“The earth is a tightrope; our train speeds across the flat thin wire. They say that a century from now this will all be gone, that the oceans will rise above this threadbare patch of earth. . . . I can’t quite believe this because I never believe anything I won’t be around to see.” So states the narrator of the title story in Rattawut Lapcharoensap’s debut short story collection, Sightseeing, as he and his mother set out on a vacation together, trying to see their own country as tourists. Later he adds, “Above all, Ma and I know that if things were different, if our lives were simply following their ordinary course, we would never have taken the time to notice such sights.”
As a recipe for fiction it seems a little pat to say that hardship leads vision, but in Lapcharoensap’s hands we feel like we are seeing these sights and insights for the first time. The six stories in Sightseeing address familiar situations — fickle teenage love, loss of innocence, intergenerational conflict — but they are jerked out of the ordinary course by the sensitivity of Lapcharoensap’s prose. Fresh and well-crafted, they reinterpret everyday pain and beauty.
In these stories pain and beauty are commonly intertwined, with pain always undercut by a hopeful longing for beauty. The Thailand he shows us is a place of small-town corruption, families wavering on the border between financial security and desperation. A place where winning the next cock fight is crucial, where sewing 200 more bras for export to the West a matter of life and death, where Cambodian refugees ruined the neighborhood and a father died so soon.
Lapsharoensap’s descriptions are sensually rich and emotionally concise. He writes with authority, completely inhabiting his stories from the first sentence. In fact, the often-startling opening lines, such as “The only thing I ever learned about wealth was Priscilla the Cambodian’s beautiful teeth. . . . When she smiled it sometimes looked like that little girl had swallowed the sun,” from “Priscilla the Cambodian” are a real strength of his writing. Provocative on first reading, they gain additional resonance when we return to them after finishing each tale.
One of the best pieces, “At the Café Lovely,” is narrated by a lonely eleven-year-old boy who cleaves onto his older brother Anek after their father’s death. The narrator of outings together in which the two of them will be “pals,” but when Anek finally agrees to take him along on a Saturday night excursion, it is to the dreary Café Lovely where he and his friends huff paint and have sex with prostitutes. Late that night, still high on paint, Anek tells the eleven-year-old he can drive the motorcycle home. As he accelerates faster than he has ever been allowed to go before, speeding along an empty road at seventy miles per hour, then seventy-five, then faster still, “nothing seemed lovelier to me than that hot wind howling in my ears, the night blurring around us, the smell of the engine burning gasoline.” As so often happens in Lapcharoensap’s stories, the narrator’s apparent expression of joy is devastating because, we know that from this moment on his life will accelerate, too, into a desperate nihilism.
Born in 1979, Lapcharoensap is a young writer and it is forgivable if the stories in this, his first collection, at times seem tidy and unwilling to delve into the darkest emotions. Yet, along with its flaws, Sightseeing reveals promise.
The concluding story, “Cockfighter,” is the longest and hints at the writer that Lapcharoensap may become. It tells the story of Ladda, a teenage girl whose father goes from being the town’s top cockfighter to losing everything after he pits his chickens against those of the corrupt leading family. Underneath this story swirl other, less defined narratives of family, community, sexuality, and friendship. There are hints that Ladda”s own budding sexuality is somehow the root cause of her parents’ alienation and the breakdown of civic order. As she comes to recognize both her own power and her total insignificance, we wonder if it is possible for her to grow up without implicating herself into the very same web of love and obligation that ensnared her parents.
The hardcover edition of Sightseeing was released in January 2005, right after many of the communities described in the book were destroyed by the tsunami that hit Southeast Asia on December 26, 2004. Perhaps because of the unprecedented attention the Western media was paying to Thailand just then, hardcover reviews focused on the culture clash with the West and the effects of tourism on the native people. Reviewers from Salon, The Guardian (London), and The New York Times critiqued Lapcharoensap for clumsy or heavy-handed criticism of America.
“At the Café Lovely” and “Farangs” were particularly cited. In the former, the narrator takes a long-awaited bite of his first hamburger in the Western fast food restaurant his brother took him to for his birthday — and then vomits it up. In “Farangs,” (slang for foreigners) the teenage narrator watches Rambo movies, lusts after the American girls, and treasures his pet pig. It’s named Clint Eastwood and it’s the only real gift his American soldier father left behind. It’s not hard to see how reviewers might take such stories as overly obvious shots at the last remaining superpower.
Yet although many things about Sightseeing (including its title) seem to invite such a reading from Western audiences, it is significant that the titular sightseers are actually two Thais exploring their country. Reading the stories a year after the tsunami, the instances of culture clash come across as, first and foremost, explorations of character, not political critique.
To borrow a quote from the title story, “Thailand [is] only a paradise for fools and farangs, for criminals and foreigners.” Lapcharoensap carefully turns this equation around: America might appear to be paradise to a Thai, but that illusion always falls apart under closer scrutiny, just as do the other ideals of love, family, and personal honor. The book isn’t so much an indictment of the West as an exploration of how cultures can misinterpret each other and themselves. Unfortunately, this pain seems necessary: it is only when illusory paradises collapse that Lapcharoensap’s characters can discover the aching beauty of the real world.
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