The most established of the slate of New York women authors who had attracted little attention and few sales before being nominated for 2004 National Book Awards for fiction, Lily Tuck, won the award for The News from Paraguay, a not minimalist but also not epic historical novel set in the mid-19th century. Because I was impressed by it and because it had Matisse in the title, I picked up her first novel , Interviewing Matisse, or The Woman Who Died Standing Up (1991), which I considered a tour-de-force, but as annoying to read as its middle-of-the-night caller.
I went on to Tuck’s third novel, Siam: or The Woman Who Shot a Man (1999) partly for its location (Bangkok, 1967, just as it becomes public knowledge that US planes based in Thailand are bombing North Vietnam). As in The News from Paraguay, the protagonist is a white woman way out of her depths (or, perhaps, “shallows” would be more appropriate) in the tropics, unsure of what the husband who swept her off her feet and across oceans is up to. Claire, the daughter of a Harvard Classics professor, spends her wedding night flying west through unbroken dark with her randy new husband James, an engineer and army captain assigned to the Joint United States Military Assistance Advisory Group, who had promised her “hot and cold running servants” and a pool in Bangkok.
Only one of the servants speaks any English, her treasures go missing, the pool tends to the slimy, the heat and humidity of Bangkok are intense, especially for a New Englander. When James is not off building airstrips in the northeast of Thailand (closest to North Vietnam), the newlyweds have sex that is frequent but seems mechanical. Claire ignores a physician’s counsel to take up bridge or golf, reads a history of Thailand, and struggles to learn Thai.
Just before his still-mysterious disappearance in the Cameron highlands of Malaya, the “silk king”, ex-OSS operative Jim Thompson welcomes Claire to his home (already a quasi-museum, open for tours two days a week then) filled with Southeast Asian antiquities. She becomes obsessed with the disappearance, speaks to his Chinese hostess (an antique dealer), reads every report on the case, hears from some people who believe he was captured by Chinese communists, others who think he was an agent of the PRC. That he wandered off into the jungle without leaving a trace remains to me the least plausible explanation.
As the general who sat beside Claire at the dinner at Jim Thompson’s house remarks, vultures would pinpoint the location if he had fallen and was unable to walk or crawl.
(My personal inclination is that he disappeared himself rather than being kidnapped or perishing on a stroll into the jungle. There are several books about Thompson. The best is probably William Warren’s The Legendary American.)
The novel begins with epigrams from Graham Greene’s The Quiet American and a letter from King Mongkut to Anna, the governess who vastly inflated her importance in a memoir that became the basis for “The King and I,” which Thais consider highly insulting. An American with no previous interest in Siam/Thailand in 1967 would likely have “The King and I” in her head. Claire does not imagine herself educating/civilizing Thais, let alone the royal family, but is clueless in the manner of Greene’s “quiet American,” whose ignorance leads to disaster, as Claire’s combination of taking an interest and not understanding does.
I feel that too much of the book is lists of Thai vocabulary, chunks of dynastic history, and press accounts of Jim Thompson’s disappearance, but my main disappointment with the book is that the climactic violence is unclear. I guess Claire herself was unsure of what happened and why, but the novel is not told in the first person.
Though callow and rather passive, I liked Claire for her attempts to learn about the history, culture, and language and sympathized with her being left alone in a strange (to her) place with no friends or family. And I sympathize with her frustration at her questions about matters both historical and then current are ignored. James obfuscates what the airstrips he is building are being used for, as well as his relationship with a Thai woman. The latter may be paranoid jealousy on Claire’s part, but her suspicions about what the US government was up to were not… And there is something Nancy Drewish about the ironically named Claire trying to solve the mystery of Jim Thompson’s disappearance.
Probably the book is more enjoyable to someone (like me) who has visited the places Claire goes to in Bangkok with a group of other wives. (The guides ignore her questions about unsavory matters in Thai royal history.)
There was no shortage of “collateral damage” in the US military actions in Southeast Asia. Offhand, I don’t recall any other books about wives stored on such peripheries as Bangkok, and Tuck’s cool (Patricia Highsmith cool) prose makes Siam a worthy addition to a “Reading the American War in Southeast Asia” curriculum.