Tuesday, April 19, 2005


Regarding Rattawut

For the past few months I've been writing the "First Fiction" column for the Los Angeles Times Book Review. Very fun, very enlightening, sometimes a little dangerous, like driving on a highway where everybody else has a learner's permit. Anyway, there have been a couple of occasions when scheduling snafus prevented me from writing about books I really liked. One example: Marina Lewycka's A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian. Another: Rattawut Lapcharoensap's Sightseeing. In the latter case, I had already written my shrimpy, ecstatic paragraphs before finding out that another reviewer at the paper had beaten me to the punch. But hey, why not post them here instead? Bombs away:

Almost anybody can tell a story. Beginning, middle, and end: these are the alphabet blocks whose architecture even a toddler soon learns to manipulate. What separates good fiction from the ocean of anecdote is voice--in Philip Roth's famous formulation, something that "begins at around the back of the knees and reaches well above the head." And the good news about Sightseeing is that the 26-year-old author already has this sort of linguistic voodoo at his beck and call. Doubters need only consult the first story, "Farangs." The word means foreigners in Thai, and neatly encapsulates the Lapcharoensap's bifurcated angle of attack: he was born in Chicago, raised in Bangkok, then educated back in the United States. What leaps off the page, however, is the zingy idiom of the young Thai narrator.

"This is how we count the days," he tells us. "June: the Germans come to the Island--football cleats, big T-shirts, thick tongues--speaking like spitting. July: the Italians, the French, the British, the Americans. The Italians like pad thai, its affinity with spaghetti. They like light fabrics, sunglasses, leather sandals. The French like plump girls, rambutans, disco music, baring their breasts."

This comical taxonomy goes on for some time before the meat of the story materializes: an unhappy menage a trois between a visiting American girl, the narrator, and his pet pig, whose name is Clint Eastwood. Now, Lapcharoensap is hardly the first writer to draw a bead on the collision of cultures, or on the steamrolling assault of Westernization. But it's the narrator's voice--eager, elliptical, and oddly poignant--that provides the real fireworks here. "Farangs" is one of the freshest pieces of storytelling I've read in a long time. Elsewhere, Lapcharoensap tends to be more sedate. Yet both the title story (which puts an affecting spin on the very notion of tourism) and "Don't Let Me Die in This Place" are nearly as impressive as "Farangs," and there's not a weak piece in the entire book--no small accomplishment for a first-timer. Attention, literary travelers: Sightseeing is not to be missed.

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