By Max Chwa (21A01B) and Samyak Jain (21S03A)
Raffles Reads is a collaboration between Raffles Press and Times Reads which aims to promote a reading culture among Singaporean students.
What would happen if we were all honest about our true selves?
That’s the question The Authenticity Project seeks to answer. In this novel, Julian Jessop, a once prolific artist, leaves the eponymous notebook in his local cafe. He has penned his deepest secrets in the notebook, leaving instructions for the next person who finds it to write down their deepest secrets as well. The notebook changes hands multiple times, with each owner baring their souls through writing.
There’s something rather in-your-face about the premise as each character’s innermost struggles are directly stated through the notebook. Our introduction to Julian perfectly exemplifies this, which comes in the form of such an entry: through the aforementioned notebook, we learn about Julian’s daily habits, the regrettable treatment his deceased wife suffered when they were married, and his tortured isolation from the rest of the world. All these details are divulged to us before we even meet Julian, effectively spoiling any suspense or intrigue surrounding his personal life.
While the sledgehammer nature of the writing is a rational choice given that the characters are relating their life stories in a notebook, it also leads to a dry, monotonous reading experience as nothing is left to the readers’ imagination. However, the author does experiment with the premise to create unexpected twists; some characters use the notebook to assist the writers of previous entries, while others use it for artifice, whether to deceive themselves or those around them. Therefore, the premise still retains an entertaining aspect despite the tell-all narrative style.
As for the characters, they tend to be simplistic. Many side characters appear to be defined solely by their status as minorities or other identity markers. Benji’s homosexuality and Mrs Wu’s status as an Asian immigrant seem to be attempts at checking off boxes of diversity, rather than genuine explorations of their experiences.
If representation truly was the aim, this begets the question—why did the author sideline these “minority characters” by making them secondary to the main plot? In cases where marginalised narratives were explored more successfully, the sincerity of emotions and realistic portrayals came through. However, the novel’s reluctance to truly integrate minorities into the central narrative as viewpoint characters makes for a stunted effect, rendering the narratives of the marginalised decorative or even superfluous. True representation goes beyond simply creating a character of a marginalised identity, but giving them a voice within the novel itself.
Even the main characters are plagued with the same one-dimensional characteristics: Julian is eccentric and flamboyant, Monica is motherly and reliable, and Riley can be summed up in two words—attractive and Australian. The novel does select a few characters to develop within the cliches that define them; empowered by the support of their new friends, both Julian and Hazard begin to face their inner demons and Alice learns to love herself.
That being said, their journeys are rather unconvincing. The way in which characters’ struggles are resolved and brushed aside conveniently is frankly comical. For example, Hazard suddenly decides to give up his years-long crippling addiction to cocaine and alcohol by dropping his (latest) iPhone into the toilet and escaping to a Thai Island. While a vacation may be what we all need right now, it only served to minimize the very real internal battles of an addiction. Hazard’s alcoholism hardly seemed as severe as the book claimed it to be; he was able to give it up without much internal struggle or deliberation, and when he eventually relapsed, it was quickly dismissed as an anomalistic circumstance rather than a symptom of a larger regression. The author’s careless handling of Hazard’s addiction reduced his condition to a mere inconvenience. Furthermore, after his relapse, he effortlessly returns to sobriety, seemingly unchanged, without any further precautions taken to prevent another self-destructive spiral. Hazard’s personal journey seems like a fairy tale, complete with a miraculous recovery and happy ending.
Hazard was also separated from much of the narrative thrust for the first half of the novel, reducing him to more of a side character in spite of his intended status as a member of the main cast. This only served to make his personal journey even less convincing as there was little attention paid to him, and when attention was paid, it seemed as if Hazard was in stasis, with little changes to his present circumstances or state of mind. The chapters all seemed rather similar as there are little to no observable differences to illustrate Hazard’s progress as a character. Perhaps this was due to the lack of external stimulus in the form of other characters to drive his story forward. Therefore, his recovery appeared all the more unrealistic due to large gaps in the plot, with the author focusing more on his eventual recuperation instead of vividly portraying his addiction in a way that does it justice.
Alice’s progression as a character felt similarly lacking, with her abrupt change in her attitude towards her marriage not being reflected or explained through any sort of progression in her thought processes or her reactions to external circumstances. Additionally, she was only introduced in the second half of the novel, leaving insufficient time for the readers to familiarise themselves with her, hence making it more challenging to relate to her.
The underdevelopment of character arcs was most likely the result of a large cast. The Authenticity Project seeks to craft a narrative arc for most members of its main cast through the use of the notebook. The reader is made to anticipate such a narrative arc as they learn about each character’s insecurities through the notebook and watch as said insecurities are addressed and resolved throughout the novel.
However, this might have been overambitious on the author’s part as it requires the development of four different characters, two of whom only join the rest of the cast in the middle of the novel. The use of four major different viewpoint characters that are engaged in different activities (sometimes in different locations) also prevented us from witnessing the growth of each character as we were only updated on their developments sporadically, almost like a quarterly review. Hence, the character arcs were rather undeveloped, with some ending too early while others were unfinished. In spite of all this, the positive change in each character’s life was still made clear, making said arcs successful in concept if not in execution.
There is, however, value in having many viewpoint characters. These distinct characters offer a kaleidoscope of perspectives as we catch a glimpse of the varying ways in which different individuals can view the same situations. This is apparent from the very beginning of the novel, where Hazard used a rather unsavoury word to describe Monica during their first encounter. Hazard believes that the word was barely audible, but Monica is certain that he raised his voice intentionally for her “benefit”. This highlights the intricacies of human interactions, which are often fraught with such misunderstandings.
The Authenticity Project also reveals how our true selves often differ from the facades we put up. Alice is perhaps the most notable example of this. She maintains a polished, stylish image through her Instagram posts and pristine appearance, as observed by the rest of the characters, but this only masks the struggles that agonise her as a new mother. This contrast is cleverly revealed as we’re first introduced to Alice from her own point of view. The internal turmoil that we associate with her initially clashes jarringly with the serenity towards motherhood that we learn she displays in public, challenging our understanding of Alice as a character and by extension our understanding of people as a whole.
However, the facades that we construct sometimes deceive even ourselves. Monica believes that her goal of motherhood defines her. It is only during a moment of epiphany that she realises that her identity has chiefly been molded by her self-reliance after her mother’s passing. Julian believes that he has shared his authentic self in The Authenticity Project, but reality remains elusive. As it turns out, choosing to be authentic is a process involving constant reflection and self-discovery.
Although striving for authenticity might not necessarily result in true authenticity, the willingness to be authentic, the willingness to be vulnerable, can give others the courage to do the same. After perusing the entries of those before them, each character that came into contact with the notebook was inspired to volunteer their own stories. By revealing these parts of themselves that would otherwise remain hidden, they forged a community of compassion and hope. Even Alice, who was more distanced from the rest, finds the perfect confidante in Lizzie through their shared struggles as women and the unreasonable expectations placed on them.
Perhaps this is the most compelling idea that The Authenticity Project puts forth: as long as we show our true selves to others, we will be worthy of love, and be able to love in turn. To be fair, such an idea is rather idealistic if not downright naive. However, shouldn’t we strive for perfection, no matter how unachievable it remains?
The compassion that the found family in The Authenticity Project features is unfortunately more flawed than it seems. There is one character that The Authenticity Project fails, and that character is Monica.
There is a certain irony in Monica’s situation: towards the end of the novel, we learn that one of the most traumatic events in her past was due to her not being able to rely on others and having to wrestle with her problems alone, without any friends or family, upon her mother’s death. “[We] were like two shipwrecked sailors, both trying to stay afloat, but clutching on to separate pieces of wreckage”, Monica says as she confides in Hazard about her feelings of powerlessness and her father’s own inability to help her. Hazard even points out that this was what Monica should have “written in the book”, hence allowing us to see how essential this tragic independence is to Monica’s nature.
However, Monica does not learn to share her burdens with others in the novel. Instead, more individuals begin to depend on her, weighing her down with more problems and responsibilities.
Monica’s likeability stems from her usefulness to the other characters, but she still loathes herself internally. While this is a completely valid character archetype, the book glorifies this toxic selflessness, especially in the middle of the novel, only portraying her as a side character in other characters’ lives rather than the protagonist of her own. She constantly makes personal sacrifices for the development of others, be it her time, her energy or the little funds she was planning to finance her cafe with. Just as Monica’s cafe is the location that the book’s events revolve around, Monica is used as a doormat to move the plot forward while losing any sense of personality she might have had. Her personal struggles, expounded upon in detail at first, are conveniently forgotten afterwards to focus on other characters’ arcs.
Additionally, the narrative constantly portrays her emotions as expendable, forcing her to simply “get over” her own distress so she can assist those around her. After facing betrayal from those closest to her, Monica “[cries] for what might have been, for the version of a perfect future that had…shimmered in front of her…for her lost belief in herself…But most of all… for the girl she’d thought she was becoming…She was gone.” As one of the most compelling characters in the novel, Monica’s emotional duress is immensely heartrending.
In spite of this, Monica is made to put her feelings aside to counsel a friend. Instead of focusing on her emotions, the novel chooses to use her as a prop for the emotional journey of another character and discounts Monica’s feelings as being “so wrapped up in [herself] that [she hasn’t] even thought about him”. To make matters worse, said friend’s emotions are only a result of guilt from ways in which he has hurt others, including Monica herself. The narrative chooses to uplift his guilt as an offender over Monica’s grief as a victim, completely dismissing Monica’s genuine pain in favour of the pity party that he has decided to throw for himself. The narrative does not even seem conscious of the way Monica’s character is truly portrayed, with numerous characters believing in Monica’s ability to stand up for herself, saying that she’d “never let anyone treat [her] [exploitatively]”, when in fact, this is exactly how she has been treated throughout the entire novel.
A spark of hope emerges for Monica towards the end of the novel, where she is given an opportunity to pursue her own personal happiness and find love in carefree exploration. This creates the possibility of true growth for Monica, empowering her to care for herself and live life to the fullest, almost experiencing the childhood that she was deprived from in her youth. Unfortunately, Monica rejects this offer, instead deciding to continue mothering those around her.
Monica’s journey is rendered even more ironic due to the feminist impulse the book claims to possess. Alice is an example of this, being a self-proclaimed “huge believer in female solidarity”. Unfortunately, like the other characters, she chooses to disregard Monica’s emotions. While she seeks to comfort Monica when the other woman is at her lowest point in the novel, such an attempt is revealed to be performative as she does not show true empathy for Monica, instead choosing to hold a grudge against her after Monica lashes out due to her raw, justified pain.
The men in the novel feed on Monica emotionally, parasitically taking advantage of her kindness for their personal gain, while the women, in turn, offer her no solace. Monica, perhaps, reflects the state of patriarchy today, where women are often forced to suppress their personal feelings and desires in order to take care of and uplift the men around them. In glorifying Monica for her sacrificial instincts, the book ends up perpetuating existing inadequacies within society.
Ultimately, The Authenticity Project is a novel rooted in idealism. Like most other idealistic novels, it has a great deal of love and hope. As each character finds it in themselves to open up to those around them, we see the emergence of friendships based on genuine human connection. The true authenticity of the book does not lie, then, in the stories written in the shared notebook but rather in the relationships between the characters, allowing for the unfolding of their own individual stories. Perhaps the true authenticity project here is not in their perceived anonymity but rather in finding individuals we trust enough to share our true selves with. However, in the same way that idealism often lacks the pragmatism to back it up, the novel’s execution fails to live up to the vision it has for itself. The stunted development of its characters makes for a novel that impresses in theory but baffles in practice, leaving us with a story that aches with the pain of what might have been.