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Sightseeing

Rattawut Lapcharoensap's Sightseeing would probably never have come to my attention if it hadn't been for McNally Forbes's idiosyncratic way of arranging fiction regionally. The compact, handsome Grove Press edition caught my eye on the South Asian shelf. Never having so much as thought of Thai fiction, much less read any, I was stricken with cosmopolitan remorse. I chose the book after the most cursory examination. Remorse turned out to be rewarding.

Sightseeing is a collection of eight short stories, written in English - okay, this is Thai-American fiction, not so exotic after all - by a man who, born in Chicago in 1979, was taken to Bangkok at the age of three. There would have been three more dislocations when, in 1995, Mr Lapcharoensap returned to the United States alone. All six of his stories are narrated in the first person, five of them by young people of Thai or Thai-American descent. The exception, "Don't Let Me Die In This Place," is told by the failing father of an American businessman who has married a Thai woman and settled in Bangkok. A typical American man who wants to take care of himself but no longer can, the father doesn't take to the "exotic" atmosphere of Thailand. You feel very sorry about this helpless plight, but at the same time you can just imagine what tales his daughter-in-law and grandchildren would tell about an impossible old man.

Mr Lapcharoensap's Bangkok is no Asian paradise. It is a hot, crowded, somewhat broken down tangle of unachieved dreams. Only one of the Thai voices appears to come from a prosperous family, and luxury is nowhere to be seen. Modern appliances and the power to run them are dodgy. Jobs are hard to find and taxing to hold on to. The narrator of the first story, "Farangs," is the son of an American army sergeant, long gone, and a motel-owning mother, who he seems to have an easy if pointless life at the beach. The narrator of the third story, "Draft Day," gets out of national service thanks to family connections. But he anguished nevertheless because his best friend, from whom he has never kept a secret before, isn't so lucky. If you think that living in Thailand must be sweet, this book will show you otherwise.

What kind of world is Bangkok? One in which the twenty-first century starkly abuts the jungle. Here is the opening of "At the Café Lovely":

Every so often I dream of my brother's face on fire, his brown eyes - eyes very much like my own - staring at me through a terrible mask of flames. I wake to the scent of burning flesh, his fiery face looming before me as an afterimage, and in that darkness I am eleven again. I have not yet learned to trespass. I have not yet learned to grieve. Nor have I learned to pity us - my brother, my mother, and me - and Anek and I are in Bangkok sitting on the roof of our mother's house smoking cigarettes, watching people drifting by while the neighbors release their mangy dogs for the night to roam the city's streets.

It was a Saturday. Saturdays meant the city didn't burn the dump behind our house. We could breathe freely again. We wouldn't have to shut all windows to keep out the stench, sleep in suffocating heat. Downstairs, we could hear Ma cooking in the outdoor kitchen, the clang of pots and pans, the warm smell of rice curling up toward us.

Is Bangkok in the modern world or not? The stories in Sightseeing defy the resolution of that question.

It is not simply a question of modcons, either. Thinking itself is jagged. Nowhere is this brought home more emphatically than in the novella, "Cockfighter," that takes up about half of Sightseeing. Narrated by a teenaged girl who is just beginning to be bothered by men because of her ample bosom, "Cockfighter" is the story of a laborer - the girl's father - whose success at cockfighting is brought to an end by the son of a rich old adversary. The son buys unimaginably superior cocks, and even hires a Filipino handler, but the laborer cannot accept inevitable defeat. He falls back on training device that must, at least for him if not for his cocks, require serious magical thinking.

I looked. I realized then that the kitchen radio Papa held in his hands was actually the radio for a remote-control car. I realized, too, that there weren't two cocks in the yard at all - there was only one. The other was a rubber chicken attached to the roof of the remote-control car. Papa'd painted plumage on the decoy's synthetic body, splotches of green and ochre and yellow and white. It was a childish paint job: on closer look, the decoy looked more like a clown than a gamecock. Nonetheless, Papa tried to chase the cock with the contraption. Unfazed, the cock kept launching at his rubber companion, toppling it over, Papa cursing each time before righting the car once more, only to have the chicken knock the contraption down again, the car's wheels whizzing wildly in the air, jerking the fake chicken with its momentum so that it wiggled with artificial life. On and on it sent, and with each blow the cock landed on his rubber opponent, he seemed to gather courage rather than fear, though that courage soon turned to irritation: The cock didn't even bother to leap into the air to deliver his blows anymore, he just charged absent-mindedly before turning his attention elsewhere as Papa prepared the contraption again. The cock knew as Papa knew as Mama and I knew that a rubber chicken attached to a remote-control car was nothing to be afraid of. I realized then the extent of my father's desperation. Papa, I understood now, didn't know what he was doing. 

On the one hand, the laborer is free to withdraw from the mismatched cockfights that end up costing him his truck. On the other, he cannot lose face with his neighbors, even though they understand that he is playing on a very uneven field. He must, by the laws of the world he lives in, slowly self-destruct. He must be deaf to the pleas and admonition of his wife and daughter. There is just enough humor and distraction to get a sensitive reader through the story, but not so much as to hide the primeval force of tribal masculinity. 

Mr Lapcharoensap is formidably capable of eliciting the half-ignorances of youth. In "Priscilla the Cambodian," two Bangkok boys amuse themselves by throwing rocks onto the tin roof of a shack inhabited by Cambodian refugees. A girl who lives there and who calls herself Priscilla demands that they desist, but of course they don't.

The first rock elicited no response. But as soon as the second one rang the corrugated roof, Priscilla emerged from the house like an angry little boar, fists at her sides, nostrils flared, bushwhacking her way through the knoll separating the train tracks from the Cambodians' shanty. i saw her contorted face, started laughing, started sprinting. But halfway back to the road, I noticed Dong was running beside me.

I turned around. That tiny Cambodian girl had Dong pinned facedown to the railroad ties. She sat on his back while he bucked and thrashed beneath her like a rodeo horse. She yelled at him, pummeled the back of his head repeatedly with her hands. I thought about leaving him there. But then I remembered that the girl had said she was going to kill us, and I suddenly didn't know how serious Cambodians were when they said something like that, even if the Cambodian was just a little girl. She could've been Khmer Rouge - a term Mother and Father always mentioned in stern voices when they complained about the refugees - although I only understood at the time that Khmer Rouge was a bad thing like cancer was a bad thing. Khmer Rouge probably made you bald and pale and impossibly skinny, and Khmer Rouge probably made you cough up vile gray-green globs o shit like Uncle Sutichai when we visited him at the hospital every Sunday. If that little girl had Khmer Rouge, I certainly didn't want Dong to get it too.

One can feel in this passage the boy's unconscious confusion of the cancer that afflicts his uncle with the sexually transmitted disease to which he would not be entirely unwilling to expose himself.

If Sightseeing is one of the most satisfying short-story collections that I've ever read, that distinction is not to be attributed to its tight foreign settings alone. Butfor any Western reader, the appeal of this book lies in a shimmering familiarity that from time to time is withdrawn, leaving one as stranded in its foreign world as Ruttawat Lapcharoensap's characters are stuck in their native habitat. (August 2006)

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