Reviews Round-up

The critics' verdicts on Junot Diaz, Naomi Wolf and Pat Barker.

This Is How You Lose Her by Junot Díaz

“Junot Díaz’s short story collection is so sharp, so bawdy, so raw with emotion, and so steeped in the lingo and rhythms of working-class Latino life that it makes most writing that crosses the Atlantic seem hopelessly desiccated by comparison,” effuses Sukhdev Sandhu in the Telegraph. “This Is How You Lose Her could have been an exercise in ghetto picaresque, a kind of Latino Shameless… But Díaz – so acute, so dexterous – is more ambitious than that. He has the ability not only to make you laugh, but to wince with pain, to feel that you’re being offered tender X-rays into social worlds that are too often ignored by the gatekeepers of mass media.” Sandhu makes sure to emphasise the key role that language plays in the book: “Díaz is both a minimalist – scraping, chiselling, honing his prose into its flinty essence – and a maximalist who’s capable of code switching, flipping between the colloquial and the highbrow, creating a taut lexical calabash made up of Caribbean phrases, black American vernacular and the playful pugilism of urban street banter.”

Sarah Hall’s review in the Guardian also picks out the language as the defining characteristic of This is How You Lose Her, in particular the narrative style of Yunior, the protagonist, which she calls “a mixture of identities and languages, Spanish slang, English slang, sci-fi, highbrow, street, Ameri-vario-cana. He's also extremely funny,” she adds “and, though frequently pitiful, is not self-pitying.” Hall believes that the most affecting narratives in the collection are those told in the second person, which she acknowledges might have been “a potentially overpowering device in the hands of a lesser writer,” but in the capable hands of Díaz become “a masterpiece of skill and sensitivity, which makes full use of this mode's fascinating inside-out quality.”

Toby’s Room by Pat Barker

Toby’s Room, the latest novel from Pat Barker, has been largely praised by the critics. “Her prose remains fresh, humanely business-like, crisp and unsentimental,” writes Freya Johnston in the Telegraph. “Images are scrupulously vivid, and the plot has real momentum. One strength of her writing, suggested by her title, is the description of spaces and buildings – including the cathedral-like structures of the dissected human body.”

Leyla Sanai at the Independent thinks that the value of Toby’s Room lies in Barker’s ability to convincingly depict plausibly flawed characters, as well as her refusal to paint situations as black and white. “As well as the more monumental themes, Barker conveys ordinary lives with skill,” she says, before going on to write that “in Barker's fiction, nothing is clear-cut – people are a mix of good and bad; destructive wars are fought for laudable aims. And facts… are multi-faceted and eroded by recall and subjectivity.”

The book follows on from 2007’s Life Class, giving the reader a chance to follow the fortunes of the young artists that Barker portrayed so vividly then. But Hermione Lee, writing in the Guardian, thinks that “Toby's Room is not treated as a sequel, and the connection between the two novels is a bit awkward, with earlier relationships and events having to be clumsily back-filled. Barker has never been a thrilling stylist, and can often sound ordinary… But you don't go to her for fine language, you go to her for plain truths, a driving storyline and a clear eye, steadily facing the history of our world. In these respects, Toby's Room doesn't disappoint.”

Vagina: A New Biography by Naomi Wolf

In the New Statesman’s review of Naomi Wolf’s latest offering, Helen Lewis discovers that Wolf’s return to feminism is not much more than a combination of pseudoscience and psychobabble that doesn’t quite work together. “The frontiers of western science are represented as underscoring the ancient insights of mystics, preferably eastern ones,” she explains. “Although it doesn’t seem too unreasonable to suggest that a chronically bad sex life can affect your overall mood, often the science and self-help make uncomfortable bedfellows.” Lewis concedes that Wolf does have some valid points to make: “the section on the use of mass rape in war zones to dispirit and control the female population is both tragic and insightful… It’s a more sympathetic view than the 'all men have the potential to be rapists' approach and seems more likely to be true.” Ultimately, however, she remains unimpressed and disappointed with the direction Naomi Wolf has decided to take in this latest work. “Reading this book left me downcast. Has the Naomi Wolf I loved in The Beauty Myth really drowned in a soup of psychobabble about 'energies' and 'activating the Goddess array'? It seems so.”

Melanie McGrath’s review in the Telegraph picks out a further problem with the book. “Vagina is to be admired for its clear-minded and persuasive synthesis of new research on female sexuality, but by dividing the book into sections dealing, respectively, with 'misunderstandings', 'social control' and “the modern pressures desensitising men and women to the vagina”, Wolf sets up the vagina as essentially problematic and by pointing the finger at those of us with 'unliberated vaginas' she introduces yet another standard against which we women are judged and exhaustingly judge ourselves.”

Junot Diaz's short story collection has been well received by critics. Photograph: Getty Images.
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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