About a year before the publication of his first novel, “Bangkok Wakes To Rain,” Pitchaya Sudbanthad published a listicle cataloging a handful of “place-based novels.” He writes: “When writers get asked how their novel came to them, some might answer that a character spoke first or a sentence sounded to them, and for others, like me, we require an arrival of a place, or rather, our arrival to one.”
“Bangkok” seems to be an attempt to stage such an arrival for the reader. The novel’s nearly 400 pages aim to capture the titular city in a panorama from 19th-century Siam to a speculative future of climate catastrophe. His approach to this dizzying task is like that of a collage — Sudbanthad writes that he “(let) my mind wander in the city where I was born and (heard) the city tell me stories,” and accordingly, “Bangkok” takes the form of a collection of stories in and around Bangkok. As a possible anchor point, we get a recurrent Garcia Márquez-esque house somewhere in the city, which most of the characters are connected to in some way.
Despite this confluence of the vast and the specific, Sudbanthad generally leaves allegory just out of view. His characters do not necessarily symbolize anything, even if they are representative of certain kinds of citizens of the city at different times and places. The central characters of the story are Sammy, who moved away from the city when he was young, and later returns to sell his parents’ house; Nee and Nok, two sisters who grow up in Bangkok together before Nok leaves for Japan and Nee gets involved in the student protests of the ’70s; and Mai and Pig, two millennials who are around for the city’s reclamation by the sea in the 2020s. The novel intersperses episodes of the main characters with one-off anecdotes and wide panoramic shots, all intended, presumably, to capture another aspect of the city — to make the image more complete. There’s even a section told from the point of view of the birds in the marshy area surrounding the city.
This is all a lot to take in, and despite the elaborate schemes Sudbanthad uses to connect the disparate threads of the novel, it still feels like we are essentially dealing with a collection of unrelated stories. This is fine, but it would help if the stories themselves had more interest beyond simply commenting on each other. The individual story arcs have the quality of fading in and out without accomplishing much: Sammy drifts from place to place, Nee and Nok argue and eventually make up, Pig and Mai drift apart. The plots frequently have a backdrop of social unrest, but after 1976, nothing disastrous really happens, or indeed feels like it can happen. Even when the rising seas completely swallow the old city, we are reassured that there’s life after it, and that it’s just as boring as before: Mai and Pig live suspiciously like Nee and Nok did.
More generally, what’s so striking about the idea of a “place-based novel” is that it is essentially founded on a contradiction. If the point of a novel (of the kind with speaking and thinking characters) is a sense of location, of place, the characters are mostly important for their ability to illuminate the place, even as we see them on the page as thinking, speaking humans rather than symbols.
Accordingly, Sudbanthad’s characters feel like the novel’s weakest link. In Sammy’s case, one could be forgiven for being unenthusiastic about the Global South edition of the Salingerite anti-hero, who wanders around stewing in his disaffection with nearly everything. He is passive-aggressive toward his family, he treats women badly, he feels a guilt far vaguer than seems situationally appropriate — it’s familiar and a little ugly.
Nee and Nok are the novel’s most successful characters, but they seem a little plain, slotted into roles and tasked with playing them out. The two sisters are both defined by their memories. In Nee’s case, she relives her traumatic experiences in the student protests as similar events happen in 1992, but is otherwise mostly just dutiful to her job as a manager for the condo building and swim instructor. Nok starts a Thai restaurant in Japan, a balm for the homesickness of Thai students. Nee and Nok are conduits for memory, which is, for Sudbanthad, a force like gravity: unidirectional, rather linear, inescapable.
And there are some characters who are somewhere in between having full roles and just sort of being representative of a time or a place. A 19th century minister gets some of Sudbanthad’s best prose, but his role in the story is never clarified; he just seems to be there to inform us that Bangkok had a past. The strangest of his characters (and despite this, definitely one of the book’s larger catastrophes) is Clyde, the jazz pianist copy-pasted from New York to Bangkok in the mid to late 20th century. Clyde feels like the muzak version of a jazz musician written by someone who engages with the history of American popular music out of the corner of his eye — there’s no real history or engagement with any of the musical movements Clyde would have known of or lived through, an omission that feels profoundly wrong in a genre of music so heavily focused on lineage and influence. (Later in the novel Sudbanthad makes up a series of absurd jazz musicians that makes me think he hasn’t ventured very far into the back catalog.)
Clyde also gets some of the novel’s most puckered, florid writing: “When he had much of the crowd swaying and nodding their heads at the table, he knew the irrepressible moment had arrived. He’d call them out to the floor and out they’d tumble, tugged from their seats by a hand they might only hold for that night. Folks sure went wild, given the permission of a mess.” It’s impossible to know what Sudbanthad wants his readers to get from this strange man. He is just there, much like everything else in this novel is just there, left for the reader to draw any possible conclusions from it.