Sightseeing by Rattawut Lapcharoensap

(Still working on my review of Ian McDonald’s Cyberabad Days, so instead of rush-posting it before I’m happy with it, I’m posting this review.)

I am writing this review without access to the Internet, so I may not have a chance to search for links before posting it. However, since I have a little free time, I am eager to write up this book while it is fresh in my mind.

I’ll keep my review simple: this book is a fascinating, deft exploration of Thailand from the inside, by a young writer who I envy like mad. Lapcharoensap’s writing is lucid, vivid, and understated, but also quite beautiful.

It is not that there is nothing to object to in his work. I found that his fascination with the disenfranchised got to be a bit much sometimes, though that is a common enough penchant in mainstream literature. I found myself wondering why I had trouble buying the old-man character in “Don’t Let Me Die in This Place”: when Guy Vanderhaeghe writes a bigoted, grouchy old man, I buy it, but when Lapocharoensap does it, and places him in Thailand, somehow I find myself wanting to resist the rough edges on the old man, to see them softened sooner than they actually are in the tale. (Likewise, Lizzie, Hunter, and the other foreigners in “Farangs” seem just a little too nasty, to the point where they’re more caricature than I quite trust.) Yet the stories aren’t overtly unfair, and indeed no one detail seems unbelievable on its own; in fact, I’ve seen farangs (foreigners) in Thailand who were almost as badly behaved as the ones in “Farangs,” and indeed personally met much worse old bigots than the old man in “Don’t Let Me Die in This Place.” It’s only somehow in the aggregate that things sometimes seemed to add up to that odd discomfort that one sometimes feels when playing a round of poker with a deck stacked by someone else. Maybe that’s it: perhaps I’m just not used to the deck being stacked in this particular way, critical of a certain kind of white Westerner? It’s not as if Lapcharoensap isn’t equally critical of certain kinds of people in Thailand, those touched by corruption and those who are simply mad. To be fair, the most disgusting and wicked character in the whole book is a Thai criminal with a case of big-fish-small-pond syndrome. Maybe I’m suffering from that white liberal hypersensitivity that is so common and so unfair? I’m not sure…

I do know that, momentary discomforts included, I didn’t waver in my trust of Lapcharoensap as a storyteller, but felt myself drawn along through the stories he chose to tell. And it is on the strength of his storytelling abilities, his imagination and voice and the beauty of his clear prose, that I can recommend this as a wonderful book of short stories. “At the Café Lovely” is a haunting little story of a broken family, just as “Sightseeing” is a wonderful tale of a parent-child relationship under the greatest of pressures; “Draft Day” and “Priscilla the Cambodian” are stories that explore a side of Thailand one rarely hears about, and also serve to balance the darkness that Lapcharoensap explores among non-Thai, with “Draft Day” focused on domestic corruption and “Priscilla the Cambodian” on racism in one small Thai community. Finally, in what I think is the most outstanding story in the collection, “Cockfighter,” Lapcharoensap tells and enchanting tale — convincingly, from the point of view of a teenaged Thai girl — of a man, a family, and a community pushed to the brink… and far beyond.

Rattawut Lapcharoensap is the first Thai author I’ve read aside from Somtow Sucharitkul, and I am glad of having found his book as I did in a bookstore in Jakarta. (I imagine that, given the list of his publication credits in places like Granta, Best New American Voices 2005, Zoetrope: All-Story, and Glimmer Train, that he may likewise be the first Thai writer many English-speakers have read.) I do hope the novel mentioned in his bio on the back jacket flap is available, as I would very much like to read more from him.

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