Succeeding at Not Succeeding – switching on the Failure Machine with Daryl Li

A specter is haunting our lives – the specter of failure. All the powers of modern life have entered into a holy alliance to exorcise this specter: our neatly-typeset CVs, ascendant income brackets, vacation pictures, and media spotlights. Peel back the surface of our superficial successes, however, and what we see are the corpses of abandoned projects, abortive attempts to make a difference, what-could-have-beens that all snowball together into a deep chill with the potential to paralyze just as much as it can push us forward. What if, Daryl Li asks, we celebrated these instead? On 9 and 16 December, Puck Provisions played host to an exploratory night of literature, inviting its audience to grasp one man’s deeply personal history of failure.

What would a museum of you look like? Scattered across the café’s counters and tables were objects ranging from early 2000s report cards, an undeveloped roll of film, to a cut-up (fictitious? I hope!) love letter, to be drawn one piece at a time. These are material artefacts all embodying an incompleteness, each speaking to unfulfilled opportunity. It’s reminiscent of Zagreb’s Museum of Broken Relationships, but directed inwardly. Creativity places some demands on us. Ideas gush out from unexpected places, but disciplining them into suitable forms are a different enterprise altogether.

Artifactuality #6 – Clarinet Gear (Youthful Trauma)

Artifactuality #8, ‘Notebook’, exemplifies this, stuffed full of sketches of ideas for games, short stories, future zines, meetings, plot hooks, characters, metaphors… the list goes on and on. “I must have written over a million words by now,” Daryl estimates later in the session, but evidently no amount of words will ever be enough to realize our creative potentials or even flesh out imaginative flights of fancy. Other artifacts speak to the paths not taken, or else paths clumsily sped down and towards disaster. Traces of adolescent trauma or failed romances may linger in the psyche, and by offering them up here as-is, the audience is invited to draw comparisons with their own life.  

And it is one thing to satisfy the self, another thing altogether to render something fit for the all-critical eye of a publisher or popular audience. Unsatisfactory writing marks the second, and more substantive part of Failure Machine, something resembling a lecture punctuated by readings of his past, not-good-enough work. Across his hand-illustrated slides, Daryl takes us through his personal annals of failure: often relatable, generally resolved, and never published. Beginning with an anecdote of a disastrous job interview, we are brought through twelve-year-old Daryl’s efforts at tackling the horrors of war, his pastiches of cyberpunk and noir-ey action, to more experimental pieces expertly blending local mythology with brilliant metafictional commentary.

These are punctuated by more theoretical interludes, where he marshals the intellectual weight of Anne Carson or François Truffaut to drive home his points about failure. It occasionally makes for a funny sight – a stylized reading of past work, offered up for the literary cringe factor, accompanied by these austere, continental theorists.

From Part II of Failure Machine, ‘Back Pages’.

Yet it drives home the point that in this wild, saturated world of information and inexhaustible reading lists, most people are necessarily defined by their successes – insofar as they are noticed at all. We remember Roland Barthes for his structural theory – only true Barthian enthusiasts will grasp the depths of his failure by getting their hands on a rare memoirs of his. It might even be reassuring to know that the corollary to all these embryonic, abandoned projects is that their relegation to our journals and scrap heaps ensures they are tucked away, ready to appear at the right time.

At many moments, Daryl seems too harsh on himself. Credit where credit is due to literature produced in a Sec 1F classroom, while others bear promise and might eventually see publication. It may be a truism that we are our biggest critics, but it also no wonder that writers and artists may feel like they’re wading through lava to simply produce something good enough to be published. Anyone reading this is likely to be acutely aware of the lack of funding and institutional respect accorded to creatives, and thriving in a space beyond conventional fiction or even poetry is immensely difficult.

Conversely, it’s events like these accord everyone the space to present, laugh about, and ultimately narrativize our failures (and daresay mediocrity), providing a much-needed environment to learn and grow. To embrace this is not to reject the possibility of any success, but to revisit the twists and turns of our fragmented consciousness. It is being a friend and willing audience member to ourselves. It is to be liberated to take another step forward. 

Corkboard #2. Guests were invited to pen down their thoughts on failure, or simply to share an anecdote.

I first encountered the term “failing forward” in tabletop roleplaying. It is a simple, gamified concept whereby players and gamemasters are nudged towards thinking that a bad dice roll does not spell the end of the story. One quest opens where another one closes, and players themselves, far from being the hapless victims of a gamemaster’s whims, share the agency in charting out new ways to drive the story forward. Of course, games themselves, deliberately compartmentalized as they are from the turmoil of our real lives, sometimes make for a poor analogy, a fact Daryl picked up when flashing the iconic “YOU DIED” screen of a Soulsborne game as a stand-in for his failures. Yet, there is something incredibly powerful in taking a step back, not just mining each individual failure for some life lesson, but incorporating that into a grander oeuvre of work. Again, I can’t help but think of the incredibly abstract mechanism of experience points, explicitly awarded for failing some challenge in tabletop systems like Ironsworn or Powered by the Apocalypse. Moreover, beyond that highly subjective notion of some personal (/character) growth, was this whole event not the embodiment of Daryl’s longue durée of failure? Out of the ashes something tangible has risen.

Daryl and I first met at the Youth Jury Programme of the 2020 Singapore International Film Festival, and quickly formed a friendship mostly on the basis of our shared interest in boardgames, RPGs. Over the years I have been an inconsistent participant at nominally-monthly boardgame evenings, and have never once made it for an actual Dungeons and Dragons RPG session despite my intentions to the contrary. Likewise, I owe him something, anything for an edition of his zine Galangal, which dialogic in nature, is waiting for my hand to clap. It would be incredibly harsh to characterize my attendance at this event as one of penance, but there was definitely some element of guilt that surfaced when friendship is imbued with the artistic practice of co-creation. The gut-sinking feeling of a missed deadline, distinguishable as it is from the lapsed routine of simply checking in on a friend, mingle together at times.

16 Dec run of Failure Machine. Photo by Yang.

What was therefore so beautiful about this event was how this room was teeming with life and energy – a mandala of friends and faces brought together to ponder the idea of failure, to hear out Daryl’s unshapen literary creations and chime in with their own, even support opening up café spaces till late or distributing printed handouts to the audience. Doubtlessly, during the main body of the event, everyone listening had something on their mind, slotting in analogous experiences of their own as he narrated his own stories – whether biographical or literary.

During an intermission Daryl noted that there was something almost bardic about the act of sharing his failures. Here, past moments are collected and given a new form. No doubt they will echo through time, joined in future events by already-unwritten pieces or simple slip-ups. Yet these failures do not have to stand alone. I want to see his tantalisingly-speculative creative threads fully developed, to read (in print or otherwise) stories from the perspective of the doomed swordfish of Redhill or Tower of Babel-esque allegories.

One theme echoing through Daryl’s long, and largely unpublished body of work is that of “idiosyncratic disease”, a phrase plucked straight from a rejection of his manuscript. Look through his numerous interesting projects, and you may be inclined to believe it – projects like Loose Ends, a ‘two-phase oddity about things left imperfect, unresolved, or incomplete’ and Failure Machine are parked under the microsite/possible-collective Hall of Uselessness, complete with a stark black and white aesthetic. The precursor event SAD Tales for Sad Kids is even more self-evidently melancholic. But Failure Machine truly demonstrates there is nothing pathologically destructive to Daryl Li’s work – nor to failure itself.

Daryl Li is a writer of fiction and nonfiction based in Singapore. His work generally explores themes of memory, identity, and trauma. He also enjoys writing about games, music, and film. The Inventors, a full-length collection of his literary nonfiction, is forthcoming from TrendLit Publishing in 2023. He can be contacted via www.daryl.li. 


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