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The Other City of Angels by S.P. Somtow

Well, I haven’t posted about any of the books I’ve read lately, so I may as well start again, and I figure this is as good a place as any to begin.

Somtow Sucharitkul (who goes by S.P. Somtow in his fiction writing career) has always struck me as someone who might be a kindred spirit, someone I’d like to sit down with for a beer or coffee or something. He’s a classical musician (conductor and composer), an SF author, and has spent significant chunks of his life living abroad. His blog amuses me, and he has done amazing things in Bangkok in terms of developing the music scene… which we outside of Thailand can enjoy, at least a little, through his Soundcloud account. I recommend this gamelan-ish piece:

Despite his fame in the region, I was surprised to see a copy of Somtow’s novel The Other City of Angels in the airport in Singapore last time I was there, and I decided that, even if I had too many books already, I was going to nab it and read it. That, at least, I have done.

The short version? The book was fun; maybe not the optimal place to start reading his work–though I have read a few short things by him in the past, like the short story he had in Asimov’s a while back, I believe this was the first novel by him that I’ve read. But I found it interesting to me right now anyway, considering some of the questions I’m wrestling with these days, in terms of writing, received narrative forms, and modes of storytelling.

But before I discuss the book further, I have to confess, to be fair, that the book was not exactly the sort of thing I usually like. It’s a funny/satirical romp kind of a book, for one thing, and I haven’t really enjoyed a lot of speculative fiction written in that mode. (Many people love Terry Pratchett. I just sort of end up wondering why I don’t.)

That said, I still enjoyed this book enough to feel compelled to read it to the end, something I don’t always do anymore. For one thing, I’ve come to feel as if I may have been trained to conflate “enjoy” with “feel comfortable with”; watching a bunch of unusual films with my wife lately, I’ve come to recognize that I sometimes enjoy films that confound of confuse or challenge me, including films that challenge my understanding of film (or narrative, or storytelling, or human nature) to the degree that they discomfit me at times. I don’t read much in the picaresque mode, which I at least suspect this novel uses, so I figured, what the hell: give it a shot.

(It’s not exactly picaresque, but it feels right to me. I’ve seen the book referred to as “roman-à-clef” but I don’t know whether that’s accurate: I certainly didn’t get the references, if there were any.)

And I found the book interesting in more than one way. For one thing, it was originally written as a serial for the Thai newspaper The Nation, and that shows: the story is built up of a series of chapters, each of about the same length, in which the story leapfrogs it way along the larger narrative arc, while constantly hitting cliffhangers on the micro-arcs of the serial installments.

(I was surprised at how racy the story got, though, for a newspaper serial, by the way!)

The characters are bluntly-drawn caricatures: a (self-described) Jewish American Princess from Encino, California; her ditzy best friend; her estranged, snarky son; the mysterious, tubby, and insanely wealthy (and bizarre, rather perverted) Thai aristocrat who woos/abducts her to his home in Bangkok (a virtual Bluebeard’s Castle); the mother-in-law, a familiar sort of terrifying matriarch figure… and from there, a cast of shamans and fortune tellers, oddball farangs (foreigners), household servants, ghosts, gods (especially Ganesha), a high society serial killer, and others spring into the fray.

What’s interesting about this is that character development isn’t the mode: as in a picaresue novel (and as in many Gothic novels, like the one Somtow’s narrator refers to, Northanger Abbey), characters don’t grow or develop in order to solve some moral dilemma: rather, they just move from one interpretation of the world, to another. The emphasis on character development that has become unquestioned in writerly guides and formulaethese days is missing from such narratives, and is also largely missing in the novel… because it works by different rules. And since I’ve been thinking a lot about whether we should be accepting a single ruleset just because it’s dominant, that’s fascinating to me.)

There was an added level of comedy in the fact that Somtow set the story in Bangkok during the 1990s: I felt like I almost certainly was missing a certain number of in-jokes aimed at a Thai audience, but even missing those, there were plenty of callbacks to 1990s American culture that I did catch, and found amusing.

Action’s the name of the game when you’re working the kinds of arcs Somtow has to work in a serial cliffhanger-type narrative. There are insights of a sort in the book, but it’s mostly about the set pieces, the carefully orchestrated scenes, the gothic romance, the mystery of why all the women that the Thai aristocrat hooked up with prior to the narrator ended up dead (hence the dozens of Bluebeard’s Castle references). Somtow even lets himself get a little free with music references, which was fun for me: it’s not often you read a book by an author who just assumes it’s not weird for a non-musician character to know all about opera, sting quartets, and so on. And not just any opera, but Bartok… of course, because Bartok turned Bluebeard’s Castle into an opera, and the novel is a retelling (of sorts) of that story. And, in a sense, there is something operatic about the way the story unfolds, setting up big scene after big scene, crescendoing toward its tumultuous conclusion.

There are occasional lectures on Thai culture, and the differences between the Buddhist and Judeo-Christian worldviews… but these don’t really delve too deeply, and often they seem to be focused on presenting Thailand to the farang in a way that feels, I don’t know, sometimes tongue-in-cheek exoticizing, but in a way that is amusing and fun for Thais to read, perhaps in a way that Thais themselves do when talking about Bangkok and Thailand generally. (I don’t know, but I see similar things in how Koreans talk about Korea.)

And of course, Somtow knows what he’s doing: the story gallops all the way through to the sorta-foreseeable ending, an ending that is satisfying, though when I set the book down, I felt rather done with it. I kind of found myself regretting that this was the book of Somtow’s I chose (over Starship and Haiku, or Moon Dance) to bring to Saigon to read. That said, I will be looking out those books when I get the chance: if nothing else, I’m convinced from this (and a few other things I’ve read by Sucharitkul) that I should read more of his work.

And I also feel like, while this particular picaresque form doesn’t usually do it for me, it was at least something different from the usual narrative structure I’ve come to expect when reading these days. Given my ongoing dissatisfaction with the dominant forms of narrative these days, I feel like that’s a good, useful thing to me right now.

And also, I need to watch that opera DVD of his opera version of Mae Naak, which I bought and then never got around to watching, and also sadly had to leave behind with a friend in Seoul when we came to Saigon. (Sigh!)

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