In the Critics this week

Geoffrey Wheatcroft on the crisis of Zionism, Stuart Maconie on the Smiths, Helen Lewis on Fifty Shades, Kate Mossman on pop music's nerds and John Sutherland on English studies.

The leader in this week’s New Statesman warns that the window of opportunity for a “two-state solution” to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is increasingly imperilled. Many figures on both sides of the debate have moved towards favouring a single binational, secular state. In the Critics section, Geoffrey Wheatcroft reviews Peter Beinart’s book The Crisis of Zionism, which charts the former New Republic editor’s increasing disenchantment with Israel - typical of the problematic relationship between American Jews and Israel. Wheatcroft writes: “The settler and Palestinian populations are now so mixed up that a rational and fair partition is practically impossible.” Beinart remains a Zionist who believes that “the Jewish people deserve a state dedicated to their protection in their historic land” and as such, Wheatcroft observes, makes for a rather unlikely dissident. But a gulf has opened, Wheatcroft writes, “between the broadly liberal Jewish-American mainstream and the ferociously, uncritically pro-Israeli official “Jewish establishment””. In many ways, the reaction to Zionism means we have come full circle, Wheatcroft writes. “A hundred years ago Zionism was an esoteric doctrine, little understood by most Gentiles and of little appeal to most Jews”. Wheatcroft notes that Beinart belongs to a line of thinking which believes “that there was a decent Zionism and a decent Israel in the state’s early decades when it was ruled by Labour” – a view that Wheatcroft is keen to dispel.

Wheatcroft also examines Norman Finkelstein’s Knowing Too Much. Finkelstein writes that the problem for American Jews is that they “can no longer reconcile their liberalism with what they have come to know about the Israel-Palestine conflict”. Wheatcroft finds that Finkelstein makes for a vexing writer, “who treats fraught or delicate topics such as Zionism or what he calls the 'Holocaust industry' in a sarcastic and rebarbative tone”. But Finkelstein does remind us that “the triumph of Israel was once not only a source of healing pride for American Jews but paradoxically made it easier for them to remain American”. “Gradually, from being a boon, Israel has become a burden for many Jews,” Wheatcroft observes. 
 
Also in Books, Stuart Maconie reviews Johnny Rogan’s Morrissey and Marr: the Severed Alliance – 20th Anniversary Edition. Rogan’s 1992 biography of the Smiths “astonished most with its Herculean endeavour”, despite having one especially prominent critic – Morrissey. Twenty years later, Maconie still finds the book “the definitive if daunting account of the most romantically mythic band of those times”. Given Morrissey’s mythologising approach to his upbringing, Rogan takes an almost paleontological approach to the Smiths’ prehistory, tackling the group’s family histories in detail. And while Morrissey’s brushes with scandal today border on the absurd, “Rogan reminds us of how genuinely subversive the Smiths were at the time, both musically and ideologically”. Most telling, perhaps, is how the Smiths’ “tortured, arcane financial arrangements underpin the whole narrative”. Far from a story of artistic detachment, “there is much that reads like accountancy here,” Maconie writes, with “many a page given to bank statements, receipts and the labyrinthine ways that the money was (unevenly) split between the members”.
 
Also in the Critics, John Sutherland wonders if change has been good for university English studies. “Centrality is the principal issue,” Sutherland writes. “Departments of English now occupy a position in the university constellation comparable to Uranus in the collar system.” Universities caused political alarm through the 1960s and 1970s as centres of protest. “One way to bring them to heel was to use funding as a short leash drawn throttlingly tight”, Sutherland observes, “less for frugality than to show who was in charge”. Extra-departmental management followed, aimed at introducing “that idolised thing at the time, 'competition'”. The mandatory PhD for entry-level academics and field specialism have produced a shift in which “a subject that had hitherto fostered the undoctored jack of all trades gradually fragmented into a mosaic of doctored specialists”. Heavy undergraduate fees have merely capped off what Sutherland sees as the inexorable deterioration of English studies.
 
In this week’s Critic At Large essay, Helen Lewis looks at how E L James's erotic bestseller Fifty Shades of Grey can be better understood as a throwback to the 18th century. Lewis looks back to 1740, with the publication of Pamela by Samuel Richardson – the first bestseller. Just as James’s work began life in the “slash fiction” genre, with its inferior and feminine associations, Richardson worked “in the upstart novel genre at a time when the heroic couplets of Alexander Pope were regarded as literature’s finest form”. And in many ways, the tame sex and minimalist plotting make Fifty Shades a deeply conventional story. “The “mummy porn” label applied by the media might not be as dismissive as it initially sounds”, Lewis writes.
 
Also in the Critics, Kate Mossman looks at how a generation of nerds is writing music for grown-ups. “Interesting things happen at the point where ambition meets anonymity”, Mossman writes, “you can be a fully formed artistic product before the world even knows you exist”. Mossman examines the Belgian-born Australian singer-songwriter Gotye, responsible for the biggest-selling song in the world this year – “Somebody That I Used To Know”. Gotye spent his twenties living in a former family home in Melbourne “rent-free, tooling around with vintage synths to his heart’s content”. Gotye, along with Kimbra and Monáe – musicians who sound like 1980s pop stars – have been defined above all by an isolated upbringing.  The reach of the internet and laptop technology mean “there’s a new route for the old-fashioned pop star”. It’s all about perfectionism, Mossman argues: “The more nerdy you are, the more artistic control you retain. The penniless, jack-of-all trades musician can take punk’s DIY ethic and reach the world with it now”.
 
Elsewhere in the Critics: Suzy Klein on the great conductors; Yo Zushi on the rise of David Bowie; Leo Robson on Dana Spiotta’s Stone Arabia; Rachel Cooke on Wallander; Antonia Quirke on the final broadcast from Bush House; Ryan Gilbey reviews the latest Batman film, and Will Self is seduced by his new smartphone.
 
One half of a severed alliance: Morrissey (Photo: Getty Images)
Photo: Prime 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