michael allen zell, “run baby run”

cover250Michael Allen Zell
Run Baby Run
(Lavender Ink, 2015)

The trajectory of Michael Allen Zell’s career is an interesting one; three books in, it’s still not clear what to make of him. I enjoyed 2012’s Errara, a short, sharp reworking of Bruno Schulz and Cabrera Infante set in New Orleans that might have been something the Dalkey Archive published in the 1990s. It was a happy surprise when his followup, The Oblivion Atlas, turned up in the mail here; while one might have expected a more conventionally sized novel as a followup. Zell confounded with a collaboration with News Orleans artists Louviere + Vanessa, who have provided book design and illustration to a book of short stories. That book might be seen as a reworking of Georges Rodenbach’s 1892 Bruges-la-Morte transposed to New Orleans.

Like Rodenbach’s illustrated book, The Oblivion Atlas was hard to classify, falling somewhere between Wisconsin Death Trip and Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife: the illustrations and design were integral to the reading experience; like in Gass’s book (and Errata), this was a major subject. The first story, “Port Saints,” reflects usefully on the place of reading and writing today: the narrator, Benjamin Sender, describes a bookshop where the books are stacked in helices; the shopper who pulls out a book risks causing a disaster. This might serve as an oblique commentary on the endlessly proliferating “ten bookstores you have to see” slideshows on the Internet: there’s a fetishization of the object of the book, though one wonders if looking at bookstores is too often a substitute for the act of reading itself. Everyone likes the idea of books (and the idea of writing books); but a decorative book functions differently than a read book. The proprietor makes this understood:

. . . each time the proprietor calmly stating the same gentlemanly good-bye he imparted to me many times, Remember, like Faulkner said, Nobody down here has time for reading because they’re all too busy writing. (p. 14)

The Faulkner quote is from an exchange with students at the University of Virginia in 1958:

Q: Why are you not as well read in the South as in the North?
A: Everyone in the South has no time for reading because they are all too busy writing. (M. Thomas Inge, ed., Conversations with William Faulkner, p. 167.)

When said by a writer, this is a petty complaint, or an attempt to get a laugh. When said by a bookseller, it’s something different. (We learn in the author’s note for Run Baby Run that Zell has “worked as a bookseller since 2001,” which isn’t particularly surprising.) And placed in Zell’s book, it seems significant: these are readerly books, books made from a lifetime of reading for an audience who will appreciate that. This isn’t to say that they’re academic or especially formal at all: they’re not. Rather, they’re books for a small audience.

At the same time, another thread through his books cuts against their readerliness: their determined engagement with the city of New Orleans. New Orleans is never far from the surface in Zell’s books; and that continues with Run Baby Run, which might otherwise be seen as a wild swerve in Zell’s writing. Run Baby Run is crime fiction: it’s obviously the same writer (there is a scene in this one where the protagonist has a pure moment of happiness visiting a bookstore, a moment that promises a future), but it’s consciously aimed at a different sort of audience than Zell’s previous two books. Zell’s avant-garde antecedents aren’t displayed as prominently as in his previous books, though that influence is still there: if ever there was a Schulzian detective story, it’s this one.

But what Zell has set himself to this time is not just a difference in audience, it’s a difference in focus. Zell isn’t only interested in the problems of the artist: he’s also interested in the world and how one must live in it, especially in a world as radically broken as the present moment. (Not being in New Orleans, I haven’t seen any of Zell’s theatrical work, though I suspect it might be a connecting link between his focuses on the reader and the world.) The avant garde isn’t always especially helpful in that regard: the characters populating Run Baby Run are by and large not readers (which is true of most Americans, of course). This doesn’t make Zell less interested in them, though it’s abundantly clear which side he’s on. But his interest now is trying to make sense of a broken world, and fiction’s capacity for empathy is important.

Run Baby Run is a short crime novel; the cover proclaims it part of “The Bobby Delery Series,” which suggests that this is a prelude to more. Bobby Delery is a criminologist from Chicago who returns to New Orleans; for reasons that aren’t clear, he’s asked to join the New Orleans police in an investigation into the unreported theft of a club’s unreported profits. The police, it is clear from the beginning, are corrupt; a world of other criminals circle the theft. Zell’s narration moves easily from person to person; and it becomes clear that he’s interested in how different people lead wildly different lives in post-Katrina New Orleans. There are points of light, in this book at least: in the day that we are with Delery, he appears to be spotless, and a couple of other people come off as well. Some groups (the attendants of a black church) come across better than others (drunken out-of-town partiers). One imagines that this will not continue to be the case with Delery: there are hints of a past that’s not quite finished with him left hanging. The book’s shortness is frustrating: one can imagine more to come.

Zell’s used his shift in genre to start thinking seriously about race in America, and about how it plays out in New Orleans. It’s an important subject and a fine setting; again, it’s a relief to me to see someone putting out serious American fiction that’s not set in the gentrified parts of New York. I can’t say how accurately he portrays the city, though it comes off as real, as do most of his characters and their voices. There’s a similarity to Sergio de la Pava’s A Naked Singularity, if not quite in form at least in strategy; as ever, I’m interested to see where he goes.

nick smith/ulillilia, “the legend of the ten elemental masters”

(From January 2010; recovered from https://web.archive.org/­web/­20100616080055/­http://­hotelstgeorgepress.com/­2010/­01/­the-legend-­of-the-­10-elemental-­masters, which I’d entirely forgotten about. The content has not been edited, which might be a mistake.)

imagesNick Smith (aka “ulillillia”)
The Legend of the 10 Elemental Masters
(Lulu, 2009)

Nick Smith became well-known on the Internet a few years ago for his labyrinthine website which describes, in excruciating detail, video games that he would like to construct. Smith’s games are largely concerned with physics: characters can jump this many thousand feet at a time, their speed is some extremely large number. Animated GIFs detail his creation; he also has a number of YouTube videos. But his is a beguiling voice: both for its utterly self-deprecating quality (he openly despairs of his programming ability), and because of its rarity. We don’t hear people like this very often: his website has given Smith a voice, and that’s fascinating. Last year, he published his first book, using Lulu. It’s worth looking at as an example of the sort of writing the Internet makes possible. It doesn’t take much poking around to come to the conclusion that Smith is somewhere on the autism spectrum. To you and me, the idea of jumping 10,000 feet in the air is not very different from the idea of jumping 12,000 feet in the air. Nick Smith sees things differently.

The reviews on Lulu give a sense of the perils of dealing with this kind of work: the web has a deeply ingrained culture of making fun of people, back to the Star Wars kid and the man who was Peter Pan. There’s a certain unease as well that comes with dealing with outsider art: it’s hard to go to the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore and not feel a bit odd at the conjunction of art made by crazy people and what is clearly a thriving marketplace where profit is being made off their creations. Many of the artists whose work is presented there clearly had unhappy lives and made very little off their works. A similar feeling comes from visiting the Mutter Museum of medical curiosities in Philadelphia: there’s little documentation on view of the lives of the people whose remain feature prominently, leading the visitor to wonder what the life of a woman with an immense horn growing out of her head (to take a comparatively tame example) could have been like. I’m reminded as well of going to see a Wesley Willis show a few years before his death, and feeling a little queasy about the crowd of Boston punks and frat boys vociferously enjoying his show. Though it was clear that Mr. Willis enjoyed what he was doing, seemed to be making a living off of it, and was being taken care of by his opening band, he was also a man who had a prominent indentation in his forehead from head-butting the audience: and it was clear that the audience thought this was hilarious. The line between “laughing with” and “laughing at” was distinctly blurry.

Nick Smith is getting paid here: since he’s using Lulu, he’s probably getting around ten dollars every time someone buys a book, so I don’t feel bad pointing out his work. While The Legend of the 10 Elemental Masters is fiction, it’s clear that the author is deeply invested in it. There is the temptation to psychologize from the work; not being a psychologist, I don’t want to focus on the author. Rather, the work is what’s important here. In most of the usual senses, this is not a good novel. It’s worth looking at, however, first because of the strangeness it evokes; and second, because of what it can show us about how fiction works.

* * * * *

We start in medias res high above North Dakota:

Knuckles glides north 1500 feet about Lake Sakakawea at 800 mph following Highway 83. A small thunderstorm is somewhat visible to the south. The sky is 3/8 scattered with cirrus clouds and 1/8 scattered with altostratus clouds. The wind is 15 mph with gusts to 20 mph. A few small patches of snow in ditches, some with water, are visible but hard to see due to the speed. A 40-second pause in speech occurs while credits display on screen.

This is narrative as video game: in the next paragraph, we learn that Knuckles’s fur is “dark-violet-colored (FFA000E0)”; Appendix 5 explains his color system for those unfamiliar with hexadecimal values. I’m not, I should confess right now, a gamer, and as such I can’t really read this book as I suspect it’s intended to be read, a walkthrough of a non-existent game. Rather, I’m reading it as a novel, which, at least on some level it is: the adventures of the aforementioned Knuckles and his three human friends as they battle an evil force who turns out to be named Seth King.

As in all fiction, Smith creates a world and deploys his characters across it. As the first paragraph suggests, this is a massively positivistic universe: everything can be known, and declared. Numerical values are given for everything: the speeds at which characters run or glide; the area covered by flames when Knuckles is attacked by Seth King; the exact amount of time before things will happen; how many different types of soda are in a vending machine; what color everything is. And further: as in a role-playing game, characters can cast spells; they have a wealth of statistics and points of various sorts, and when they fight, damages are calculated by algorithms. This is, then, a very designed world.

While I’m not a gamer, I have, however, spent a lot of time with programmers. One thing about programmers that might be surprising: a lot of them are deeply fascinated with Disney Land. This makes sense when you realize that Disney Land is a deeply designed environment: every detail is there for a reason, and the cognoscenti who know how Disney Land works can stand in unmarked spots to see secret vistas that the common visitor has no idea about. There’s an affinity with the world that Nick Smith has laid out; however, this book isn’t necessarily designed to appeal to a general audience.

This is a world that works like a video game. This is actually extremely strange. Consider this early scene, one of the first bits of action in the book, where Knuckles stops a crime:

Three seconds later, a six-foot-tall, male jail escapee in an orange jump suit comes into view. He runs to the Oldsmobile where a military officer is just starting the car. The escapee arrives and attempts to hijack the car by opening the driver’s door. Knuckles casts “glue4″ on him, a spell with no effects, of which prevents the escapee from changing his position. A gray “4 immobilized” pops out bouncing like a ball three times.

On a computer screen, this would not cause one to think twice; this is how video games work. But when one imagines this happening in the world of fiction, we’re in a different place entirely: this is something strange and new. This is explained further:

These popups very closely resemble that of the Tahoma font at font size 160 in bold face, but 90% as wide extended a half inch back. Gray popups indicate the addition or intensification of a status effect. Appendix 4 explains more about these popups and their meaning and behavior. “Glue” is the name of the spell series, and the “4″ is the spell level. “Glue4″ is the spell name. The spell system is explained in appendix 3.

This explanation goes on; there’s also a diagram showing how characters look when they cast spells which I don’t entirely understand. Knuckles then casts a teleport spell on the escapee to teleport him back into jail. Pop-ups appear above the characters frequently. Knuckles, as the story begins, is the only character who can cast spells and behave in this way; those who see this are impressed, but don’t appear to realize that the rational universe they were used to has disappeared entirely. Knuckles also has a video projection spell: when necessary for exposition, he can create a screen in the air and show something that’s already happened for demonstration purposes. Knuckles is from another planet, but public spirited; he frequently appears on CNN to warn the populace of impending disasters, although he gets paid for “police work and peace negotiations”.

There’s not a lot of narrative tension in this book: Knuckles, being a superhero, can do just about anything. The humans that he brings along – first Ivan and Tu, from North Dakota, then Tyler, who is found inside a “military factory – don’t seem to have much of a function except to watch Knuckles’s astonishing feats and applaud (or, as often, fail to react). In the middle of the book Ivan and Steve wander off to play volleyball when Knuckles is slaying monsters. Ivan does manage to suggest a useful idea once, but one wonders if Knuckles is just humoring him. For the final battle with Seth King, Knuckles summons his friend Speed who is even more powerful than Knuckles. As most of the book to that point has been Knuckles demonstrating that he has no real competitors, the ending is something of a foregone conclusion. An interchange between Knuckles and the evil force halfway through the book illustrates the position of the reader:

Evil force

(one second pause) Wanna play a game?


It’s a near-certainty that I’ll win, but, whatever.

And yet, the reader is kept engaged wondering about the logic that constructs it. One of the first dramatic scenes happens aboard an airplane from North Dakota to Puerto Rico, where Knuckles senses that something will happen; Knuckles takes Ivan and Tu to the airport, where he buys them tickets with money pulled from his chest, in which he can store anything. (He is, he explains, a multi-millionare in every country because he can duplicate and sell objects – not currency, as that would be illegal; also, he charges the government for his security services.) The flight is disrupted by evil forces; Knuckles, of course, sets everything to right. After this flight, however, Knuckles simply teleports himself and his acolytes all over the world. Or again: during a scene during a school party, Knuckles rigs the lottery so that Ivan and Tu both win the prizes they want most, coupons for free pizzas at Pizza Hut. Much later in the book, during a break in the action, the characters decide they would like some pizza, so they go to Pizza Hut. There, Knuckles makes them pay for their pizza with their coupons; magnanimously, he offers to pay for the drinks, as well as rescuing one of the waiters from cardiac arrest brought on by the evil forces that follow him about. It’s hard to understand Knuckles. One is reminded of the vindictive behavior of the child Jesus in the apocryphal infancy gospels.

On another level, there’s a similarity to the familiar high school narrative: the dream of someone coming and taking you away from your mundane surroundings. Knuckles summons Ivan and Tu from high school (in Ivan’s case, by way of a “small three-by-thre-inch bright pink colored (FFFFB0D)) post-it note stating, ‘See me outside as you leave, Knuckles’ in font size 36 Courier New”) for no appreciable reason. There’s an end-of-the-year party at school; Knuckles offers to take Ivan in a scene that’s weirdly sad:


(running) Knuckles! What are you doing here?


You wanted to go to the party, right?


Yes, but I can’t – no money nor transportation. The school is quite far for biking and a bit dangerous.


I can’t drive either, but what sense is there in using a really slow car when a teleport spell goes….

When they arrive at the party, Knuckles solves Ivan’s financial woes by giving him five dollars so he can get into the party, which costs $3.00. He gives a dollar to Tu, the female lead, who already has four dollars; with the extra money, they can buy sodas. The contrast between a figure who can do anything and the modesty of the desires of Ivan and Tu – just to be able to go to the end of school party – is heartbreaking. Later, Knuckles teleports them to his house hidden away from the world where he makes them beds with quilts illustrated with their favorite scenes. They play Uno.

* * * * *

It’s hard to get around this being a boring book: things happen then are recounted, in obsessive detail. The plot having to do with the ten elemental masters is not particularly interesting: there are fights with enemies in which spells are cast back and forth again and again. An immense amount of attention is paid to the character’s stats. The book’s 256 pages are set in large type, and the layout and illustrations mean that there’s not an overwhelming amount of text on the page, but this book can seem interminable: fight after fight, with very few apparent consequences. But this is an interesting boredom: it’s a boredom of a sort we’re not quite used to. Boredom, as Kenneth Goldsmith reminds us, can be a valid aesthetic strategy. And this sort of boredom is a very specific form of boredom: it’s not the mundane that we know, but rather a different species of mundane, the mundane of a different kind of world, a world that isn’t our own.

It’s unreal. But fiction, as we know it, is a constructed form: the tradition of the realist novel in English has its beginnings with Samuel Richardson’s epistolary novels, where the characters need to constantly be writing immensely long letters to advance the plot a few minutes. It’s a patently artificial situation; Henry Fielding pointed out how ridiculous it was in his parody Shamela, and the epistolary form faded away soon afterward. When we look at Richardson now, his work seems contrived: contrived in much the same way that Nick Smith’s world is, and similarly unaware of this. A similar problem might be the way that the camera functions in the American version of The Office: it’s understood that the show is filmed as if for a documentary, and characters give soliloquies for the camera. But no documentary is really being filmed; the camera often follows characters past plausibility. Pseudo-documentary has simply become the style: the viewer understands it, and agrees to believe that a story can be told this way. Background music tends to function the same way in film and television: we can see that there’s no reason on the screen for there to be music, but we understand that it signals emotion. A contemporary reader of Richardson could suspend disbelief and imagine that Pamela was actually writing the letters they were reading.

Nick Smith asks us to suspend disbelief to imagine the videogame as a form in which we can tell stories through fiction. I don’t know that it works: to me, it seems maddening, a repetitious, deterministic nightmare, where an end always seems obvious. But I am not a gamer. (For similar reasons, I find Disney Land unappealing; but there are plenty for whom it works, and some very smart people who love it.) The Legend of the 10 Elemental Masters deserves attention simply because it is so different from anything else: in it, we find a different way to construct a world.

ursula k. le guin, “earthsea”

AWizardOfEarthsea(1stEd)Ursula K. Le Guin
A Wizard of Earthsea
The Tombs of Atuan
The Farthest Shore
Tales from Earthsea
The Other Wind
(originally Parnassus Press, 1961–2001.)

It’s been a while since I’ve taken an intercontinental trip by myself, and I’d forgotten what a useful space for a certain kind of reading that can be. I’d hoped to get further in Henry James (I am bogged down in The Other House, which I’ll get back to eventually), but I had Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea books on my phone, and they lent themselves to the kind of distracted reading one does on planes and in airports.

I should start by saying that I didn’t read these books when I was young and probably should have read them. I have read the Le Guin that everyone talks about besides these and I do find myself thinking about The Dispossessed and The Word for World is Forest (as heavy handed as that book is). She’s an interesting writer and writes the kind of science fiction that I care about – I do still feel guilty about not liking more science fiction than I do for reasons I still can’t quite explicate – and everyone has nice things to say about these books, but I’ve had to drag myself to them, which I think is because they’re about dragons and wizards.

I have not, since young, read many books of dragons and wizards, and I’ve largely felt reticent to read more. I dutifully read Gene Wolfe, which wasn’t really to my taste, and the last book of Jack Vance’s The Dying Earth sits unread and unloved on my phone waiting for some future transportation breakdown when I somehow have nothing else available. Smart people like these books, and I wish I could like them, but I don’t. I do like Delany’s Nevèrÿon books, but what he’s doing there seems a little at odds with what other people enjoy about the genre. So it did seem like if anyone could do something with the genre that I would be able to appreciate I might be Le Guin. The results are mixed. Or, more accurately, the results are mixed for me. There are other people who like all of these books: they haven’t failed to find an audience.

The fifth of these books, Tales of Earthsea, is a collection of short stories and novellas that closes with something that might be termed non-fiction: a historical and sociological overview of the world Le Guin created in these books, providing a great deal of background information that might clarify what’s previously been read. This is very lovingly done; it’s also the locus of what makes this kind of work uninteresting to me. Le Guin has created a geography and peopled it; there are some interesting ideas in there (the Platonic-seeming idea of true names, for example, or her characters’ views on race, which aren’t exactly what you’d expect in a white-authored book from the 1960s) which have previously been worked out. As situations for characters to react to, they can be interesting. By themselves, they demonstrate a degree of originality, though also an indebtedness to previous creators of fantastic worlds: I am not the person to draw out the genealogy of Le Guin’s dragons, though at this point in time they seem overly familiar.

The createdness of the world – something that Le Guin’s pocket history amply demonstrates – also gets to another aspect of the work, and maybe all fantastic fiction. Le Guin explicitly declaims religiosity in Earthsea, but the supernatural elements preclude a purely rational creation of her world. Obviously Le Guin made it; but this world operates according to principles that aren’t strictly mirrored by our world, and this makes for frustrating fiction. Dragon or wizard can be deus ex machina as needed. Why do dragons act that way? No one knows, they just are – and this reader can’t help wondering if they are as convenient for the narrative.

With that in mind, I’ll say that the first and third books of the series did very little for me, as to my eye they followed the conventions of the wizardly quest too closely. (Again, perhaps these conventions – including but not limited to goatherds of promise, wizard schools, wizard battles, nebulous darkness, wizard quests, rings of power – became overly familiar after Le Guin; one should not blame an author for her followers, though sometimes one can’t help doing that.) They are not with the the occasional striking image – the brother and sister marooned far out to sea almost without language, for example. The series becomes interesting to me in the second book, The Tombs of Atuan, which convincingly describes a young woman growing up as a priestess in an illiterate cult; the prison of belief is described in a way not unlike the work of Brian Evenson. The book becomes less interesting in the second half, when she is rescued by a heroic and long-suffering wizard.

The fourth book in the series was written considerably after the first three and is interestingly revisionist. The first three books are, with the exception of the first half of the second, male dominated. Wizardry is exclusively an occupation for celibate males. The fourth book, Tehanu, returns to the protagonist of the second, now middle-aged and leading a domestic life; we see the world Le Guin has created through different, considerably more interesting eyes. Witches suddenly exist. Men behave badly, and one realizes that life for women and children in a male-dominated pre-industrial world is not all it might be. Wizards can be useful, but they tend to be self-absorbed and not reliable. Much of the narrative propulsion of the fourth book comes from Ged, the lead character of the series, coming to terms with having lost his wizarding power. The fifth book, a collection, continues the revisionist tendencies of the fourth, having mostly women as its protagonists; the damage heedlessly done by men is a primary focus. And the sixth takes on a familiar group quest motif, bringing together a number of characters previously met to bring the series to a comfortable end point. There’s interesting thematic work happening, but it didn’t do very much for me, perhaps because I’d just read the other five books very quickly.

Were I to re-read, I would come back to Tehanu and The Other Wind: Le Guin’s later books have more for me than the original trilogy. The second half of the series, not coincidentally, is considerably more adult than the first. Already existing characters are complicated; the simplistic universe of the original books is rejected and revised. One could historicize: the person writing the later books knew more than she did when she wrote the earlier ones; plenty of well-intentioned people were writing things in the 1960s that haven’t aged well. That revision is what interests me here. I still don’t particularly care about the world-building; maybe if I’d read these books when younger I would have?

chart korbjitti, “the judgment”

chartChart Korbjitti
The Judgment
(translated by Phongdeit Jiangphatthana-kit & Marcel Barang)
(Samnakphim Hon/Howling Books, 2007; originally 1981)

There is neither a tremendous amount of information on Thai fiction in English – the Bangkok Post‘s occasional fiction reviewing being cheerfully incompetent at best – nor does much Thai fiction in translation get published or distributed outside of Thailand, so I thought it might be useful to have a project of haphazardly reading through what I can find here. Chart Korbjitti (ชาติ กอบจิตติ), for example, is one of the best-known of contemporary Thai writers, having won the SEA Write prize twice; this book was turned into a film, and he’s been translated into French and English. But he’s published through his own press, Samnakphim Hon, or Howling Books, based in Pak Chong in the northeast; Thai publishers haven’t generally been adept at securing distribution outside the country, and I suspect his books aren’t read very often in English if only because no one outside the country knows that they exist. While a couple of used copies turn up on Amazon, I’m not sure how one would go about getting print copies outside of Thailand; however, thanks to industrious translator Marcel Barang, a PDF version can be bought or sampled here. There’s a useful introduction by Marcel Barang that contextualizes the novel in the Thai Modern Classics edition of the book (1995) that isn’t in the Howling Books edition (I’m not sure about the PDF); it’s worth tracking down if possible.

Chart concerns himself with the people of Isan, the northeast of Thailand. It’s not a milieu that’s familiar to most Western observers of the country, though the films of Apichatpong Weerasethakul might change that; certainly, it’s not the way the government seeks to present the country.

No Way Out (1980, translated 2003 by David Smyth) is more compressed and more unremittingly bleak, approaching almost the level of Jude the Obscure‘s bathetic “Done because we are too menny”. There, the cause of the problems faced by the poor is clearly defined as predatory lenders selling debt without regard for the human cost; the protagonist is sold into effective slavery on a fishing boat (a problem still rampant in Thailand), his wife and daughter are forced into prostitution, the luckier son goes to jail. As the protagonist is about to commit suicide, he pins his fate on his decision to borrow 3000 baht (around $100) from his employer to build a house; can this really be considered hubris? He ends by blaming karma:

Boonma didn’t blame anyone at all. He wasn’t even angry with anyone for making his family end up like this. He blamed only himself. He was angry only with himself for being born poor. He didn’t know why poor people such as him always encountered such misfortune. All he knew was that life was a matter of karma, of paying off the debt for the sins of past lives. (p. 129)

These concerns also animate The Judgment (คำพิพากษา). Fak, the protagonist, is his father’s only son; he works as a janitor for his village’s school. His dream had been to become a monk, but he left the temple to support his father; when his father dies, his sense of duty leads him to support his father’s second wife, who is mentally unstable and tends to expose herself to people. The village takes it for granted that Fak has taken his stepmother has his wife; Fak, however, is trying to hold on to his virtue so that, when circumstances permit, he can return to being a monk. But he is worn down; in fairly fast order, he takes up drinking, becomes a drunk, and loses his job.

Drinking is a sin, prohibited by monastic vows; so is killing living things, and a turning point in the narrative is when Fak, at the insistence of his co-workers, kills a dog that’s assumed to be rabid. This is a socially useful act, and Fak is congratulated for it, but one that’s spiritually detrimental: Fak sinning by killing the dog means that no one else needs to sin. (There are, for related reasons, large numbers of stray dogs in Bangkok; and while it is not a sin to eat an animal, it is to kill one; butchers are hidden away.) And while Fak is striving to honor his father by taking care of his widow (who has no family and cannot be left on her own), the village assumes the worst of him and no one turns up for his father’s cremation. Fak is befriended by the town undertaker, a man comfortable with his own low status; trying to comfort him, the undertaker introduces Fak to alcohol and spells the way to a speedy (perhaps unbelievably so) descent into alcoholism.

Fak’s troubles intensify: he is tormented by the village children and accidentally hurts one of them; the boy’s father and his friends ambush Fak and beat him severely. Finally, Fak goes to the school headmaster with whom he has been storing his money; the headmaster lies and claims that he never held any money for Fak. Fak publicly accuses the headmaster of cheating him and is laughed at by the village; he is put in jail, though the headmaster lets him out as a show of largess. His friend the undertaker abandons him for fear of repercussions from the villagers. Moneyless and friendless, Fak starts throwing up blood and dies in very short order. The headmaster arranges for his cremation, but does it in a deliberately shoddy manner. Fak’s stepmother is captured and sent to an asylum in Bangkok.

There’s a similarity to Western novels of the individual against society – Thomas Hardy’s later novels come to mind, as do Jack London’s Martin Eden and Knut Hamsun’s Hunger, and, probably at some remove, Dostoevsky’s holy fools. Though it’s written much too late, The Judgment seems to fit squarely into the conventions of the naturalist novel. My hesitation is because it’s hard for me to make sense of the novel’s relationship to religion and social order: is Korbjitti’s book coming out against traditional Thai society? Certainly it’s the source of Fak’s problems. The undertaker explains to Fak:

If all the people in the village were lined up according to their status, I’m sure I’d be at the end of the line because I’m really inferior – just an undertaker. But right now – you and me are birds of a feather and it’s a toss up who’d be at the end of the line. When you were a novice, you were at the head of it, and you had no idea how the people at the other end felt. (pp. 151–2.)

Hierarchy is extremely important in Thai life. (And in its language: one of the things that’s interesting about the Thai language are the sheer number of different pronouns for speaking to people of different status.) And while one’s position in the hierarchy isn’t totally fixed in stone – any male can become a monk and thus higher status; no analogue exists for women – it tends to be a conservative force. The headmaster stands at the front of the village line; it is impossible for the village to imagine that he could have cheated Fak. Karma plays into this hierarchy: one is born low status because of sins in one’s past lives. Fak goes against this, by actively blaming people – the headmaster’s cheating him – rather than fate; for this reason, his punishment by the village is intensified. I can’t tell, however, how clearly religion is meant to be the cause of Fak’s suffering. No real alternative is presented; the supplanting force of capitalism, in the form of consumer goods and associations with Bangkok, is presented dismissively. No Way Out takes place in Bangkok and religion plays much less of a role in comparison with the economic system; the consequences are the same.

tew bunnag, “curtain of rain”

tew bunnag, curtain of rainTew Bunnag
Curtain of Rain
(River Books, Bangkok, 2014)

There’s a notable paucity of contemporary Thai fiction in English. In part, this is because very little is translated from Thai to English; but it’s also due to there not being that much Thai fiction. Thailand isn’t a particularly bookish culture, despite considerable recent prodding which has led to an upswing in book fairs; at Book Expo 2014, I picked up a copy of this book, which might not be said to be, strictly speaking, a Thai book. Though its author is Thai, Curtain of Rain was written in English. Tew Bunnag comes from an old Thai family important enough to have its own Wikipedia page; he grew up in England and now divides his time between Thailand and Spain. This compromise is what makes the book available to its audience: were he writing in Thai, it’s unlikely that an English version would have appeared. But there’s a broader question with this book: who is it for?

A step back. One of the things that’s most interesting to me about living in Bangkok is how unbookish the city is, how it almost seems to resist narrative. While there are countless memoirs by Westerners in Bangkok – stretching back to the nineteenth century and Anna Leonowens’s fabrications – and a more recent vogue for Bangkok noirs, one has the feeling, surveying it all, that there’s a central narrative that goes unsaid here. Part of that is legal: lèse majesté laws make it impossible for almost anyone to say anything (let alone anything critical) about one of the central organizing structures of Thai society. Past that, one realizes, is another layer of opacity: Thai society is relatively small and centralized, organized around families, and there’s a strong urge not to step on any toes. One realizes quickly reading the news here that an enormous amount is left out of any account; over the official record, there’s an oral layer of discourse based, from necessity, on rumor.

Out of habit, it’s to fiction that I turn trying to understand what’s going on here – there are, it seems, all of the ingredients that should lead to great fiction. And it’s not here, or I can’t find it, and that’s confusing to me. Part of this is the question I started with, that of audience: Thai readership was historically small, and while it’s now potentially much greater, the appetite for the book has been superseded by appetites for newer forms. There’s a much wider readership outside of Thailand – and, I think, a world that would be receptive to different narratives coming from this country – and it’s presumably this audience for world fiction that Tew Bunnag’s book is meant to be read by. But this is, despite its presumably non-Thai audience, a very Thai book, wrapped up in the problems with Thai society.

Curtain of Rain has a familiar structure: two narratives which intertwine. One is that of a Thai writer, with excerpts from his writing, which creates a third narrative. The other is a British woman, his editor, who ends up in Bangkok; they have, predictably enough, a connection from the past. The book falls apart for me with the narrative of Clare, the British woman, who, while depicted in what is clearly meant to be realist manner, fails all criteria for believability. She is, almost upon arrival, diagnosed with Alzheimer’s; the doctor memorably asks:

‘Is there any history of Alzheimer in the family?’

Disease is dishearteningly being used as narrative shortcut: her mind is going, so she needs, in the next two hundred pages, to neatly wrap up her life. Six months later she’s only lucid enough to wrap up the book. In between these two things, her editor, at her extremely vague request, flies her business class to Bangkok and puts her up at the Mandarin Oriental. It is possible that British publishing has grandly different economics than American publishing does, but this strains credibility. Further, she is returning to the city because of an incident in the 1960s, when she came, at his request, to stay with a photographer boyfriend, a romance that fell apart when he inadvertently reveals his preference for young boys, an incident that appears to bring her life to a halt entirely. None of this – I haven’t even described the nonsensical office politics at her publishing house – is at all believable.

It’s a shame because it casts doubt on the Thai half of the book, which I’m not nearly as qualified to judge. Many of the characters here appear overly familiar &ndash the poor girl from Isan, for instance, led astray in the big city and who gets AIDS awfully quickly. There is one section that shows some promise: the short narrative written by the Thai writer on his work on a radio show with a demagogue, who he finds abhorrent. The demagogue dies unexpectedly – despite his conservatism, he has a gay lover who murders him – the writer is tasked with writing an obituary. He writes two: one of the celebrated public man, the other laying bare his hidden private life. It’s clear which will be printed. This disparity between what goes on behind closed doors and what’s publicly reported is an apt one for contemporary Thailand, where press restrictions, both legal and otherwise, make much of the media appear nonsensical.

Curtain of Rain fails structurally: the British half undercuts the Thai half, and the conclusion – everything is connected! – seems laughable. Copyediting doesn’t do the book any favors: while Thai transliteration is famously lackadaisical, there’s no reason for the same book to have both “Taksin Shinawatra” and “Thaksin Shinawatra”, or “AIDS” and “Aids”. It is possible that serious editing could have saved this book: there might be a good novella in here waiting to be found, and a handful of decent short stories could be taken from it. As it stands, it doesn’t work. It’s frustrating: the theme of crossover between Thai society and the foreigners who permeate it could go somewhere. I would like to see that book. I haven’t.

yukio mishima, “the temple of dawn”

thetempleofdawnYukio Mishima
The Temple of Dawn
(translated by E. Dale Saunders & Cecilia Segawa Seigle)
(Vintage, 2001; originally 1970).

Bangkok in literature not written by Thais tends to exist as a playground for the male gaze, often an Orientalist male gaze; if you toss out the backpackers and sexpats, you’re left with surprisingly little. Yukio Mishima’s The Temple of Dawn might be the most serious non-Thai novel about Bangkok. I haven’t read the other parts of the Sea of Fertility tetralogy, so my reading will necessarily be myopic; eventually I’ll get around to the rest of Mishima, but I’m not in much of a hurry.

Thailand doesn’t fit particularly well into the framework of postcolonialism, having never been colonized, a distinction that it shares with Japan among Asian countries. It’s interesting, then, that this might be said to effectively be a colonial novel, being set, in part, during World War II, when Thailand, under Fascist rule, ceded control of the country to the Japanese and joined the war on the Axis side. (There was, it should be said, a fairly substantial resistance, the Free Thai Movement; the Thai ambassador to the U.S. never delivered the declaration of war, which proved helpful afterwards.) Thailand here is presented as being a client state: the protagonist, a Japanese lawyer, is there on business, sorting out imperial problems before the war that will break out.

The description of Thailand is a mess; I can’t tell if it’s the editing, the translation, or the book itself. There’s a painfully obvious mistake on the first page: “Another ancient name is Krung Thep, or ‘City of Angles.'” Thep (เทพ) is the Thai word for angel, not angle; in the same paragraph, the city’s river is referred to as “the mother waters of the Menam” (เเม่น้ำ), the Thai word for river. It’s not clear whether this mistake was on the part of the author or the translator: เเม่น้ำ is literally “mother of water,” so this may be an attempt at a pun that got lost. More likely, it’s a mistake: English writers mistakenly imagined that “Menam” was the proper name for the Chao Praya for years, though almost all had stopped by 1973, when this translation dates from. Either way, the tautological “Menam River” is used for the rest of the book. On the next page, there’s a reference to the district of “Bangkap” which is almost certainly meant to be “Bangkapi”. On page 11, the reader learns that one can see Wat Arun (the Temple of Dawn of the title) from the Oriental Hotel: Wat Arun is roughly two miles north of the Oriental, and there are considerable bends in the Chao Praya, making this deeply unlikely even when Thonburi was significantly less built up than it is now.

(I’m leaving aside obvious transliteration oddnesses: there’s no single method of transliterating Thai into the Roman alphabet, a problem which bedevils all writing about Thai in English.)

It is interesting that this book, which takes rather extreme liberties with the sacrosanct Thai royal family in the line of demonstrating its theories about reincarnation, doesn’t seem to have been banned in Thailand; certainly if it were published in Thai in today’s climate there’s a very good chance that it would be. The protagonist has gone to school in Japan with two minor (and non-existent) Thai princes; this is hardly controversial. (This is presumably covered in earlier volumes of the Sea of Fertility sequence which I, again, have not read.) But while the protagonist is in Japan immediately prior to World War II, he meets a child princess, who appears to be mentally disturbed; for reasons that are not clear to the reader of only this book, he becomes convinced that she is he reincarnation of his dead friend, which she semi-miraculously confirms.

A great deal of the middle of the book is taken up with the protagonist’s researches into reincarnation across various cultures. (This does make Thailand an apposite setting; Thai beliefs, however, are not particularly privileged.) While this material is mildly interesting in its own right, it falls flat as fiction, particularly because the previous events have made it clear that reincarnation is undeniably true in the universe presented in the novel; this feels like ex post facto justification.

More problematic (especially from the point of view of considering Thailand in literature) is the cliched way in which the Thai people feature in last section of the book. The last section of the book is set years later, in 1950s Japan; the protagonist has retired to the country. The Thai princess, now a young woman, has come to Japan; much of the last section of the book concerns the protagonists machinations to see her naked so that he can tell whether she has the birthmarks that would confirm her, in his eyes, as being the reincarnation of his friend. The Thai woman, in other words, once again exists for the male gaze.

luke rhinehart, “the dice man”

963039Luke Rhinehart
The Dice Man
(Panther, 1971)

I suspect there’s a general perception that metafiction is the province of the snobbish, starting in English with Tristram Shandy, though a great deal of fun, is one of those books that’s probably always been more talked about than read. (Don Quixote would probably have been an earlier exception, albeit not in English; but today, it’s so rarely read that most readers aren’t aware how metafictional it is.) John Barth, twentieth century American lit’s most prominent metafictionalist, hasn’t aged very well. Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler is unfairly put on a pedestal and most people don’t notice that they’re incorrectly aping Italian capitalization rules for the title, supposing it to be inherent to the text somehow. Metafiction belongs to the reading elite who, having nothing better to do, can treasure its idiosyncrasies.

This isn’t entirely unfair: a great many bad books are written expressly for smart people. But there’s also plenty of metafiction in works that are aimed squarely at the general public. Take, for instance, the case of Ellery Queen, who was not only credited as the author but was also the protagonist of his own books, the back covers of which often showed two men who were officially Ellery Queen, Frederic Dannay and Manfred Lee, who were not actually born with those names; often those two men farmed the writing of the books off to others, including Avram Davidson and Theodore Sturgeon. No one reading Ellery Queen books thought they were the actual narratives of a detective named Ellery Queen; many, if not most, must have known that Ellery Queen the author did not exist. But: suspension of disbelief.

Which brings me to this book, which isn’t a particularly good book, but is interestingly tangled up in metafiction, more than one might assume for what’s squarely mass-market fiction. This starts with the name on the cover, which the reader realizes, very quickly, is the same as that of the protagonist and not someone who ever existed. (The copyright page, at least in the edition I read, assigns the copyright to one George Cockcroft, otherwise not mentioned.) There are epigraphs from what were clearly fictional books – they are, we learn, written by the protagonist of the book – though one learns from a quick search on the web that books by those names, by the same Luke Rhinehard, exist, though published after this one.

What one needs to know about this book is fairly simple. The protagonist, a fairly successful, if blocked, psychiatrist, realizes that he can access hidden areas of his own personality and become a more complete person if he outsources his decision making to a die, assigning random actions to each possible outcome and always following through on what he’s ordered to do by the die. He starts using this as therapy, converts other to his belief system, and eventually becomes a fairly successful cult leader, brought down, inevitably, by the government. The book is narrated largely in the first person, with third-person interludes, which are mostly explained. The book is probably twice as long as it needs to be; there’s a great deal of the sort of casual sexism and racism that you find in a lot of work from the 1960s and 1970s by well-meaning straight liberal male authors. It’s not an especially good book.

It does, however, pretensions. One suspects that the author’s thought about John Cage and his aleatory methods, and there’s a fair amount of attention paid to what one can hear in silence; perhaps this just the ambient Zen floating around in the sixties. There’s a passage which fairly nicely pastiches Finnegans Wake. In Chapter 91 we learn how the book came to be written:

Two subsequent dice decisions soon determined that I was to complete sometime during the year ‘an autobiography of exactly 200,000 words’ (so I’ve had this stupid thing barging in on my days most of the year) and that I worked on other Die-selected work when appropriate (namely when the Die and I felt like it).

This is perhaps why the book ends in mid-sentence, the author having ostensibly hit 200,000 words. The text of The Dice Man, as far as I can tell, is closer to 135,000 words than to 200,000 – maybe the protagonist’s reckoning doesn’t account for the ministrations of editors?

What’s perhaps most confusing about this book to me is figuring out how seriously it’s meant to be taken. A good percentage of the characters are psychiatrists; enough attention is paid for the reader to think that a serious critique of psychiatry is intended. This is complicated extratextually: the protagonist of the novel, Luke Rhinehart has also written what seems to be a self-help book on the uses of chance (a book by the same name is quoted in the novel) as well as what seems to be an officially approved introduction to Werner Erhard’s – another pseudonym – est therapy, The Book of est. It’s hard to know how to read this: perhaps this book falls into the same category of those of Carlos Castenada.

One can, however, assess how well The Dice Man makes a case for chance as a practical philosophy, if that’s what, as it appears, it’s trying to do: rather poorly. Chance isn’t a particularly good motivator for plot: the choices that the dice makes in the book aren’t coincidentally those that are best for the plot. Everyone in the book using the dice has a fine time; those who don’t are hopelessly square. Sure, some people go insane, but they would have gone insane anyway. The problem here might be that the narrator isn’t unreliable enough: he grips the text inside and out like a vice, and it’s impossible to second-guess him. The effect ends up being having your head battered by someone who would like to tell you what’s best for you; it’s worse because he’s in impossibly good-humored about it. I don’t find the idea he’s trying to get across unsympathetic: but John Cage does a better job of it. Perhaps extolling the virtue of chance isn’t something that fiction can do?

upamanyu chatterjee, “english, august”

englishaugustUpamanyu Chatterjee
English, August: An Indian Story
(New York Review Books, 2006; originally 1988)

I missed this book entirely when it was reissued; at some point, NYRB started releasing so many books that it was hard to keep track of them all, and I only happened to come across it in the Neilson Hays, Bangkok’s odd but necessary subscription library, while looking for reading in preparation for a vacation in Kolkata and Darjeeling. How this book turned up there is something of a mystery – their collection mostly runs to colonialist memoirs, British thrillers, and an ungodly number of books attempting to explain Thai ways and their meaning – but it was a happy discovery. My knowledge of Indian fiction – even written in English – is embarrassingly spotty, to say the least. It goes without saying that Indian fiction doesn’t tend to get a lot of coverage in the U.S.; it’s been interesting spending time in Kolkata – maybe the best city for books I’ve ever been in, certainly the best one anywhere near here – and seeing just how much interesting work is available that I know nothing about.

But this book. The plot is fairly simple: the protagonist, Agastya Sen, has just graduated from university and has been accepted into the Indian Administrative Service; as part of their training, he’s sent to a nonentity of a town called Madna where he’s to learn the ropes. Agastya – sometimes Ogu, August, or simply “English” because his Bengali name is too complicated for others to say – is a slacker who understands that the vast majority of what’s done by the bureaucracy is effectively meaningless; but he also understands that it’s impossible to change anything from inside. He spends his days shirking work, smoking pot, masturbating, listening to Keith Jarrett and Rabindranath Tagore, reading Marcus Aurelius and the Ramayana, writing in a journal, and cadging dinners off of friends and coworkers. He considers quitting, but has no real ambitions. He’s reluctantly following in the footprints of his father, who is the Governor of West Bengal; there’s the strong sense that he’s a disappointment. He completes his town in Madna and is then sent to an even smaller, non-existent town. And finally something happens: out of misguided intent, he comes into contact with the ostensible aim of the job – bettering the lives of Indians – decides to actually do something worthwhile (bring water to a town with a dry well) and inadvertently stumbles across something very different, complicating his world but bringing him to a deeper understanding of it.

There’s more going on here – Indian class and identity are clearly important, though I can’t say anything informed about them – but what’s most striking to me about this book is as a visceral depiction of work: the drudgery entailed in the majority of jobs. This is drawn from life: the first paragraph of Chatterjee’s Wikipedia page currently defines him as “an Indian civil servant who currently serves as Joint Secretary to Government of India in the Ministry of Defence” and reveals him to have gone through the IAS himself, just as Agastya Sen does. Only in the second paragraph is he a writer.

The experience of work isn’t something that’s written about particularly often. There’s a prosaic reason for this: work generally precludes writing. The sorts of work taken up by writers are certainly covered (teaching, scraping by as a freelancer, trying to write), but there’s a general absence of non-writerly jobs, which make well-written accounts all the more interesting. In American fiction, you can trace this back to “Bartleby the Scrivener,” drawn from Melville’s work at a customs-house; a large amount of Melville’s writing is based on work. Jack London’s Martin Eden is a powerful account of manual labor and what it takes out of a person; it’s not often read in the U.S., perhaps because it’s not what serious fiction is meant to be about. (A corollary: by that reading, serious fiction is done by the idle rich – Henry James, Edith Wharton – which does, more often than not, seem to be the case.) More recently, I’ve been taken with Stanley Crawford’s narratives of his life as a garlic farmer (the experience of which doesn’t seem to have made its way into his fiction) and Sergio De La Pava’s work as a public defender, which very strongly appears in A Naked Singularity. I find something useful in these accounts: work is a part of most of our lives, and it’s something that fiction can be useful in trying to understand, though more often than not it seems like something that fiction shies away from.

There’s comedy in English, August: Agastya hates his job and will go to elaborate and comical lengths to avoid doing work, and work, when he does it, seems to consist of signing endless stacks of paper while attempting not to read them. His shirking, though, is a more serious subject: he’s passing time in Madna, avoiding real life. “Real life,” however, doesn’t have a particular meaning for him: while he misses his old friends and is unhappy to be far away from them, he’s lacking in ambition. His position in the IAS does provide a clear path to security and respectability; his family connections make it clear that there’s a safety net. But deciding to want to do what he’s doing – or even to consider that as a choice – is difficult for Sen. The climax of the novel is interesting: it points to a conventional novelistic solution (he sees that the bureaucracy, for its flaws, is actually helping people) but then shies away from it. The world it depicts is more complicated than that of the novelistic arc. Sen does seem to understand that his work can be useful; however, the world is unpredictable. Sen ends this book seemingly resigned to his life in the IAS, though what he thinks is hidden to the reader.

Chatterjee’s written a sequel to this book, which appears to continue Sen’s adventures or lack thereof: I’m curious where he goes.

james mccourt, “lasting city”

lastingmech.inddJames McCourt
Lasting City: The Anatomy of Nostalgia
(Liveright, 2014)

Reading Infinite Jest when I was eighteen was a revelatory experience, in part because it was the first time that I’d read a book that took place in a geography that I could recognize. Wallace’s Boston overlapped with my Boston; not perfectly, but enough. That this would have seemed surprising was the result of growing up in a town that no one would ever bother to describe: realizing that the world in a book could overlap with the world outside of a book took a while. This isn’t a new discovery – this is basically what powers the plot in the second half of Don Quixote – but it is something that each reader must negotiate individually. It’s something that I haven’t fully made my peace with yet: certainly on some level I still tend to think less of fiction that draws too much on the real world. In part this might be because of early experiences with books that seemed more powerful because they had no connection with the world in which I lived: one ascribes power to imagined originality.

And this impulse extends outside of the world of fiction: fresh out of college, I found myself naively incredulous that a critic was writing about artists that he’d been friends with before their deaths. How, I wondered, could one possibly be objective in such a situation? My ideal critic would have been outside of the world of artists entirely. (This would have been personally possible, I’ll note, if I’d stayed in the rural Midwest, but even at that point I’d made my choice; perhaps I was second-guessing myself.) I’m not saying that personality-based criticism is the correct route to take: writing, criticism or not, that includes the author is almost always worse than criticism that rigorously excludes the first person. Metafiction is a similar example: it’s almost always terrible. But every once in a while it works and it’s terrific.

Which brings me to James McCourt and Lasting City, a memoir written by someone I’ve met about a city that I’ve left. It’s a strange book, not least because of how similar it is to his fiction which depicts worlds with a thoroughness that leads one to suspect that it might be history with the names changed. There’s a James McCourt here, and a family around him whose existence seems certain, but one wonders about some of the narrator’s interlocutors, too perfect to be true. McCourt is a storyteller first and foremost; and the question of fact or fiction is secondary to whether the story works.

An element of fiction is obvious in this, as in any memoir: McCourt wasn’t taking transcripts of conversations when he was a kid. After reading his fiction, it’s impossible not to hear the recounted conversations as sounding like James McCourt dialogue. But perhaps the opposite is true? McCourt explains:

The falsity (and the art) in all such reminiscence lies in the arrangement for the reader of a sequence of memories, keying such a sequence into the more-or-less attested and authenticated historical narration through which it is generally held he comes to grip with the saga. To begin a life with the beginning of a life is an inconclusive beginning, what with what’s known, has been known since the beginning: that there is no beginning, that the measuring of time from the six days of creation on is only now and ever was a palliative fiction. If time is the measure of change and outcome, the unconscious, tolerating neither of these things, is timeless. (p. 180)

An example. McCourt’s narrator – one wonders how wise it is to conflate him with McCourt – early in the book claims to have gone to school with Rudolph Giuliani and posits, in considerably colorful language, that the problem with him stemmed from his poor early choice in opera divas. Certainly it would be possible to verify whether McCourt and Giuliani went to school together, and perhaps whether Giuliani was a devotee of Renata Tebaldi. Someone with more knowledge of opera history than I have could judge whether love of Tebaldi was a signifier of jingoistic ethnic consciousness; but to find in this detail, real or imaginary, the seeds of smallmindedness that would later bear vigorous fruit in the city is the work of an artist, making the young Giuliani seem more interesting than he probably was. Giuliani was a buffoon at best, and history will probably think even worse of him than McCourt does. But this anecdote, regardless of its truth, manages to beatify him, returning him to the point where he could, conceivably, have not screwed it up.

And yet I find myself most taken by the minor details. McCourt grew up in Jackson Heights, the neighborhood in Queens I recently left. It’s odd to find myself so familiar with the geography he describes: the neighborhood has remade itself several times over since he lived there, though some of the ancient Irish ladies he describes are still wandering the streets making racist comments. But his characters give directions to taxi drivers identical to the ones I did many times: it’s a perfectly observed detail that resonates for me though I can’t imagine that it will for most of the potential readers of this book, most of whom have never had to give instructions about the Queensborough Bridge. That he gets this so right, however, impacts what I think about the book, which is by and large describing worlds I know very little of, in large part because they’re vanished like McCourt’s childhood: I can say very little of the gay opera world that once existed in New York. Most people can’t. But McCourt is able to make it solidly alive: if it didn’t exist, maybe it should have.

It’s hard to ascribe a strict chronology to Lasting City – as in Tristram Shandy, he only gets around to being born halfway through the book – but it focuses on McCourt’s childhood: one hopes for more, as one hopes for the promised sequel to Now Voyagers.

m. r. kukrit pramoj, “many lives”

manylivesM. R. Kukrit Pramoj
Many Lives
(translated by Meredith Borthwick)
(Silkworm Books, 1996; originally 1954)

I moved to Thailand knowing no Thai writers, an embarrassing situation that’s not uncommon. Thinking of a representative Thai filmmaker or visual artist is easy; thinking of a Thai poet or prose writer, even a dead one, is much more difficult: the science fiction and horror writer S. P. Somtow might be the only current candidate. The nineteenth-century court poet Sunthorn Phu gets his own holiday here (June 26th), though he barely exists in English. I can’t really say why Thai literature is so invisible in the English-speaking world; right now I’m reading indiscriminately trying to catch up.

M. R. Kukrit Pramoj is an interesting figure, simply because he was so all over the place. He wrote a great deal of both fiction and non-fiction, and had a serious political career, including a brief stint as the prime minister. He’s undoubtedly best known in the English-speaking world for playing a prime minister alongside Marlon Brando in The Ugly American. After his death in 1995, his house, on Sathorn Road, has been turned into a museum, beautiful if poorly attended. Wikipedia gives an overview of his work, though there’s not as much detail as one would like. It does seem odd that his solitary translation should be Jonathan Livingston Seagull, though that might be Wikipedian caprice.

One notes in Wikipedia’s list of his writings the number of works that are adaptations – from John Wyndham, Giovanni Guareschi, Kurosawa; Khun Chang Khun Phaen is a retelling of an epic poem. Though not noted as such, Many Lives also falls into this category: one of the first things one notices reading the book is that it’s a fairly straightforward reworking of Thornton Wilder’s The Bridge of San Luis Rey. In that book a bridge in South America collapses and a monk wonders what the different people who died did to deserve their fate; in this one, a river boat bound for Bangkok sinks and an omniscient narrator wonders the same thing. The translator’s introduction notes that Kukrit’s book was written after seeing a bus accident in which a variety of people died; nothing is said about Wilder’s book, though it seems likely that he would have known of it or the 1944 film.

There are, it has to be said, fairly substantial differences between the books which might be usefully inspected. In Wilder’s book, the dead characters turn out to have been interlocked in life, while in Kukrit’s book there are no connections: each character gets fifteen pages about his or her life. Brief introduction and closing sections wrap up the book, but the characters are strictly isolated. Perhaps this betrays the origin of Many Lives: it was originally serialized, and even in book form it feels strongly episodic. While the reader can’t help but notice the contrasts between the character, there’s little tying them together.

Religion is inescapable. While Wilder’s book is nominally about Catholic theodicy, its argument is more clearly with the idea of predestination inherent in the American Puritan tradition. Though Wilder is remembered as a sentimentalist, his is essentially a world without God, something that Gertrude Stein gets at when she ends “A portrait of Thornton Wilder” with the lines:

He has no fears
At most he has no tears.
For them very likely he is made of them.

Wilder explicated these lines in a letter to Richard Goldstone in 1968:

“For them” means for a large part of the reading public – and for you – The Bridge of San Luis Rey and Our Town are tender, tear-drenched, and consoling. But they aren’t, they’re hard and even grimly challenging, for “He has no fears”(The Letters of Gertrude Stein & Thornton Wilder, p. 307n6.)

It’s worth emphasizing this point, because Kukrit is writing from an entirely different perspective. This becomes clear at the end of the story of the Venerable Sem, a monk whose life has been exemplary:

When his body was retrieved the next morning, everyone marvelled to see that he was still in the posture of Indra’s thunderbolt, or the diamond position. The purity and fullness of his existence had led the god of death to spare him the agony of a protracted illness. The peaceful life paused, then halted, in the water with a coolness which was like water itself. Sem had been swept out on the current to the sea, never to return to the cycle of birth and death. (p. 48)

There’s no obvious authorial distance from the voice narrating this passage; similar conclusions are given to most of the lives narrated here. The reader is asked to understand their deaths as being not senseless (as is the case with Wilder) but as part of the cycle of karma. One also notes that there’s no sense of society as a whole: though Loi, the first character introduced, is a sociopath, his villainy has no effect on anyone else; nor does the presence of the monk save them.

I find myself interested in how Kukrit’s literary career seems to included large numbers of cover versions; I can’t tell exactly what that signifies. A straight translation of The Bridge of San Luis Rey probably wouldn’t have gone very far with a Thai audience; the religious argument that Wilder was making would have seemed nonsensical. Remaking a text, as this book does, might be more sensible. Most of Kukrit’s other reversionings aren’t available in English, so it’s difficult for me to compare strategies.