It’s tempting to imagine Prabda Yoon’s short story collection Moving Parts originating as a series of iPhone notes: a scroll-down of speech fragments, draft jokes and random tangents ending mid-sentence. Only, since there were no iPhones back in 2002 when this collection was written, better to visualise the stories being tapped out on a Windows 98 desktop computer. Like Comic Sans, Yoon’s writing is scrappy, playful and morbid – there is a sense that anything could happen, or as one character puts it, that the ‘world outside could zoom in any direction’.
Translated from the Thai by Mui Poopoksakul, these eleven stories all feature protagonists living in Bangkok. Together, the stories capture the dislocation of a mushrooming cityscape at the turn of the millennium. In a translator’s afterword, Poopoksakul identifies with the generation given voice by Yoon: one whose ‘collective consciousness is tied to the experience of growing up in a fast-urbanising country.’ Poopoksakul explains: ‘Prabda and I are both children of 80s Bangkok, old enough to remember the city without a sky train or a McDonald’s, but young enough for these signs of modernisation not to seem out of place when we imagine our hometown.’ This rapid change pulled their generation in two directions: ‘hyper-nostalgia’ and ‘hyper-curiosity’. Yoon finds metaphors for this disorientation: young urbanites, gridlocked by traffic, sit in air-conditioned cars watching sodden pedestrians waiting for buses in the rain; across the city, no one can figure out the time: a woman’s wristwatch reads 2.47; the car’s mini-clock says 2.42; while the radio display reads 2.45. The city’s cogs continue to turn, but these inconsistencies breed a subtle discomfort. Things are out of joint.
Yoon has arranged the book in terms of a strange, contorted body, with each story or ‘part’ corresponding to a section of the human form. In ways that are variously surreal, or science-fictional, he explores how it feels to be composed of a jumble of these body parts, and to be subject to their whims: be they faulty or missing; or even seditious, plotting against their owners, getting them in all kinds of trouble. The opening story, ‘The Yucking Finger’, is about a boy whose finger says ‘yuck’ whenever it disapproves. ‘Yuck, yuck, yuck, yuck, yuck,’ says the finger, in response to his life choices, degree, job, wife. In ‘Butt Plug’, a man sits in his office rolling a white eraser like a die. On each side he’s written a word: ‘One side said “doomed”, another one said “doomed”, another one said “doomed”, another one said “doomed”, another one said “doomed”, and the last said “doomed”.’ He yawns, bored, wonders, ‘When am I going to be dead?’, then watches as a naked human body falls past his window onto the street below. In the elevator on the way down, he has a brief conversation with a woman who tells him her ‘butt plug’ is no longer working, hence, one assumes, the title. Writing a story about one thing and then naming it after some small and seemingly irrelevant detail is typical of the games Yoon is playing throughout. And there are lots of tales like this: oddly paced, clever but ungainly, and full of urban anhedonia. A pair of feet take over and start running a young boy in unwanted directions. A belly inflates unexpectedly, lifting its owner into the sky like a hot air balloon. Rumour goes around a love motel that one customer doesn’t have a penis, while elsewhere, preparing to lose her virginity, a teenage girl plans how to tell her boyfriend she’s missing something vital.
The writing style has a look-mum-no-hands quality, and whether you like the book or not will probably depend on how you respond to precocious kids telling you clever jokes. ‘“Murderer” is not what I wish to call myself, the main reason being that isn’t my name,’ begins one story, like a snotty, teenage Humbert Humbert. Yoon was in his late twenties when he wrote this book, having just returned to his native Thailand after spending his teenage years in America. In 2000, he published two story collections: the first based in New York, the other in Bangkok. This second collection, Kwam Na Ja Pen, won the SEA Write Award, one of the foremost Asian literary prizes. From that point, Yoon was hailed as the voice of a new generation (a role of uncertain appeal) and the collection – which appeared with Tilted Axis as The Sad Part Was in 2017 – was celebrated for its integration of postmodernism into Thai literature. Yoon has gone on to write another eight story collections and four novels.
For Fredric Jameson, postmodernism is an inevitable symptom of late capitalism. It is a theory that accords with Thailand’s trajectory in the final decades of the millennium. In the 1970s, while nearby countries like Laos, Cambodia and South Vietnam were turning to communism, a newly democratic Thailand benefitted from an influx of foreign investment. Jameson’s theory, against the backdrop of Thailand’s shift to multinational trade, would certainly account for the immense popularity of Yoon’s writing within the country. In The Sad Thing Was and Moving Parts he employs many of the techniques he’d studied during the 1990s at art school in the US: breaking with mimetic traditions to play card trick after card trick on his readers, disorienting his audience to impose that sense of pervasive metropolitan anomie. When Yoon won the SEA Write Award, it was because, as Rattawut Lapcharoensap describes it, he had ‘helped to transform the country’s literary landscape’; Poopoksakul connects this revolutionary energy to how the ‘postmodern’ stories interacted with the Thai language and its literature.
It is somehow different reading these stories in 2018, however: the paradox is that translated into English today, these same techniques feel – like many of postmodernism’s literary calling cards – dated and derivative. In ‘Marut by the Sea’, a much-quoted story from The Sad Part Was, a character rails against his creator Prabda (the ‘con artist’) and the author’s stupid choice of title. Call me a spoilsport, but once you’ve read one character-in-search-of-an-author story it can feel like you’ve read them all. What Moving Parts does offer is a brilliant, surreal portrait of the Thai capital. There haven’t, as of yet, been a lot of literary translations from the Thai, making accounts like this all the more valuable.
In interviews, Poopoksakul explains the challenges posed by Thai in particular: ‘Thai people repeat themselves a lot just for the sound – we juxtapose synonyms constantly just for the alliteration and the rhyme.’ For Poopoksakul, Yoon’s writing thoroughly participates in this tradition; even, she hints, gently satirising it. ‘In a way,’ she told Yoon in an interview, ‘your writing was more Thai than Thai.’ But how does a translator capture the effect of this alliterative, repetitive play? Particularly when, in English, alliteration and rhyme are so often associated with children’s songs and jingles. At times, the result can be a bit strange: ‘An unhumourously humongous meteorite from somewhere ran the red light, slamming blindly into our own heavenly body in an unheavenly manner,’ says one narrator, describing the moon. Without the ability to read Yoon’s stories in the original Thai, I couldn’t help but wonder if his irreverence and jeu d’esprit could have been matched with a similarly irreverent translation, one willing to break away from the text and play some games of its own.
As it is, the language games, at least in English, can become oppressive, rendering all of Yoon’s characters somewhat similar, a geeky nephew showing off at a family funeral. Yoon’s writing is clever, and quite weird, but the strength of the collection is not in the verbal fireworks. Rather, its value lies in Yoon’s ability to capture a turn-of-the-century atmosphere in Bangkok: an alienated city with a cartoon-creepy vibe, shiny and dilapidated.