Thursday, October 1, 2015

"The Occidental Bride" by Benjanun Sriduangkaew

Kerttu, the bride of the title, bows "that ancient bow, as elegant as it is incongruous with her outfit," and Heilui, her more rooted wife (and client), "realizes with a start that no matter the correctness of her gesture, no matter her fluency in Gwongdungwa, Kerttu will never fit quite right." Such questions of performing versus inhabiting culture — and through it individuality, personality — permeate the events that unfold before us. The question goes both ways, too, though the situation — as so often in Sriduangkaew's work, one of deception mingled with honesty, subordination to and entanglement with power, attempts to build something genuine out of artifice — is far from symmetrical, lending a great deal of irony to the give and take. Heilui, having built a simulation of Kerttu's shattered homeland, wants Kerttu to give this creation an "authenticity check" — and as Kerttu enters it, as she and Heilui spend time in it, the issues this simulation raise echo those raised by fiction, really those raised by any art which can be taken to be "representational," especially as so-called representation always involves the seizure of another, or indeed "the Other." "There are no people here," Kerttu observes, and Heilui responds:
"Anything I populate this world with would be just automatons — as complex a set of heuristics as I can buy, but they wouldn't emulate human behavior with any degree of verisimilitude. I thought of modeling you, actually."
Along these lines what especially fascinates me is the moment in which, immersed in the simulation, the emotions Heilui feels when explaining the real situation to Kerttu cause physiological responses, not in Heilui's "real" body, but in her avatar, not out of necessity but out of habit. Here "authenticity" and artifice struggle against one another and end up so intermingled as to be, as they perhaps fundamentally always are, indistinguishable.

In fictional terms, in terms of the writing, where does this leave us? Perhaps what it all really means is distance. About halfway through the story seems to allow into itself a statement of its own methods. At the tailor to buy clothes of her own choosing with her client-wife's money, Kerttu

chooses a postmodern keipou, unpatterned black sheathing her like carapace. Sleeveless, high crescent collars, unrelieved contrast between fabric and complexion making a monochrome print of Kerttu. “I lost much and there was never a funeral,” she explains the color. “I need to mourn. I expect I’ll always be mourning.”

But this, like everything else, is said with distance as though discussing someone else’s grief.

(Note the passive voice, even, which seems almost to remove the observation from Kerttu specifically and suggest it really does mean everything else.)

In her review of "The Occidental Bride" Nina Allan refuses the common but superficial, too-easy description of Sriduangkaew's prose as "lyrical," going on to say that "The beautifully polished, artfully rendered surface of the story is like mirror glass — bouncing our own gaze back at us, attracting our attention away from the shattering realities that lurk in the depths before revealing them full force." Though I think the rejection of "lyrical" is absolutely correct, and though I think Allan and I are responding in similar ways to the same aspects of Sriduangkaew's work, I find the mirror analogy somewhat off. The scene early on, in which Heilui and Kerttu are married on a train with a "portable altar" officiating (and with "simulated incense and ancestors, two-dimensional gods rotating to give them blessings"), gives the key to my reading: "They marry on the train," we read, "the world's ruin rushing past in silent witness." Without getting too high-school-symbolism about it I take "the world's ruin" as including us, the damaged readers rushing past in silence.

It is difficult to know how to bear witness in this world that keeps us distracted and misdirects our best impulses into violence (a world mirrored in this story by the ubiquitous surveillance, the sniper team, and so on — and with the portable altar and simulated ancestors, could even the wedding require the legal formality of a witness?). In this context I see Sriduangkaew's writing as immersing us, not in the world of the story or its events but in the language itself, precisely so as not to immerse us in the event (and I differ from Allan again in that I think nothing here is ever revealed full force), precisely so as to provide a distance from which we can witness, and also ask what it means to do so.

(What we are witnessing in this story I have essentially not mentioned.)

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