The final instalment of the UK-based Semina series, which describes itself as “where the novel has a nervous breakdown,” is also where we find Aliasing, Mara Coson’s first novel. As an admirer of Coson’s writing for Rogue and Esquire, I was nonetheless apprehensive about tackling an experimental novel. Semina, a project of publishing studio/arts organization Book Works, supports work from “artists and writers willing to take risks with their prose and who demonstrate total disregard for the conventions that structure received ideas about fiction,” emphasis mine. Now, I enjoy reading challenging, non-conventional novels as much as authors like writing them. But I’ve also found it impossible to finish those books that required reading from back to front, upside down, sometimes in a circular fashion, or books with excessive footnotes and marginalia, which seem gimmicky and distracting.
More published works from Filipinos:
Semina is inspired by the original Semina, nine journals of underground art and writing hand-pressed by Wallace Berman, an American countercultural figure of the 50s and 60s. The guest editor of the current series, Stewart Home, sounds absolutely bonkers, a self-identified prankster and professor of anti-academia who once wrote a book called Whips and Furs: My Life as a Bon Vivant, Gambler and Love Rat, by Jesus H. Christ. From a pile of open submissions, he pulled up Coson’s story, making her the ninth artist and first Filipino and non-Western voice in a series whose trademark style is high weirdness. He had not known of her prior to that; Coson is known to us as the co-founder of The Manila Review and more recently, the brainmother of the Alley at Karrivin.
Aliasing is unconventional in the sense that there’s an almost free-associative quality to the text. Set in a fictional town of Turagsoy, famous for their crater lake, the unnamed narrator recounts in first-person the various scenes, interconnected incidents, historical rumors, imagined encounters, and religious madness that occur in and around her hometown, all in the shadow of an imminent volcanic eruption, which, for some reason, no one can talk about.
Provincial or urban, rich or poor, life in the Philippines during the 80s, 90s and even beyond was unified via one soundtrack—the parade of mellow lite E-Z hits that all the radio stations played. Coson captures this with hilarious precision, laying down all the tracks that trigger Filipino sentimentality, scraping the bottom of our deepest well of corniness. In Aliasing, the radio is a major background character: Everywhere the radio was tuned to DWWZ 666. Each bakery, tarpaulin printer, vulcaniser, resort, condotel, cake shop, digital media company, bar, cellphone repair shop, travel agency, shawarma restaurant, chicken rotisserie stall, pawnshop, cafe, public hot spring, private pool club, gotohan, nightclub, chapel, Enchanted Kingdom, fast food restaurant, massage parlour, coconut pie stand, hardware store, grocery had it constantly on, so that walking through the entire municipality was seamless.
The narrator ends up working on radio dramas, hired by the station for her ability to impersonate a diverse set of characters. Through this medium, the audience—both us as readers as well as all the listeners in the story—picks up bits and pieces of Philippine history. One of the more involved dramas that the narrator produces is based on the story of Emilio Aguinaldo’s capture by the Macabebe Scouts in 1901—though in Coson’s world, he goes by the alias Diego Salvador (also the title of a popular 70s radio soap). Aliasing, in more ways than one, is a complementary read to Gina Apostol’s Insurrecto, where the author uses the Balangiga massacre of the Philippine-American war as a narrative device that also intersects with the murderous present.
Coson writes about the Philippines for an international audience, but those expecting Fil-Am identity angst or nostalgia for the old country won’t find that here. Aliasing is a contemporary novel about the Philippines in perhaps the only way it can be: disorienting and absurdist. Like scanning through radio stations, and, at the sheer cliff where the airwaves end, jumping back to the start. Scattered with forgotten newsmakers, monsters of folklore, Marian seers, and dictatorial mayors, it also serves low-key socio-political commentary on the way we presently live. Characters see themselves through the movies, TV shows, and radio programs they constantly consume, which in turn reflect a version of society they believe to be real.
In audio and video terminology, “aliasing” refers to the distortion that occurs when the reconstructed signal differs from the original signal. Perhaps the book’s title alludes to many interwoven stories, accounts, myths, and memories that get all mixed up in the retelling. Perhaps it refers to the many alyas used by the characters who hope to assume a different persona. Stewart Home, a legendary cultural rascal, has introduced to the world of experimental fiction, and fiction in general, an intriguing new voice, one that has begun to infect readers with a phantasmagoria of kapre and karaoke, Filipina spies and Facifica Falayfay.