In the notes at the end of Dear Distance, Luis Katigbak writes: “Some of these stories were sparked by sights or sounds by other people; some of them approach the character of collaborations.” He then proceeds to enumerate which of the stories in the anthology he means, listing their respective inspirations, but it is hard to imagine that only a small portion of the anthology is covered by this blanket-disclaimer, when really the whole book can be read as a series of observations—some grounded in realism, others probing surreal, fantastic realities—the author taking down a verbal sketch in his notebook. Yet the observations bear the mark of depth, and we see in varying degrees how far Katigbak plunges the reader into the psyche of the contemporary common Filipino.
To begin, the story “The Girl on the Bus”, for instance, reads like a semi-sentimental Missed Connections entry on Reddit. In describing his seatmate on the commute, who stands out throughout the ride for wearing a party hat and eating cupped Jello, the narrator seems to evoke an unspoken desire to seek this girl out, to fulfill his compulsion to talk to her on the bus, perhaps to let her know that he remembers her, if she ever comes to read the piece. This kind of whimsy is common all over Katigbak’s writing, and even comes in stronger doses in the book’s longer pieces.
By the time we reach the next story, “We Built This Robot”, the reader comes to know another kind of writing that Katigbak is deft at, relating how the narrator’s best friend commits an act of betrayal, stealing his mind in order to provide their lifelong robot project with a central processing unit. “I could not scream or cry or go on a rampage,” the narrator laments, waking up to discover that he has become a gallery fixture instead, “much less protest that my best friend’s betrayal meant that our creation was technically a cyborg, and not a robot at all.”
Here, we come to see a key strength of Katigbak’s stories: his observations bear the element of surprise, and not of the plot twist variety. Instead, his stories pivot on revelations of character, on discovering thoughts that might be considered too sentimental for an intellectual crowd but are no less honest or sincere to the Filipino sensibility. These thoughts are mediated by common themes of memory and perspective, and in the best of his stories, an extended period of time in which these thoughts are given time and space to grow.
This is evident in stories where Katigbak plays around with our sense of time, speaking in a definite present, but jumping back and forth through history without warning. In “Sabado, 1995”, inspired largely by the music of the Eraserheads and the era they played in, the narrator, while navigating the Quezon City traffic on the way to work, recalls time with his now-estranged barkada, his close group of friends. As he presents to the reader the tragic circumstances of their drifting, the songs that keep him company throughout his drive suddenly push him to steer towards the campus of their alma mater, the University of the Philippines, where the members of the Eraserheads also studied and launched many of their greatest hits. Suddenly the smallest details of his drive evoke vivid flashbacks, and the story ends as if they are young and together once again.
Another story, “And You Tell Me ‘87”, ties memory down to the question of possibility. The reader is told by Martin, the narrator, how he meets Christina in a hotel bar after they both escape a forgettable prom night, and how the two begin a friendship on the premise that their lives have yet to play out. They imagine what lives they can end up living—Christina comparing herself to Meg from A Wrinkle in Time and Martin fancying himself a Batman—and before we know it, Martin tells us that twenty-five years have passed, that the two of them have lived separate lives, intersecting at key moments. Martin, quietly thinking of the life he and Christina could have had together, remembers a question he would have liked to ask Christina shortly before the birth of her first child: “Can something that never truly properly began be said to have ended?” The response he imagines: “[T]hat’s the beauty of it, something that never properly began, never ends.”
Katigbak, who passed away in April earlier this year, was right to be fixed on our obsessions with time and memory. In a tradition that’s so often limited to an obsession with national history, Dear Distance feels fresh. The voices and characters are quirky, but they carry fully developed worlds that are eager—moving across vast distances—to be known. As Katigbak ruminates at the end of the book’s title story: “In the end, distances and surfaces are all we can ever be sure of, and this is no sad thing. In a world that has accelerated almost beyond recognition, it may be the only comforting thought of which I am still capable.”
J. Marcelo Borromeo is a young writer from the Philippines. He graduated with an MA in Humanities from the University of Asia and the Pacific, and was, for a very brief period, the online editor of Rogue Magazine. A typical schoolboy, he lives by the motto Bene Omnia Legere (Read all things well). You may ramble with him on Twitter.