Siam, or the Woman who Shot a Man, set in 1967 Thailand, purports to be the story of a woman in an unfamiliar land, a portrait of her crumbling marriage, and her obsession with the dissappearance of the American silk merchant Jim Thompson (and some of her possessions). All these elements feature in the story, but the only tension that really worked was the vivid, if forced, picture of her isolation, which finally explodes.
Claire is an intellectually curious daughter of a Harvard professor, but is leaving behind New England and moving to Thailand with her husband, James, who is overseeing the construction of US airbases for the war in Vietnam. She plays the dutiful wife, and spends her time learning about Thai history, learning the language, and sightseeing with the other wives. Once Jim goes missing, fishing for information is added to her routines. The move around the globe does not go well. James is frequently away from home for work, and possibly unfaithful, Claire does not make friends, the language lessons only serve to highlight the difference between her and the other army wives, and the more she learns about Thai history, the less comfortable she is there. It is hot, dirty, the food turns her stomach, and the local customs offend her American sensibilities. Others enjoy the food and simply assume themselves superior to the locals, while, ironically, Claire is one whose academic attempts to “go native” are most at odds with the customs and foods she refuses to accept. She questions this new world she is in, but from the position that western civilization is superior. Sometimes she is right, but her solipsism was irksome.
All of this is fine as the core of a story, but the presentation is anodyne and shallow. To put it bluntly, the marriage of Claire and James is defined in the story almost exlusively by fucking and fighting, with the former seemingly something that usually happens to Claire rather than with Claire. (The dynamic made me wonder how they got as far as marriage to begin with, since she says their first meeting saw them tumbling into bed.) Similarly, she has a tendency to watch in a semi-aware state the events that transpire offscreen, everything narrated in a detached third-person perspective. She is supposed to be obsessed with Jim Thompson’s disappearance, but this is more a facet of her frustration with the tendency for events to take place and people or things to appear and disappear without explanation. The most prominent feature of the writing is the bare declarative statement, lacking in either description or emotion. There is supposed to be some power in this stark style, but this novel had a really repetitive and dull cadence as it worked around the predictable ring composition.
I picked up Siam because it seemed an interesting enough story and setting and I am trying to diversify by reading more books by women. I was totally disappointed, and only continued to read on because it was a short novel that went by quickly.
Next up is Don Delillo’s White Noise.