Swimming to Cambodia


Robert Bingham’s first novel, Lightning on the Sun, tells a story we’ve heard before. Revolving around Asher, a young American in Phnom Penh who stakes everything on a heroin deal only to have it turn on him, the book occupies a landscape of moral ambiguity previously mapped by Robert Stone, Ernest Hemingway, and Graham Greene. Bingham, it seems safe to say, was likely intimate with such territory; cofounder of the journal Open City and author of the 1997 story collection Pure Slaughter Value, he allegedly died of a heroin overdose last November at 33. Still, that tragic subtext cannot help the book transcend its influences, which echo through these pages like insistent whispers of what might have been.

Bingham’s account of Cambodia—where he spent two years as a reporter for the Cambodian Daily—deftly captures the shifting allegiances of a society in disarray, while his portrayals of Asher and his ex-girlfriend Julie evoke their lives with the unsentimental clarity of one who’s been there. Asher may consider himself a rebel angel, “a spiritualist and a Merchant Prince,” but he exists, in fact, in a state of perpetual suspension (between past and future, tourist and resident), a situation Bingham highlights by revealing virtually nothing of his background. This detached quality is further mirrored by the heroin, a present-tense drug if ever there was one. “It was a lethal, lethal thing,” Bingham writes, “perhaps the most ruinous of all delights. But inside the drug’s snug cocoon it was difficult to imagine the consequences.”

For all the vividness with which Bingham evokes his characters’ rootlessness, Lightning‘s alienation hardly rises to the level of, say, Stone’s Dog Soldiers (which it vaguely resembles), with its spiritual anguish at living in a godless universe. Instead, Asher and Julie drift along the surface of their experiences, taking risks from boredom as opposed to any crisis of the soul. This might work better if Lightning on the Sun were more intricately plotted, but Bingham relies on a loose web of coincidence, in which, again and again, we meet a character only to learn that he or she is connected to nearly everyone else in the book. Such a perspective may illustrate Bingham’s belief that “Asia is one large conflict of interest,” but ultimately it makes the narrative seem too neatly tied.

Were Lightning on the Sun a typical first novel, these might be problems we’d look for the author’s next book to resolve. But unlike most first novels, this one leaves us not with promise but with loss.