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.

hermann hesse, “the glass bead game”

glassbeadgameHermann Hesse
The Glass Bead Game (Magister Ludi)
(trans. Richard & Clara Winston)
(2006; originally 1943)

This book is a weird mess. I last read Hesse in high school, at the age when his novels of individuation seem appealing; I started this one then, though I didn’t get very far, perhaps because it wasn’t so immediate. The Glass Bead Game appears with Steppenwolf and Siddhartha on the lists of classics that students are encouraged to read – and has steadfastly remained in print – though it’s difficult to see why. I suspect my abortive high school reading experience is typical. I picked this up because of an offhand mention by John Crowley, who remembered reading it in the sixties; he mentioned that it was boring, but that the book might have seemed relevant than because the game described could be said to describe the conversations that people had then. I added the book to my to-read list; there was a copy at the local library, which I failed to open until I’d renewed it twice; if I hadn’t been in southern Cambodia with nothing to do at night, I probably would have sent it back unread. The conventional wisdom about this might be right: it is a boring book, much longer than it needs to be, but it’s strange, and the strangeness might be worth remarking on.

Structurally, the book is bizarre. There’s a short introduction, setting the scene and claiming the book is notes gathered anonymously telling the story of Joseph Knecht, the once eponymous Magister Ludi; the majority of the book forms a life of Knecht, which begins as a bildungsroman and turns into a hagiography. The introduction claims that this is written in the future about the past (a generation remote) from notes left in an archive; the dialogue and interiority quickly belies this. This might be the novel’s first disappointment: if it were what it claimed to be, the narrative would be more interesting. Instead, the introduction comes off as padding; while there’s clearly a narrative voice, the reader can’t do much with it. The life of Knecht is followed by an appendix of his writing; first, a handful of poems, bad, ostensibly written by the youthful Knecht; the one of most interest to the main text is dissected at depth in the text, and there’s no need to see it again. Then there are three short biographies written by Knecht; as described in the life of Knecht, these are meant to be student writings where Knecht imagines himself inhabiting a historical period. If this novel were being published today, an editor would suggest that this material (over a hundred pages) be interpolated into the main text; as it is, it seems extraneous, worth reading only if the reader can’t get enough Knecht. They do seem more like the more familiar short works of Hesse.

Hagiography is this book’s mode, and perhaps its main problem. Knecht is described in adoring terms; he’s presented as an extraordinary man, perhaps the best created by the system described in the book. After attaining the summits of the Glass Bead system, Knecht gives it up, leaving the academy for the real world; he promptly dies in an accident, and it’s unclear whether his ideas would actually work out. There’s blunt allegory here, of course: the safety of the ivory tower versus the risk and reward of the outside world, and it might be seen as a less pointed reprise of Julien Benda’s La Trahison des Clercs, which might explain the publication date. But the book’s sheer size blunts this: a great deal of work is put into setting up the world Knecht lives in, and the development of his character. A handful of secondary characters exist, though they clearly reflect Knecht’s light; they are types, predictable almost from their introduction. Knecht says words of wisdom to them and their problems are solved. Are we meant to understand Knecht as a saint? It’s very hard to tell. An introduction suggests that we’re meant to find ironic distance in the narration; I can’t find this, in part because the narrative strategy is so clumsy, the putative narrator disappearing whenever it’s convenient.

It might be worth pointing out at this point that this is almost entirely a book about men. Though secular, the educational system described is only open to men, most of whose mothers seem to have conveniently died. The vague idea of women exists – the men of Castalia must not marry, though they need not remain celibate – but it isn’t until p. 409 that a woman is actually given a line of dialogue (“The young gentleman?” asks an unnamed maid). One of the three stories at the end of the book promises a change, with the introductory line “It was many thousands of years ago, when women ruled”; we do finally get a named female character, but the story is entirely about men’s relations with their father figures. There’s nothing wrong with writing an enormous book with almost no female characters to speak of; but taking such a novel’s grand theories about culture seriously seems ludicrous.

This is a novel about the future (the back cover claims “the twenty-third century,” though I’m not sure where they’re getting that) that might conceivably be described as science fiction, though none of the usual signifiers are there: the single suggestion of technology is a device that might charitably be imagined to be something like PowerPoint, though it might simply be an overhead projector. The future is peaceful, though current countries and institutions survive, seemingly unchanged since the 1920s, an odd note as, again, the book was published in the midst of World War II. An odd note is struck at the beginning of the book, where the problems of the past (the “age of the feuilleton”) are described. It’s hard not to be reminded of the chronological structure of The Man without Qualities, which asymptotically approaches the beginning of WWI, of which its characters will remain blissfully ignorant forever. We are superior to those characters because we know (as did Musil, of course) what will happen to their world; but it’s difficult to know what kind of relationship to the characters in The Glass Bead Game we can have. They seem to exist in a parallel universe; though it isn’t one that can be comprehensibly aligned with our own. One argument that’s being made boils down to “always historicize”; but the reader has no position from which to tell whether or not historicizing is actually useful.

pamela moore, “chocolates for breakfast”

chocolatesPamela Moore
Chocolates for Breakfast
(Bantam Books, 1957; originally 1956)

It’s strange that I’ve never really written about this book, as it’s one that I’ve foisted on many people over the years. The occasion of my latest re-reading is that it’s finally been reprinted, by Harper Perennial; you can learn a great deal more at Kevin Kanarek’s site here.

I found this book through Robert Nedelkoff’s examination of Moore’s career in The Baffler in 1997; it was only after I arrived in New York in 2001 that I managed to turn up a copy. Why this book struck me then, in retrospect, seems clear: the vision of youth that it presented was so markedly in contrast to the mawkishly sentimental view of childhood then coming into vogue in, for example, the early McSweeney’s aesthetic and the films of Wes Anderson after Rushmore. There was a rampant refusal to grow up, an idealization of childhood: J. D. Salinger and his cloyingly precocious protagonists bear no small amount of responsibility (as might, at a remove, the conservatism of Brideshead Revisited). To me at the time this felt wrong-headed; and it was refreshing to find a bildungsroman in which a sixteen-year-old so actively decides to be an adult. It’s not a book that could have been written in 2001, though it’s a book I needed to read then.

Perhaps because the author was so young when she wrote this, the book can be convincingly serious. But this is done in a controlled way: while the book is generally told from Courtney Farrell’s perspective, there’s a clear distance between the author and the narrator, and perspective shifts even inside paragraphs. There’s also a fine control of the structure: between chapters 12 and 13, we learn that Courtney’s spent two months in a sanitarium, though we’re never really given an explanation of what triggered this (chapter 12 closes with a description of Courtney cutting her fingers to feel something, though it’s clearly not a suicide attempt) or what might have happened there. It’s glossed over quickly – in almost a deadpan way – and the narrative moves on; it’s left to the reader to remember that this happens and might (or might not) illuminate her subsequent behavior.

A willingness to take on ambiguity gives this book power. There’s an early scene where Courtney’s advisor Miss Rosen has given her Finnegans Wake (“How are you coming with James Joyce?” “Not awfully well. What is he trying to say with all this stream-of-consciousness gibberish?”). Miss Rosen, who clearly has a crush on the girl, explains the book allegorically, as if Joyce were writing self-help:

“What he is talking about in Finnegans Wake,” explained the English teacher in her precise, analytical manner, “is the eternal conflict between parents and children. He presents the parent as the figure who must be conquered if the child is to gain independence and identity.”

“How simply and clearly she puts it,” Courtney thought as Miss Rosen went on, quoting from the book and analyzing the selections to prove her thesis, “when the subject is so terribly complex. Teachers are a little like scientists in their way of breaking down the magnificent vastness of life into small particles that can be analyzed, and thereby robbing it of its emotion.” She remembered the scene when her mother had said she could not spend that weekend with her father because she had to much schoolwork to do. . . . (p. 7)

Moore clearly knows this is funny: her intercutting Miss Rosen’s dogged explanations (cribbed, it eventually becomes clear, from Campbell & Robinson’s Skeleton Key, which she offers as an aid) with scenes from Courtney’s family life goes on for several pages. While Miss Rosen’s exegesis might be correct in a general way, she’s missing, as Courtney realizes, anything that’s interesting about Joyce; and no silver bullet is going to solve Courtney’s problems.

There’s an interesting reversal of this scene later in the book: the sybarite Anthony Neville, who does manage to become her lover, tells her an allegorical story to explain the magnificent vastness of his lonely, and lost, childhood to her. She questions him:

“Didn’t he go back to look for it?”

“No, of course not,” Anthony said crossly. “If you must know, he called into the cave, but there wasn’t any answer, so he simply walked wretchedly back to his villa and had a Brandy Alexander.”

“He never found it again,” Courtney said despondently.

“No,” said Anthony gravely. “It was lost for good.”

“What a sad story. What’s the moral?”

“Now, the moral is obvious, angel, and if you’re so think you can’t see it, I refuse to explain it to you. Did you like the story?” (p. 120)

With Anthony, Courtney is happy; but it’s a respite from the world that doesn’t last. If there’s a problem with this book, it’s the speed of the denouement: her old roommate Janet kills herself, and Courtney decides that it’s better to stick to the straight and narrow path, ending up with an unappealing, if honest, suitor who’s been to Harvard Law and has little time for the carousing set she’s spent much of the novel with. Anthony is cast to the side, and their romance fizzles out, rather than inevitably crashing and burning, as the reader expects. Again, it’s a calculated choice that Courtney makes: but at this point the reader knows her well enough to understand that this kind of analytical thinking won’t last or make her happy; nor can it be done under emotional duress.

Moore wasn’t entirely pleased with this version of the book; the French and Italian versions worked from another version of the text, and Kevin Kanarek’s essay in the new edition of this book suggests that it’s difficult to know what Moore would have done given more time and less editorial intervention. Even so, it remains a fine novel and it deserves more attention. And for as serious as the book is, there are as many scenes of pure pleasure:

“Maid’s out,” Janet observed. “She’s always going out on obscure errands. I think she has a lover.”

“The elevator man?” Courtney inquired.

“Probably someone’s butler. That sounds logical. A somewhat indigent butler, who works for an alcoholic couple. The son is dying of leukemia, and the parents are always in the bedroom, bombed. And the butler slips out, abandoning the dying son, to make made love with Peggy under the El.”

“Under the El.” Courtney thought a moment. “The rhythm of the trains makes them mad, like Spanish fly or something. And it’s all like a Bellows painting.”



“Oh. And then the son dies,” Janet continued, “but nobody knows it for weeks because the parents are out of their head and the butler has taken Peggy to Coney Island in the heat of passion.”

“Finally a window washer sees the body and it’s all in the Daily News,” said Courtney.

“You want ice, don’t you?” asked Janet.

“Mmmm-hmmm. I’ll get the Scotch.” (p. 98)

samuel r. delany, “through the valley of the nest of spiders”

through-the-valleySamuel R. Delany
Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders
(Magnus Books, 2012)

Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders is Delany’s biggest book (bigger than Dhalgren), and seems to have attracted relatively little attention, as might be the case with most of Delany’s late fiction. The barriers to critical attention are clear: much as in The Mad Man, there’s a lot of gay sex in this book described in minute detail which many reviewers seem to have found offensive. There’s more science fiction here than in The Mad Man or Dark Reflections, probably not enough to keep a sci-fi audience happy, but enough to leave a “literary fiction” audience, should such a thing exist, unsettled. And it’s a big book, at 800 pages.

Towards the end of The Mad Man, the protagonist’s lover describes his rural upbringing in some detail; that vignette, a hypersexual male society outside of the realm of conventional morality might form the basis for this book. Incest and pedophilia, both presented as consensual, figure strongly, as do lovingly applied racial epithets. But again, Delany’s attempt is not to shock; rather, it’s to present a modern version of the pastoral. (Guy Davenport’s stories of young Danish philosophers living according to Fourier are the clear antecedent.) Instead of shepherds, Delany’s protagonists are garbage men, and their Arcadia is a place on the coast of Georgia called Diamond Harbor; the novel starts in 2007 and goes forward seventy years.

The title refers to William Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell: early, a minor character advises the protagonist that

“To be sure, the Road of Excess leads to the Palace of Wisdom, even when it takes you through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders. . . .” (p. 20)

There’s no Valley of the Nest of Spiders in the “Proverbs of Hell,” of course. Delany’s referring more directly to another section of Blake’s book, “A Memorable Fancy”:

An Angel came to me and said: ‘O pitiable foolish young man! O horrible! O dreadful state! consider the hot burning dungeon thou art preparing for thyself to all eternity, to which thou art going in such career.’

I said: ‘perhaps you will be willing to shew me my eternal lot & we will contemplate together upon it and see whether your lot or mine is most desirable.’ . . . .

By degrees we beheld the infinite Abyss, fiery as the smoke of a burning city; beneath us at an immense distance was the sun, black but shining; round it were fiery tracks on which revolv’d vast spiders, crawling after their prey; which flew or rather swum in the infinite deep, in the most terrific shapes of animals sprung from corruption, & the air was full of them, & seem’d composed of them; these are Devils, and are called Powers of the air. I now asked my companion which was my eternal lot? he said, between the black & white spiders.

But now, from between the black & white spiders, a cloud and fire burst and rolled thro’ the deep, blackning all beneath, so that the nether deep grew black as a sea & rolled with a terrible noise . . . (p. 18)

Blake’s protagonist justifying his way of life to the Angel is mirrored in Eric’s explanation to his Shit, his faun-like partner, of what he wants to do with himself now that he has left conventional society and suddenly found himself living in a place where all his desires have been satisfied:

“You know what I’d like to do?”


“I wanna try bein’ a really good person – ’cause I’m so happy and get to fuck and suck so much.” He glanced over. “I didn’t tell her about the sex part and what that had to do with it. But that seems like a good reason.”


“Yes. So that’s what I’m gonna start doin’.”

“I think you’re a pretty good fella already. You make our fuckin food damn near every night. Howw much better you got to be?”

“As good as I can. I mean, I’m gonna have to put a little thought into it. But I’ll think of somethin’. You be as satisfied as I am, and it’s just a shame to waste it all on yourself and get too lazy . . .”

“Well, that’s gonna be interestin’. A really good person, huh? Am I supposed to give you a hand?”

“I’m serious, Shit.” (pp. 253–4)

What’s left is to concentrate on living ethically. Note the order: personal improvement only becomes possible after a better society is achieved. Diamond Harbor, it is worth noting, is meant to exist in the present: the largess of the Kyle Foundation, a millionaire’s project to better the lives of the gay black men he loves, has shaped the area into a paradise; the area is rural enough that it attracts little attention from the outside world. (Eric and his friends find out about Obama’s election the next day in a call from his mother; porn theaters still operate and find a clientele as described in Times Square Red, Times Square Blue.) New technology appears, but its intrusions and effects are minimal.

Near the end of his life, Eric thinks to himself:

With the Kyle Foundation to fight for us, we never had to fight for anything, really. Everything was arranged, from salary to security. It did a good job of taking care of us – and we all thought that was good. Did that allow us to be good or just .nbsp;.nbsp;. superfluous? (p. 749)

Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders is almost entirely free of conflict. Eric spends much of the second half of the book re-reading Spinoza’s Ethica, almost the only book mentioned here; Shit is pointedly illiterate. Time speeds up as the book progresses; a love story between two boys becomes a love story between two old men. Society as a whole isn’t utopian: near the end of the book, a few scenes make it clear that while society is more progressive than it was, it’s still imperfect. The reader’s left thinking of the end of Candide.