Sherwin Tjia enjoys pushing people to a point just outside of their comfort zones. The creator of the Strip Spelling Bee, Slowdance Nights, and the Cardboard Fort Night, Tjia, who also writes, paints, and works at McGill, seems to take pleasure in putting people in awkwardly sexy situations, and watching what happens. Tjia – a connoisseur of three things (french-fries, pantyhose, video games) and a collector of one (small black dresses) – launched his book, Serial Villain, which was released in fall, on March 21 at the Mainline Theatre.
The cover of Serial Villain advertises “A Dozen Thrilling Illustrated Tales!” below an image of a busty, blue-eyed, red-lipped, gun-toting blonde. This is almost exactly what you will find inside – the stories are all parodies of the thriller genre, and as Tjia put it, are written in a “glib, ramshackle, free-flowing, very straightforward” style. His sentences are short. There is an abundance of exclamation marks. There is gratuitous sex. People get shot! It’s certainly gripping stuff.
In reality, there are only eleven thrilling, illustrated tales, because the twelfth, a story about two boys who are obsessed with carrying out the “Ultimate School Shooting,” was a little too distasteful for Tjia’s publishers at Conundrum Press. Tjia can be a funny guy, if you think things like going back in time and having sex with Hitler’s mom are funny. In one of the stories he had tried to find a non-clichéd way of saying “he knew the place like the back of his hand,” and what he came up with was: “He walked unerringly through the dark room. He knew the place like the tip of his dick.” But in the end this was edited out. “My publisher had a different idea,” Tjia said. “He thought this was really terrible. In all truth, he was right. I read the story again, and it kind of stuck out. Like a penis.”
Many of the stories in this collection of “short stories for mature readers” are about control. From a character who goes back in time to kill Hitler, to a hypnotist who has programmed his wife to have the “Best and Most Intense” orgasm of her life whenever he says “dinosaur stew,” I can’t help but see these tales as a reflection of Tjia’s own control fantasies. Of his events, he says: “I have a lot of fun, because people are doing crazy shit I ask them to. Look at strip spelling bee: I’m getting drunk, I’m being paid, people are taking their clothes off for me, and I’m the only one who can take pictures. This works for me.”
This is reminiscent of one grim scene in “The Best and Most Intense,” the second story of the collection, in which a hypnotist fantasizes about hypnotizing fifteen people into having a group orgy, or maybe committing suicide. While this almost makes Tjia seem like a pervert, pushing people to their limits in his events also gives Tjia the opportunity to empower participants to explore another side of themselves. “I want people to feel like they have control. There are rules in place. It’s like a board-game where you become this person you aren’t normally. What I want to do is give people a very precise gap to jump through…but you can jump through it however you want,” he said.
Because the characters in Serial Villain use each other to further the plot, there is a lack of intimacy between them. “You can accuse this book of being Hollywood schlop, where there is a plot, and the people are just pawns inside that plot. You are so busy cramming the story in that there is just no room for too much quiet time or intimacy,” Tjia told me.
Despite Tjia’s other work, where he seems to be sensitive to the dangers of portraying stereotypical gender roles, the parodying nature of Serial Villain could have been a good chance to subvert the usual roles that women play in pulpy thriller novels. When I mentioned the word ‘gender’, he looked at me sheepishly and said: “I don’t feel like I’m always going to be an angel in my writing. I do have strong women characters. I know in my next book there will be strong women characters. …People make things, and they don’t always make good things. You can’t always be an angel.”