One of the most widely reviewed debuts of the year, Sightseeing is a masterful story collection by an award-winning young author. Set in contemporary Thailand, these are generous, radiant tales of family bonds, youthful romance, generational conflicts and cultural shiftings beneath the glossy surface of a warm, Edenic setting. Written with exceptional acuity, grace and sophistication, the stories present a nation far removed from its exoticized stereotypes. In the prize-winning opening story "Farangs," the son of a beachside motel owner commits the cardinal sin of falling for a pretty American tourist. In the novella, "Cockfighter," a young girl witnesses her proud father's valiant but foolhardy battle against a local delinquent whose family has a vicious stranglehold on the villagers. Through his vivid assemblage of parents and children, natives and transients, ardent lovers and sworn enemies, Lapcharoensap dares us to look with new eyes at the circumstances that shape our views and the prejudices that form our blind spots. Gorgeous and lush, painful and candid, Sightseeing is an extraordinary reading experience, one that powerfully reveals that when it comes to how we respond to pain, anger, hurt, and love, no place is too far from home.
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Rattawut Lapcharoensap was born in Chicago in 1979 and raised in Bangkok. He was educated at Triamudomsuksa Pattanakarn, Cornell University and the University of Michigan, where he received an MFA in Creative Writing. He currently lives in Brooklyn, New York. Sightseeing (2005) is his first book.In 2007 he was named as one of Granta's Best Young American Novelists.From The Washington Post:
The story that opens Rattawut Lapcharoensap's remarkable debut collection, Sightseeing, is at first glance about the ugly sprawl of America across the globe. A boy about 18, whose mother owns a hotel on an island resort in Thailand, watches "Rambo: First Blood Part II," calls his pet pig Clint Eastwood and falls in love with young American women on vacation, the "Farangs" of the story's title who keep breaking his heart. Another "farang" (foreigner) broke his mother's heart -- the boy's father, who stayed around for a few years after he was born, but who finally went home and never came back.
The story might become black-and-white in the hands of a lesser writer, a morality tale of America as evil empire, but Lapcharoensap's writing is much more colorful and human than that. The Americans are not redeemed, but they are complex. It was his father who bought him Clint Eastwood years before, after the narrator cried when he saw live piglets at a fresh market and connected them with the pigs he saw roasting outside resort restaurants. The story ends with his heart inevitably broken, and, yet, as he sits in a tree watching his latest American fling and her friends chase the pig in a game that turns ugly, and he begins pelting them with mangoes, there is regret mixed in with his sense of anger and justice -- he doesn't want it to end this way.
This regret -- at the world's ugliness, and the way in which we become wrapped up in that ugliness -- is present in many of the stories in Sightseeing. Almost all the narrators are people in their teens or early twenties who get a dose of the world's realities: a boy who looks back on a time before he and his brother abandoned his mother in "At the Café Lovely"; another, in "Draft Day," who uncomfortably watches his friend get drafted into the military, knowing that his own parents have pulled strings so he won't have to go. The naiveté of these young characters is part of the stories' power. You see human failings through their fresh eyes. Their vision of the world becomes tainted -- a reality the stories do not ignore. But our vision becomes clearer.
Yet Lapcharoensap does not ignore the beauty that can be found in people, even in dire circumstances. A Bangkok boy in "Priscilla the Cambodian" makes friends with the girl of the title, a young refugee living in a shantytown nearby, which his father blames for their deteriorating neighborhood. Her teeth are capped with gold -- with bombs falling on Phnom Penh, her father, a dentist, had the family gold smelted and crowned each tooth. "When she smiled it sometimes looked like that little girl had swallowed the sun," Lapcharoensap writes. When the boy's father helps burn down the camp, Priscilla gives her ashamed friend a gift. A tooth is loose, and before he can stop her, she "was already working away at that incisor, wobbling it back and forth with a thumb and a forefinger, her face contorted in pain and concentration. . . . And then with a strong, vigorous gesture she got the tooth free at last. . . . 'And this is for you,' she said, wiping the tooth clean on her pants, handing me the thing." That beautiful gesture sticks in my mind more than the burning of her village.
As the stories progress, the similarities in people are as evident as their differences. The lovely title story -- about a mother visiting the sights of Thailand before she goes blind, and her son wondering how he can possibly pursue his plans to go away to university -- could be about any working-class parents intent on making their children's lives better than their own. As the resentment builds about the Cambodian shantytown where Priscilla lives, I am reminded of other immigrant groups who have been hated and blamed, and how sadly predictable is that human tendency to push down others when struggling yourself.
Perhaps Lapcharoensap's own background lends his stories this feeling -- he was born in Chicago, raised in Bangkok and studied in both Thailand and the United States. A new Bangkok housing development in one story feels at times like a working-class American suburb -- the boys ride their bikes, worry about whether they'll ever get any girls and say "awesome." By having them use the English word, rather than its Thai equivalent, Lapcharoensap collapses these worlds -- people speaking a different language aren't always as foreign as they seem.
Lapcharoensap's writing is both elegant and vivid. When occasionally his stories seem too perfectly sculpted, I wonder if the problem is reading too many at once. When I come back to them, their characters and images again seem alive.
As an epigraph, he uses this quote from a French history of Thailand, once called Siam, from the 17th century: "It is no wonder if the Siamese are not in any great care about their Subsistence, and if in the evening there is heard nothing but singing in their houses." Lapcharoensap shows how people of the world are most certainly in "great care about their Subsistence," but we hear the singing, too.
Reviewed by Carole Burns
Copyright 2005, The Washington Post Co. All Rights Reserved.
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