Summer Guide: Lawrence Osbourne Pursues Redeemable Vulgarity in Bangkok Days


‘If you let people do what they want, then you get what exists in Bangkok: sexual mayhem,” says Lawrence Osborne, with a roguish gleam in his eye. We’re discussing his newest book, Bangkok Days, which is subtitled A Sojourn in the Capital of Pleasure. Yet instead of providing a detailed chronicle of sexual profligacy, the book dares to suggest the relative innocence of Thai sex tourism: “Intentionally or otherwise,” Osborne writes, “the East/West encounter is nearly always redeemed by being slightly comical.”

Over a double espresso, Osborne mentions his respect for Michel Houellebecq, whose 2003 novel Platform—a misanthropic tale of sex and death in Thailand—was greeted with hisses from the American press. “Houellebecq’s book was an attack on the idea of sexual liberation,” he says in an elegant British accent. “The West boasts about being liberated, yet the premise of Western culture is that you stimulate sexual desire to the nth degree, then make it impossible to consummate.” It’s this frustration, in part, that accounts for the number of aging male farangs (i.e., Westerners) sipping gin and tonics on the balconies of Bangkok’s opulent hotels, waiting for nightfall.

Bangkok Days, due out in June, is Osborne’s sixth book. It arrives in the wake of 2006’s The Naked Tourist, a sensual romp through India and Southeast Asia fraught with medical mishaps and epiphanies on the nature of travel. A New York City resident for the past 17 years, Osborne first traveled to Bangkok in 1990. He returned frequently for the inexpensive health care, and on assignments for The New York Times Magazine, for whom he has written articles on psychiatry and medicine. He has since established himself as a kind of romantic anthropologist: following his characters into dissipation, then rising from the ooze and appraising them—and himself—with a lucid, journalistic eye.

Who are his characters? Certainly not the young hedonists of Alex Garland’s The Beach. “The young are happy,” Osborne says, “and I’m not interested in that. I’m more interested in what happens when people hit this weird invisible wall and give up hope.” Hence the adorably lascivious old men that populate Bangkok Days. Dennis, a retired bank manager from Australia, spends his time painting watercolors and purchasing underpriced Viagra. Of sex with a young Thai woman (named, incidentally, Porntip), he confesses: “It’s pleasure, not happiness, but I am happy with that—if you see what I mean.” Farlo, a foul-mouthed, bullet-headed Scotsman, keeps an eco-lodge in a mine-riddled region of Cambodia, where he takes his two or three annual tourists deer hunting with ex-members of the Khmer Rouge.

Osborne uses these men, as W.G. Sebald used his own alienated wanderers, to explore the idea of loneliness and the disappearance of the past. Bangkok—home of the largest sex-change facility in the world, where shrines rot in the shadows of iPod billboards and the Beverly Hills Polo Club—is an ideal place for him to observe. What he finds startling is how happy—or, at least, content—his expatriates appear to be. Westerners move to Bangkok, he writes, not only for the “culture of complete physicality,” but “precisely because they can never understand it.” For lost souls, he implies, losing oneself in an arcane environment may be just as valuable as finding oneself.

Bangkok holds for Osborne the sort of mystical power that Greece held for Henry Miller, who, in The Colossus of Maroussi, celebrated the country’s “passion, contradictoriness, confusion, chaos.” Osborne works in the same lineage as Miller; he has the same man-in-the-street sensibility, interest in ugliness, and mad enthusiasm for life. But he’s more restrained than the author of Tropic of Cancer, content to leave elliptical the rowdier bacchanals he must have witnessed. The book loses none of its strength through these omissions—instead, they reveal the amount of respect Osborne holds for the “chaotic ease” of Bangkok, which has nourished, in one way or another, so many of his fellow exiles.

North Point Press, 271 pp., $25

Summer Book Picks

Heavy Rotation: Twenty Writers on the Albums That Changed Their Lives
Edited by Peter Terzian, June

Ever wondered what effect the Who’s Quadrophenia had on James Wood’s literary criticism? If not, it’s still worth watching him apply his gift for exegesis to the band’s 1973 concept album. (Keith Moon’s drumming, for example, “seems like a form of dedicated vandalism.”) Also here: Joshua Ferris on Pearl Jam’s Ten, Colm Tóibín on Joni Mitchell’s Blue, Pankaj Mishra on ABBA’s Super Trouper, and many others. Harper Perennial, 320 pp., $14.99

By Nick Reding, June

It’s estimated that more than 26 million people worldwide are addicted to crystal meth—widely considered to be the most dangerous drug on earth. Nick Reding—whose previous book, The Last Cowboys at the End of the World, documented the death of the Patagonian gaucho’s way of life—spent four years in Oelwein, Iowa (pop. 6,159), documenting the town’s meth-influenced decline. Through scrupulous reporting and fierce moral engagement, he conveys the tragedy of the meth epidemic on both a micro- and macroscopic level. Bloomsbury, 228 pp., $25

The Thing Around Your Neck
By Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, June

These 12 stories by the Nigerian-born Adichie—who, at 31, has already published two critically acclaimed novels (Purple Hibiscus and Half of a Yellow Sun)—provide a wise and minutely observed update of the American-immigrant experience. Her narrators, mostly young African women, navigate the exotic terrain of New Jersey and Pennsylvania, their perceptions sharpened by homesickness. Macy’s, for instance, can take on the eerie grandeur of an imperial palace. Alfred A. Knopf, 224 pp., $24.95

The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work
By Alain de Botton, June

This collection of rapturous, essay-like studies adds to de Botton’s list of genre-tweaking books on the philosophy of everyday life. Posing himself the question, “When does a job feel meaningful?” he visits the world’s largest accountancy firm, a rocket science laboratory, and a Slovenian aviation conference. This might be boring were de Botton not capable of finding an ancient, Borgesian mystique in the day-to-day lives of financial specialists and aeronautics experts. Pantheon, 336 pp., $26

Bite the Hand That Feeds You: Essays and Provocations
By Henry Fairlie, June

Fairlie is credited with coining the phrase “The Establishment,” a fact that seems to summarize both the eminence and the anti-conservative ferocity of this British-born journalist, who died in 1990. In 32 timely and relentlessly witty essays, ranging from the political (“A Cheer for American Imperialism”) to the whimsical (“The Importance of Bathtubs”), Fairlie proves why he was widely considered to be one of the best multidisciplinary journalists of the last 50 years. Yale University Press, 368 pp., $30

The Essays of Leonard Michaels
By Leonard Michaels, July

Divided into autobiographical and critical essays, this collection offers fans of Michaels’s fiction deeper insight into his personal background and literary tastes. “My Yiddish” documents the effects that Yiddish had on his conversational sentence structure, while “On Love” examines the appearance of the “pornographic void” in Henry James, Joyce, and Nabokov. All relatively short, the essays possess a clipped intensity traceable to Michaels’s adoration for Isaac Babel. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 222 pp., $25

The Tanners
By Robert Walser, translated by Susan Bernofsky, July

Reading Robert Walser for the first time, his indebtedness to Kafka seems so obvious as to border on plagiarism. That is, until you realize The Trial came out almost 20 years after The Tanners—first published in 1907 and only now appearing in English for the first time. Max Brod remembers Kafka laughing out loud as he read Walser’s early stuff. A kind of fairy tale of youthful mischief, workplace ennui, and “Kafka-esque” paradox, The Tanners is a contender for Funniest Book of the Year. New Directions, 368 pp., $24.95

Anonymous Celebrity
By Ignácio de Loyola Brandão, translated by Nelson H. Vieira, August

This novel tells the story of an unknown young man in São Paulo who is suicidally driven to become famous. To achieve such, he is compiling a “Manual of Instructions,” written in the form of Brazilian pulp serials, with headlines like “It’s Important to Humiliate Others,” “Avoid Being Listed Second in Photo Captions,” and “The Adorable Arrogance of Julia Roberts.” A savage satirist, Brandão has created a protagonist as complex and intriguing as he is hopelessly immoral. Dalkey Archive Press, 400 pp., $15.95

The Lost Origins of the Essay
Edited by John D’Agata, August

The novelist Ben Marcus has called John D’Agata the “single-handed, shrewd champion” of the lyric essay—a relatively new category of writing, examples of which D’Agata lashed together in 2003’s The Next American Essay. This time, he takes the reader back 5,000 years to the mysterious Ziusudra of Sumer, then makes his way from essays by Heraclitus, Sei Shonagon, and Sir Francis Bacon to Fernando Pessoa, Octavio Paz, and Marguerite Duras. D’Agata’s own gemlike segues give this massive collection a swift, narrative feel. Graywolf Press, 650 pp., $20

By Rudolph Wurlitzer, August

Nog is to literature what Dylan is to lyrics,” wrote The Village Voice‘s Jack Newfield in 1968. Pynchon hailed it as a “sign that the Novel of Bullshit is dead and some kind of re-enlightenment is beginning to arrive.” Nog—part quest novel, part Western, part artifact of late-’60s acid culture—pushes the boundaries of selfhood in a highly readable and often hilarious way. (Interesting factoid: Wurlitzer’s unpublished screenplay Zebulon inspired Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man.) Two Dollar Radio, 141 pp., $15.50

The Skating Rink
By Roberto Bolaño, translated by Chris Andrews, August

Dios mío, another Bolaño novel. And this isn’t the last: New Directions has six more books in the chamber (the next of which is titled Monsieur Pain). The Skating Rink‘s setup is similar to that of The Savage Detectives: Three alternating male narrators—loosely affiliated with Mexico City’s underground poetry scene, naturally—report on the tumultuous activities of Nuria Martí, a beautiful and elusive figure-skating champion. Passion, mystery, seedy bars, and Bolaño’s Olympian irony are here, as always. New Directions, 208 pp., $21.95

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