narcissists in the gay circuit?
edmund: I think many gay men's priorities in life are with finding love. And to find love in today's culture of beauty where everything has become reduced to the flesh, where everyone seeks to assert themselves by using their bodies to 'speak', this has also become a way for gays to do so. Thus, in the process of 'beautifying' themselves, they become narcissistic. Also, their narcissistic qualities, like the love of attention, poor self-esteem, etc are all part of the package of this cycle whereby in their quest for love, they develop and heighten these qualities which then make their narcissistic traits stronger as they become somewhat addicted to these narcissistic values. So, really, it's all a cycle.
æ: And for the record (and as brought up in the book), do you consider a hand job to be sex and cheating if one is already in a (monogamous) relationship?
edmund: Personally, yes. But of course, you know out there, there are a lot of deluded people who don't think so. The mind is all so-powerful, isn't it. And I think getting deluded becomes a choice, in general.
æ: And are you a narcissist in life?
edmund: Everybody is. So am I. :)
By Edmund Wee
Times Editions (2004)
Paperback (160 pages)
The Narcissist is the first novel by 31-year-old Singaporean journalist Edmund Wee. Set in Paris and London, the novel follows the trail of a young, callow homosexual narrator who gradually discovers the darker side of men. The two themes woven throughout the novel are self-discovery and self-love. The book is available at major bookstores and online at the Times Editions website.