The seven short stories in this collection about Westerners in Thailand range from the sordid to the humorous. Several are cautionary tales featuring culture clash, drug use, and girlies bars.
The stories themselves are quirky, with an often interesting take through the viewpoint of both jaded and more innocent visitors to Thailand. Unfortunately, they somewhat lack in hooks to draw the reader in and rely too much on rather unsurprising twists. The prose, structure, and often even the spelling, could have been significantly improved with some professional editing. A vaguely interesting and quick read for those interested in the subject matter, but not much further.
In 1990s Bangkok, thirty-seven-year-old British travel journalist Pete walks into Zombie, a go-go bar in the infamous Nana Plaza red-light district. Dancing naked on the stage is Joy, a twenty-one-year-old girl from Isaan, the poorest region of Thailand. Pete is immediately smitten. He barfines Joy, and from that moment on they are drawn into a passionate relationship which they both misunderstand. Joy sees Pete as someone who can take care of her and her family financially. Pete is attracted to Joy the bar girl, but he also wants Joy the innocent and cute girl he can spend the rest of his life with. Despite being able to act all cutesy, whether Joy can fit into the latter stereotype is an open question. Pete doesn’t like that Joy sleeps with other foreigners for money, but he seems unwilling to commit to the relationship fully, wanting her to wait until he can figure stuff out. Joy does not see the problem with constantly asking for money from Pete, as being well-off confers status, and besides, she has no sense of fiscal responsibility, spending money as soon as she gets it. Under the cynical eye of friends, relatives, and acquaintances on both sides of the cultural divide, Joy and Pete dance around each other, love, argue, fight, and reconcile, in a vicious and tragic cycle.
The novel is a fascinating study of cross-cultural communications and interaction. Despite spending a long time in the country, and speaking some Thai, Pete misunderstands Joy’s point of view from the start. His jaded friends more or less correctly point out that as a bargirl, Joy is only interested in him as a means of financial security, and how can he expect a girl who has sex for money to be trustworthy. On the other hand, Joy does not understand why Pete is being so obtuse and often feels offended about him trying to control her, with his apparent view that he should “save” her from sex work, something that has been extremely lucrative for her. She is clearly fond of him but fondness and love do not mean the same things for her as they do to him. Growing up in abject poverty, and working as a sex worker since she was a teenager, she sees love as a man taking care of her financially, and she in return taking care of him. Romantic emotional attachment is not necessary for her, or perhaps more accurately is not bound to some Western ideal of star-stricken lovers. She seems quite ready to confer her affections to someone who treats her well and brings her security, though it is hinted that Pete is indeed special to her. Pete, a blundering water buffalo by Thai cultural standards, misinterprets Joy’s loving behaviour as that of a Western girl. But in Thai culture, the subtext is supremely important. A person may be smiling and positive, but the real meaning of their behaviour is tucked away in a complex set of cues readily accessible only to those with the background to interpret them.
The tragic core of the story is that Joy and Pete really do love each other, in their own ways, but seem unable to resolve their differences and move on to a future together. This despite the often unexpectedly helpful and understanding advice from Pete’s Greek Chorus of friends, a collection of “old Thailand hands”.
The story deals with a particular subset of Thai society, the dark world of sex work and related crime, and is not necessarily representative of Thai culture as a whole. That being said, it is a case study in cultural misunderstandings, many of which regularly occur in the wider interactions between Thais and Westerners. Some book critics suggested, rather seriously, that this book should be given out for free to young tourists arriving in the country, and it is easy to see why.
The use of multiple narrators with varying backgrounds works extremely well for the narrative. Some old Thailand hands are cynical almost beyond belief about Thailand, but you can see their point of view. Others, especially Joy’s older sister, are also cynical almost beyond belief about foreigners, but again, you can see their point of view. Pete and Joy typically see the same events in completely different ways. The narrators’ understanding of events is often incomplete, jaded, and even perhaps unreliable, but it all weaves a complex web of what, in the end, is a story of two lovers that the reader would love to end up together.
Bangkok in the 22nd century. In a post-hydrocarbon economy, rising oceans are kept at bay by seawalls and pumps. Genetic engineering has unleashed disastrous mutations, regularly generating deadly plagues. The world would starve except for the powerful American calorie companies, selling rice and grain to the world; sterile so that the customer remains dependent. Calories are everything, with humans and modified elephants generating power stored in springs for use in everything from ceiling fans to scooters. Gone is the old “Expansion economy”. Skyscrapers, deprived of the ease of powered elevators, have become slums.
The Kingdom of Thailand seems to have retained a seed bank from before the collapse; an invaluable treasure in a world where crops regularly fail and succumb to ever-evolving blights. Undercover as a Western industrialist, “Calorie Man” Anderson Lake is on a mission to find it and unlock its secrets. Meanwhile, the Thai Environment Ministry and Trade Ministry clash. One protects the crops and people from outside influence, while the other seeks outside contacts. It is a natural rivalry, and in this fierce, bleak and cruel future, the rivalry frequently degenerates into violence.
Emiko is a Japanese “windup girl”, a genetically created “New Person”, an artificial but fully sentient pseudo-human created to aid the aging Japanese population. She is reviled by the Thais, who see her as an abomination and would gladly kill her on sight. Abandoned by her master when he returned to Japan, she must now work in a brothel, shown off as a perverse oddity. She was created to aid humanity, but ironically humanity’s creation is the unexpected chaos element which inadvertently lays waste to the best-laid plans. On the nose, perhaps, but an excellent metaphor.
The world-building is stupendous, deep and intricate. While the reader can certainly poke holes in the logic of the technological infrastructure, in particular the ubiquitous ultra-powerful springs, and the ecosystem sending energy into them, these work well as a plot device. The restricted first-person perspective of the chapters forces the reader to immerse himself in the world and its bleak, fatalistic nature.
The heritage and tropes of past colonialism and its perhaps inevitable resurgence as the world once again grows more connected is a strong theme. Are certain cultures more prone to imperialist ambitions? What are the costs and benefits for cultures with natural resources to open up to those who seek to exploit them? What is the cost of internal division in the face of external pressure? Can either party learn from past mistakes, or are they just fueling a spiral into destruction?
The novel is full of astute and insightful observations of Thai and Chinese culture, as well as the behaviour of Westerners in East and Southeast Asia. An oftentimes depressing read, but a very impressive novel that stays with the reader for a long time.