Culture Vulture: reviews round-up

The critics' verdicts on Dave Eggers, James Shapiro and a history of anarchism.

Zeitoun by Dave Eggers

Although he has reservations, Harry Shearer in the New Statesman welcomes this book on Hurricane Katrina: "Eggers is blessed with a story Hollywood movie-makers would kill for". In the Guardian, Valerie Martin criticises the "queasy-making hagiographic tribute that occupies the first 80 or so pages of the book", only warming to it once she has seen "what Eggers is after -- nothing less than an indictment of the entire Bush era". In the Telegraph, Sameer Rahim concurs: "Eggers clearly wants his story to be a parable about the War on Terror"; but wonders if "Eggers's good intentions might come at the expense of balanced journalism". Robin Yassin-Kassab at the Independent is not perturbed, however: "Reminiscent of Gabriel García Márquez's documentaries, this is a true story told with the skills of a master of fiction", he writes.

The World That Never Was by Alex Butterworth

John Gray, the New Statesman's lead book reviewer, describes this account of turn-of-the-century anarchism as "riveting... teeming with intrigue and adventure and packed with the most astonishing characters". In the Times, Iain Finlayson praises "an intelligent political and social overview", and in the Independent, Sheila Rowbotham says the book "conveys the labyrinthine coils of conspirators and spies with graphic panache", even if it "leaves the reader puzzling over what exactly this world that never was actually meant to [its] protagonists." Christopher Howse of the Telegraph is less enamoured: "among the cast of Butterworth's sometimes bewildering narrative, too many simply disappear".

Contested Will by James Shapiro

Although "fully explaining the authorship controversy isn't a job for a Shakespearean scholar: it's a job for a pathologist", writes Michael Dobson in the Financial Times, the result "isn't just the most intelligent book on the topic for years, but a re-examination of the documentary evidence offered on all sides of the question." In the Times, John Carey finds that "Shapiro's book is unlikely to cut much ice" with conspiracy theorists. "All the same, it deserves to. It is authoritative, lucid and devastatingly funny". Hilary Mantel, writing in theGuardian, is impressed, too. Shapiro's "glinting, steely facts" are "the most riveting part of his book." She continues: "Shapiro is at his most combative when he engages with the autobiographical approach to Shakespeare studies... Self-revelation, Shapiro persuades us, was not an early modern mode."

"Contested Will" will be reviewed in a forthcoming edition of the New Statesman.

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The Sad Part Was: this story collection puts the real Bangkok on display

Thai author Prabda Yoon descends into the voices and minds of a small cast of characters.

In Bangkok’s budding literary scene, Prabda Yoon sits at the centre. Born in 1973, he’s the scion of a well-known family (his father Suthichai Sae-Yoon is the co-founder of the Nation newspaper) and is known in Thailand as not only an enfant terrible of letters but as an illustrator, screen-writer and director (his first film, Motel Mist, was shown at European festivals in 2016).

His reputation rests mainly on a collection of short stories published in 2000 entitled in Thai Kwam Na Ja Pen, roughly translated as Probability, and it is from this early collection that most of the stories now collected in The Sad Part Was are derived. Translated with cool elegance by Mui Poopoksakul, they are among the first modern Thai stories to be published in the UK.

As Poopoksakul points out in her afterword, she and Yoon are the products of similar backgrounds and epochs: upper-middle class children of Bangkok who came to consciousness in the late Eighties and Nineties. Often foreign-educated, fluent in English and conversant in global pop culture and media – Yoon did a stint at Parsons in New York after prep school at the Cambridge School of Weston – this new generation of Thai writers and artists were born into a society changing so fast that they had to virtually invent a new language to transcribe it.

In The Sad Part Was, the result is stories that one could glibly label as “post-modern” but which, in reality, perfectly match the qualities of the megacity where they are set. Bangkok is infamously mired in lurid contradiction, but it’s also a city of subtle and distorted moods that journalism and film have hitherto mostly failed to capture. The whimsical and playful surfaces of these stories have to be read against the high-octane anxieties and surreal dislocations of what was, until recently, one of the fastest-growing cities in the world.

Yoon uses the short form of the ten-page story to descend into the voices and minds of a small cast of characters: a schoolgirl and a beautiful female teacher who form a platonic lesbian infatuation while riding a daily bus in “Miss Space”; a couple making love during a thunderstorm whose activities are interrupted by the dismantling of two giant letters, which fall onto their roof in “Something in the Air”; a young man who meets a mysterious older man in Lumpini Park called Ei Ploang, who forces him to consider the intertwined nature of good and evil. In “Snow for Mother”, a mother waits for her little boy to grow up so that she can take him to Alaska to experience the real snow, which he never knew as a little boy in the tropics.

In “The Sharp Sleeper”, a man named Natee obsesses over losing his shirt buttons and is led into a strange reverie on the nature of dreams and the competing qualities of red and yellow pyjama shirts (Thailand’s political culture is riven by two parties popularly known as Red and Yellow Shirts). The commentary slips into effortless sarcasm:

Natee has proudly worn the red pyjama shirt several times since then, and his dream personality hasn’t altered at all. On the contrary, the shirt has encouraged him to become a man of conviction in his waking life. As to what those convictions were supposed to be, Natee wasn’t quite sure. But it was safe to say that a night shirt so principled wouldn’t drop a button so easily.

Since these stories were written, Bangkok’s political schizophrenia has lost its former air of apathy and innocence, but Yoon’s tone is quietly prescient about the eruption of violent irrationality a few years later. It’s a reminder how precious the subtlety of fiction is when set against the shrill certitudes of activism and reportage.

My favorite story here is “Something in the Air”. Its dialogues are written with hilariously archaic, bureaucratic formality, while delving into the disorientation of sexual and romantic hopes in the present century. After the couple’s love-making is interrupted, the young man suggests insolently to the woman that they resume in the open air, exposed to the furious elements. She agrees. They then notice that a dead body is lying on the roof nearby, crushed by the giant letters.

While waiting for the police to arrive, the woman sits quietly and describes her future, a happily married future in which her current lover will play no part whatsoever. He listens in melancholy astonishment until the couple are called to give their testimonies about the dead man. The officers then suspect that the couple themselves have done something scandalous – and so, stung by shame, the woman considers breaking off the relationship and setting in motion her own prophesy.

The Sad Part Was is unique in the contemporary literature of Bangkok – it doesn’t feature bar girls, white men, gangsters or scenes redolent of The Hangover Part II. Instead it reveals, sotto voce, the Thai voices that are swept up in their own city’s wild confusion and energy, and it does so obliquely, by a technique of partial revelation always susceptible to tenderness.

Lawrence Osborne is a British novelist living in Bangkok. His next book, “Beautiful Animals”, will be published by Hogarth in August

The Sad Part Was
Prabda Yoon
Tilted Axis Press, 192pp, £8.99

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder