Friday, November 29, 2013

The Book You Have to Read:
“Siam,” by Lily Tuck

(Editor’s note: This is the 131st entry in our ongoing series about great but forgotten books. Today’s essay comes from Jame DiBiasio, the author of Gaijin Cowgirl, a thriller published by Crime Wave Press [Hong Kong, 2013], available in paperback, as well as for the Kindle and the Nook. He is also the author of a non-fiction work, The Story of Angkor [Silkworm Books, Chiang Mai, 2013]. When he’s not penning fiction, DiBlasio is a financial journalist based in Hong Kong. He blogs at Asia Hacks.)

I was lucky to find what was probably the last hardcover copy of Siam to be sold in an Asian bookstore. I don’t remember when I scored it--probably in the late 1990s, on one of my trips through Bangkok’s decrepit Don Muang, a clapped-out airport of sickly green floor tiles and odors that didn’t let you forget you were in Thailand. But it had, by airport standards, a generously eclectic bookstore.

You will not find Siam in the new Bangkok international airport, Suvarnabhumi, a series of senseless, dim, concrete caverns designed for mass tourism. There is no bookshop, just a few crammed shelves in one duty-free outlet.

The full name of the book is Siam: or The Woman Who Shot a Man, a title that reflects author Lily Tuck’s obsessions with women suffering from dislocation and loss. It is not an orthodox crime novel, but it fits as comfortably among noir works as it does in literary fiction.

The protagonist, Claire, is a young, naïve American, just married, who follows her husband to Bangkok in 1967. Although at first the expat life is fun and luxurious, Claire can’t quite get the hang of it. Nor can she understand her husband James’ work as some kind of advisor to the U.S. government, though his late nights and absences lengthen as the war in Vietnam escalates.

Tuck weaves in a historical figure, Jim Thompson, an American who founded the modern silk industry in Thailand and mysteriously disappeared in the Malaysian highlands, probably on some kind of errand for the CIA. Tuck’s fictional Claire is mesmerized by the cultured and dynamic Thompson, and his vanishing sparks her descent into paranoia. The expat idyll devolves into conspiracy and violence, and her story becomes a meditation on America’s involvement in Asia.

Tuck keeps the story on track. Her eye for detail is precise but subtle. The experience is immersive, the crescendo of tension consistent, the outcome dark, the ambiguity frustrating.

Given that Don Muang was the U.S. logistics hub for its war in Vietnam, it was as good as good a place as any to have discovered this 1999 novel. Bangkok has moved on, but I still remember Siam and its moody distillation of blundering and fear. It is the American answer to Graham Greene’s The Quiet American and it deserves a bigger audience.

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