by Rattawut Lapcharoensap
ISBN: 0670063894

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A Review of: Sightseeing
by Antony Di Nardo

You approach a reading of Sightseeing, a collection of seven short stories by the young American-Thai writer, Rattawut Lapcharoensap, from two angles. At first, you're very much the voyeur, a peeping Tom, not leering at the scenes before you, but luxuriating in their lushness. It's hard not to gaze into Lapcharoensap's world, a contemporary Thailand that he peoples with ordinary individuals in extraordinary situations and lavishes with imagery that brings his scenes to vibrant life. Then, you enter his world as the tourist, the foreigner, a farang, and it makes you think, are we who we are because of where we are?
Lapcharoensap's characters might ask the same about themselves. In the final story, "Cockfighter", the one female narrator in the entire collection says, "for the first time I saw how helpless he actually was-this foreign boy cast into a foreign land to handle other people's chickens...." This, in a nutshell, captures Lapcharoensap's collective theme, that of individuals as farangs, who, whether native or foreign to this country, are forced to face the fact of their "otherness." The characters narrating these stories tell of their own alienation, their own foreign-ness to their native world. They are like that "foreign boy," recognizing that they belong to this world yet taking stock of it and seeing, sometimes for the very first time, that they don't fit in. And that realization is coupled with stoic acceptance.
These are first person, coming-of-age narratives where place-that space we occupy both in time and culture-and those brief, but lasting encounters shape our lives. In the story, "At the Caf Lovely", the narrator recalls the time when he was a mere eleven years old and visited a brothel with his older, teenaged brother. The story searches for meaning to the wild uncertainty of growing up, the adolescent yearning for acceptance. Through a screen of drugs and sex, fear and hopelessness, we see how tender yet muscular is the love between two brothers. In "Farangs", the opening story, a young "half-breed" living with his world-weary mother who has given up on ever seeing his American father again, takes a bikini-clad tourist on an elephant ride to the beach and then, seduced by her western charms, he "bonks her," against all his mother's warnings, right on the back of the elephant. There's a twist of irony here, or perhaps a meaningful parallel, given that earlier in the story we're told that all tourists ever want in Thailand are "pussy and elephants." However, the young man's infatuation quickly turns to disappointment when her all-American boyfriend reclaims her. He fails to heed his mother's advice that it's "girls without plane tickets" that he should be falling in love with.
Lapcharoensap's characters possess keen powers of observation. They throw themselves into their stories, raid the full cupboard of all five senses to describe city streets, the faded gloss of a brothel, the smell of fingers after sex, tastes and aromas in the kitchen, the sounds of silence or the sea at sunrise. Lapcharoensap chooses words that evoke a cinematic realism. His language brims with the sensuous and the reader is often plunged into the exotic, but not left breathless. The realities of pain and anguish, loss and longing, the injustices and disappointments of quotidian life in Thai society ignite and simmer beneath each of these stories, stories that are told with the wide-eyed clarity and vigour of a youthful voice.
As readers we are also sightseers traveling through this narrative world of South Asian culture. However, it is not with jaded eyes, like those of Michel Houellebecq's characters in Platform, immersed as they are in a hedonistic Thailand, that we look upon this world, but with a gentler, less cynical gaze. We experience the street-side culture of a different Thailand, as lived by young, not-yet-complicated men who resign themselves to its realities. And we are shown the natural beauty of its geography. In the title story, "Sightseeing", a son takes his mother on what may well be her last trip to an island paradise, to see "what all the fuss was about." She is going blind. As if to forestall the loss of sight, Lapcharoensap's language is especially image rich, visually euphoric. On a train they travel across "the slimmest part of the slimmest peninsula in the world." The earth is compared to a tightrope, their "train speeds across the flat thin wire," and on either side of them they see two oceans, the Indian and Pacific, "one eye blue, one eye brown."
That special relationship between a mother and son (or between mother and daughter as in "Cockfighter" and "Priscilla the Cambodian") is a feature of many of these stories. Mothers protect, advise, nurture, tease and discipline, and try to preserve the moral integrity of their children. Lapcharoensap casts them as a positive force in their sons' socialization. But most of all his mothers feel the pain of growing up, the loss of innocence and the anguish of separation. They fear that their children too will soon become farangs.
I enjoyed my tour through Sightseeing. Like any tourist, I could quibble about the weather or the overzealous locals, too eager to enchant. At times, Lapcharoensap's dialogues appear hurried, blatantly contrived, and some of his characters are flat, unrealized. The reader has to suspend belief and accept that these young men are wise beyond their years. But these are minor flaws compared to the journey he takes us on. The media has been gaga over this wunderkind of western letters. He's young, talented and there's every indication that he has a promising career as a writer ahead of him. The kudos have not been unjustified. In an interview in The Montreal Gazette he implied that he was lucky to have been published at all. I disagree with him -it had very little to do with luck.

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