Sightseeing: Many Ways of Seeing

Cover of SightseeingTitle: Sightseeing

Author: Rattawut Lapcharoensap

Publication Year: 2005

LC Call Number: PS3612 .A59S54

This is a collection of short stories set in Thailand. I was not surprised to find that the author is both Thai and American—he was born in Chicago, raised in Thailand, and now lives in New York. All the stories but one center Thai characters, but there are certainly American elements to it as well.

There are eight stories in this collection, all in first person and most of them about young Thai men. “Farangs” is about a young man’s ill-advised fling with an American tourist. “At the Café Lovely” is about a young boy who accompanies his older brother to a depressing brothel and watches him get high on paint fumes. The main character in “Draft Day” is a young man from a wealthy family who feels guilty about the way his family takes advantage of local corruption to keep him out of the draft. “Sightseeing” is quite moving; it is the story of a young man whose mother is going blind. He takes her on a trip so that she can see some sights before she loses her vision entirely. “Priscilla the Cambodian” is about prejudice—some Cambodian refugees move into a town, and while the protagonist may befriend a young girl, the refugees are not greeted kindly. “Don’t Let Me Die in this Place” sets a different tone entirely; it’s told from the point of view of an old American man living in Thailand with his family. His son’s wife is Thai and his grandchildren do not speak English, so he must struggle with both the language barrier and his own prejudices. Finally, “Cockfighter,” by far the longest story in the collection, is a story told from the point of view of a teenage girl about the mob in her town and how they have set out to ruin her father’s life.

As the short summaries above may hint, each of the stories has a different flavor, and each of the protagonists has a different personality. “Sightseeing” and “Cockfighter” were probably my favorite, because the voices of the narrators were so strong and stood out from the others. Reading the stories as a collection, I was very aware of Lapcharoensap’s versatility; reading one story does not allow the reader to predict the outcome of another. The first three stories in the collection prepare you for dysfunctional families, not the deep bond between the young man and his mother in “Sightseeing.” “Priscilla the Cambodian” provides a terrifying depiction of racist violence, but is followed up by Perry’s slightly more benign racism in “Don’t Let Me Die in this Place.” Perry acts like a jerk to his family in a lot of ways, but the reader is also invited to sympathize with his isolation and his frustration with his dependence on them. Reading his story, one expects disaster (well, we’ve seen enough of it) and is pleasantly surprised when, in fact, everything is okay. In “Cockfighter,” the disaster cannot be escaped, but maybe it can be survived. Even “Draft Day” offers a change from what came before; the prior two stories are about people who are struggling through difficult circumstances. “Draft Day,” though, pays attention to a specific problem from the point of view of one who is lucky enough to benefit from it, someone privileged, someone who suffers primarily from guilt. The collection does a remarkable job of showing a range of human experiences.

The language, too, varies noticeably from one story to another. There’s certainly humor: in “Farangs,” the main character attempts to persuade his uncle that his American girlfriend should be allowed to ride an elephant while wearing a bikini, to which the uncle replies,

“Need I remind you, boy, that the elephant is our national symbol?… What if I went to her country and rode a bald eagle in my underwear? … How would she like it?”

(This is the point at which I began to suspect that the author was an American; who else would realize that this is hilarious?) Evocative descriptions, too, are part of Lapcharoensap’s repertory, and “Sightseeing” in particular is full of them:

The flame of the oil lantern gets smaller and smaller and soon it is merely a pinprick against the dark night. It’s my mother walking on water, I think. It moves sideways now, moves along the bottom of the dark shadow across the bay, comes to a resting place. It’s my mother on an island with no name.

He is also good at capturing the voices of specific characters; this stands out most in “Don’t Let Me Die in This Place,” which is in first person. The main character is a slightly exaggerated portrayal of a certain type of white American man:

That’s the last I’ll probably ever see of him. Because I’m lying here now six weeks later in this bed, in this hot, mosquito-infested, god-forsaken country, thousands of miles away from ever seeing another Orioles game, with two grandchildren I can barely talk to, a daughter-in-law who mocks my paralysis during mealtimes, and a son who seems indifferent to my plight, all of them sleeping soundly in this house, dreaming their nice little dreams, and I’m so pissed off I’m making a fist in the dark with my good left hand.

(No, we don’t really feel sorry for this guy.)

Good writing is really important for short stories, because when the reader may not have time to get deeply invested in the characters or the story, the writing becomes the means by which readers are pulled in. Laprcharoensap definitely delivers on this front.

“Cockfighter” feels very different from the other stories in the book. It’s much longer and would perhaps be more accurately described as a novella than a short story. Because of its length, it’s much more complex than any of the others.

There’s a lot going on in “Cockfighter.” It’s told in first person through the eyes of Ladda, a young woman who lives in a small village. The cockfighter is her father, who is locked into a struggle against the corrupt thugs who run the town and who are determined to destroy him for having shown them up, and more, for resisting them. Little Jui, the son of the most powerful of these thugs, harasses Ladda when she is outside of her house and in fact, goes so far as to track her down at home. Ladda’s father is determined not to give up cockfighting or leave town, even though it is clear that the consequences will be disastrous. Ladda’s parents fight. Ladda and her friend fight. All the relationships in the novella are stressed or disintegrating; as things get worse, each of the characters becomes more and more isolated. So, the story’s about a lot of things: the hopelessness of being on the wrong side of the powerful, the specific hardships faced by young women, the experience of poverty in a family, and most of all, the emotional reactions that cause people to behave in ways that will clearly have adverse consequences for them later but that nevertheless feel inevitable. I’ve made the story sound very depressing and I guess it is, but the characters felt very real to me and the plot was fascinating. It’s probably my favorite of this collection.

In any case, I started reading this book on something of a whim, not knowing anything about it, and I’m glad I did. Lapcharoensap is an excellent writer.

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Filed under Literary thoughts, Short stories

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