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Blog Archive August 2015

A Slice of Post-bomb Bangkok Reality

01 

In Bangkok, press reports of the bombing said at least 20 people had been killed and more than a 100 people were injured at Erawan Shrine on early Monday evening during rush hour. http://edition.cnn.com/2015/08/17/asia/thailand-bangkok-bomb/ The subsequent police investigation of the crime scene, the announcements by various officials in government, and the post-bombing analysis pulsates along swift currents of the social media in Thailand and elsewhere. One of the many stories is that of BBC correspondent Jonathan Head who several days after the bombing found pieces of shrapnel which he tried to hand over to police only to be told they station was closed for business.

Here’s a link to Jonathan Head BBC report where he seeks to handover evidence to the police in Bangkok: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-34006372

Head’s adventure with the police has elements we come to expect from contemporary reporting on major disaster scenes: irony, sadness, inexplicable official response and disturbing lack of professionalism by those on the frontline. Evidence connected to a major incident involving the death of many people had been refused by the police in front of police headquarters in Bangkok.

Head has provided evidence of a much deeper story beyond the refusal of police to accept evidence. I want to look at that story in this essay in the context of a book I’ve finished reading. The book tells the story about the process of how the manufacturing process of truth serves a reality designed to favor the interest of the powerful.

The book was written by Matthew B. Crawford, and titled The World Beyond Your Head, Farrar, Straus and Giroux(2015). He has three messages worth considering.

1/Our connection to reality is largely a consumer product that has been manufactured.

2/Truth’ isn’t found in reality any more than a bottle of vintage wine is found on the moon; truth has become indistinguishable from any other product and is processed and packaged like any other commodity.

3/Designing the architecture of reality is a business and political model. There is profit and power in such design.

4/The modern cult of personal autonomy, fueled by the consumer-based political and economic world, rests on an individually atomized notion of free will.

On lying, the whole structure of manufactured reality is built from lies. The Matrix was a little sign that maybe people should pay attention. They don’t. They’re distracted. Look, there’s a squirrel and they forget a moment ago they were upset about something. But they forgot what it was. Lies need stupid and ignorant people to thrive and create the vast colonies you see around the globe. None of the official stories hold together any longer. Presidents, generals, ministers, all of them avoid the truth. You can understand in a strange way. Truth is complex, vague around the edges, no real certainty and constantly needs updating. Lies avoid all of that mess.

Reality, unmediated by governments and corporation, is brimming with noise. Embedded in all of that noise there may be a signal. But it takes an enormous amount of effort, resources and patience to find a meaningful signal in the noise. The unpredictability, randomness and uncertainty of reality causes people to feel anxiety, frustration and fear. Emotional needs compel most people to seek certainty, peace, and predictability. Everywhere you look, someone will be offering you a platform that promises resolution of these problems. The scaffolding is hidden out of sight and the more shoddy ones collapse around us every day and we hardly notice.

02

There are good emotional reasons to recoil from the raw material of reality. It’s not a hard sell. Sifting through reality for the truth is more painful than going along with the lies. People are basically lazy except they emotionally are better able to deal with half-truth, lies and just-so stories than that dark, hidden place called reality. We go shopping for the truth among the purveyors who promise they know the reality. Who offers the best deal? That deal is the one that sit well with what we wish reality to be and mainly that is enough for most people.

Without a deep-seated narcissism we would challenge the stripped down, communized comic strip reality and make independent inquiries. On this basis, reality is what you choose it to believe, and that choice lines up with your personal beliefs, cultural habits, and aligns the reality jigs designed by the commercial world. We don’t set out to upturn our internal reality. Quite the opposite, we do our best to confirm our reality through representations made by others who share our beliefs.

Why does such a powerful force easily capture and hold us hostage for a lifetime? We are afraid of the messy, unpredictable, contradictory and confusing state of affairs that lies outside the doorstep of the commercial lies from the private sector supplemented by the official lies told by governments. There is no longer a lie-free space to escape to—it has vanished in the workplace, schools, shops, clubs, shopping malls, restaurants, airports, hospitals, etc.—all the public spaces we pass through have been colonized by truth fabricators. The images and voices of the hawkers are all around us—in the newspapers, TV, social media, film makers, authors, generals, politicians, celebrities, and board rooms.

There is an entire industry devoted to creating ‘your’ experience, ‘your’ style, ‘your’ self and ‘your’ knowledge about how the world works and ‘your’ place in it. What you know and believe has been through committees, consultants and experts, audience tested, rolled out and delivered to with the right emotional hooks to grab your attention. And what is worthy of our attention? Or more important what is your attention worth? Look at Google, Facebook and Twitter and you’d find it’s worth a great deal of money.

We hunger for ideas and representations that put us in the centre of the action, of the world and reality. Like a virus it infects our view of the world and each other. We think we can step out of ourselves and have a look around as if we are from an alien world; we have no third-party vantage point. All we can do is engage in the world, with each other, and accept that co-operation and competition are normal, and that normality includes conflict and uncertainty. What politician or corporation is going to abandon the truth manufacturing business? None of them will because it has no benefit.

We no longer have to be force fed, as full-blown narcissists we are addicted to constant reconfirmation that our psychic needs are being attended to. At some level, people must know that what is being fed is noise. But it is pleasant, addictive noise that lulls, soothes, and comforts. By disconnecting us from reality and feeding our addiction to fantasy, we find the real world jarring and soon enough retreat to the manufactured reality.

We need to live in a world that is represented as real. It turns out that government officials and corporations have long ago figured out that our basic physic needs are vastly more important than evidence or facts, and those who can serve those emotional needs to feel secure and protected, popular and loved, admired and special, will win wealth, fame and power. It is a dirty little racket—this marketing of lies. There is no official or commercial incentive to offer people the red pill—the Matrix is too seductive and powerful to resist.

———————-
Christopher G. Moore last book of essays is titled The Age of Dis-Consent.

Posted: 8/21/2015 4:10:35 AM 

 

The Hot Countries (2015) Soho Crime by Timothy Hallinan

Reviewed by Christopher G. Moore

Ever since Paul Theroux’s classic Saint Jack, with its Singapore, appeared in 1972, and Jack Flower uttered the famous line that “it is kinda hot,” the idea of the oppressive heat and steamy nights in the tropics has become the weather report in contemporary novels set in Southeast Asia. The heat drives people mad; it makes them careless, languid, and bleeds them of energy. The personal cost to live an expat life in Southeast Asia has been a theme for a couple of decades in Thailand.

Bangkok is an idea with multiple landscapes, some of them imagined, some real, and more than a few caught in the no man’s land between the two. The expat territory is as varied as Thailand itself with features running from valleys, rivers, mountains, field, pastures, scrubland, and beaches. There is no representative expat. Nor could there be with people from China, Canada, Norway, England, America, Nigeria, Burma, Cambodia, India, Denmark to mention just a few of expats that form enclaves in Bangkok and elsewhere in Thailand. No one will ever write the definitive expat novel. One would need to switch to writing an ethnographic encyclopedia. Such a book would have a dozen readers.

In Tim Hallinan’s The Hot Countries, he does what the rest of us who write novels about expats in the tropics do: we show up at the mine face where these expats live, work, play and die, looking for the rare nuggets buried inside. Hallinan’s series, set in Bangkok featuring Poke Rafferty, has produced an extraordinary cast of American expats whose lives intersect at the Expat Bar. Rafferty and his fellow expats carry a heavy Cold Countries cultural cargo strapped to their souls. Hallinan focuses his novelist’s eye on the busy intersection where Hot Countries and Cold Countries cultures collide in Bangkok, where everyone is running the red light and driving on the pavements. The readers in the front row seat watch the ice melt as they adapt to Thai life.

Poke Rafferty, an American from Lancaster, California, has settled into expat life as a travel journalist. He’s an old Asia Hand and he and his gang remember the life of expats when Bernard Trink wrote his weekly column for the Bangkok Post. While Bangkok has moved on, Poke Rafferty and his friends continue to live on the margin. Poke showcases the low-budget expat life weighed down by demands of an ex-bargirl wife named Rose and an adopted daughter name Miaow (the Thai nickname for ‘Cat’). Miaow, a street kid, carries the damage of abandonment. Seven years earlier Poke Rafferty adopted her. Poke’s world revolves his family and his friends. Within this circle, Hallinan excels at allowing a free-flow of ideas between his characters, which ably colour their emotions, foreshadow their motives, and limen their beliefs.

His friends have secrets and painful pasts. Some like Wallace are haunted by their experience during the Vietnam War. Wallace’s Vietnam experience, along with others he served with, figure into the mystery. The 1960s in Bangkok and, in particular, the Golden Mile, the hedonistic playground, where young American GIs left the jungles of the Vietnam war for R&R, are stylishly imagined and with a genuine feeling for the era.

The Hot Countries takes time to establish the networked interaction inside the family members and friends, showing their weaknesses, loyalties, foibles, egos, doubts, and defenses. Poke’s wife for seven years, is three-months pregnant, but refuses to have an ultra-sound to confirm whether she’s carrying twins. Their 14-year-old adopted daughter, who’d been abandoned by her parents, is addicted to British TV (particularly period dramas), books and celebrities. This isn’t a conventional mystery. Instead of a series of actions and clues, Hallinan allows the reader time to explore and understand the full range of cultural difference that caused difficulties for his characters. Poke’s friendship with Thai cop Arthit (and his family) brings to the story the Thai threads to the mysterious game of power, culture and thinking.

The centrifugal forces start to spin inside Rafferty’s world, gathering warp speed with Arthur Varney unexpected arrival. By this time, we know what is at stake for the characters and the limits of their life. The mystery and thriller elements take over and push against the walls of those limits. The heart of the mysterious Arthur Varney, his connection to Rafferty, a young luk-krueng Thai girl named Treasure and Treasure’s dead father. Varney shows up at the Expat Bar and hands Poke Rafferty a number he written down: 3,840,00.00. It was the US dollar amount that had disappeared from Haskell Murphy’s house the night Poke killed Murphy and the house was destroyed in a massive explosion. Poke managed to pull one case containing $640,000 and has hidden it in his Bangkok apartment under the floor. The rest of the loot has, we presume, gone up in smoke. But Varney, by his very presence, suggests he believes Rafferty has the whole amount and he’s come to Bangkok to get that money. And for his partner in crime’s daughter, Treasure.

Treasure’s father was killed by Rafferty. He was a hardcore, dangerous criminal. He dragged his daughter through Southeast Asia. Treasure was at the scene the night that Poke killed her father. She approved, thinking he’d done her a favor. Rafferty secured a safe place in a shelter for Treasure, and is waiting for her to become older before handing over the money he took that night from her blazing house. Varney scares Treasure, causing her to panic. She presumes that he’s come not only for the money but for her, and she carries the memory of her father warning that if anything happened to him, Varney would own her. Like Miaow, Treasure is psychologically damaged, and we learn a about expat life as Poke balances his role as her self-appointed guardian and his family.

Rafferty makes it his mission to find Varney in Patpong and resolve their outstanding issues one way or another. And Varney is seeking to get Rafferty’s attention, including murdering a street kid. As in all good mysteries, who you are looking for and what you find are often two different things. And the person you start out chasing after, you end up taking steps to avoid him finding you and your family. Rafferty’s life and times show the melting point when the Hot Country and Cold Country make him shiver and sweat at the same time. That may indeed be the expat’s fate. He loses his ability to know how to culturally dress for the bad weather blowing his direction.

The Hot Countries is an absorbing and rewarding look at life in a hot country expat sub-culture. Poke Rafferty’s humanity, commitment and ingenuity are rare qualities and they allow him to adapt and survive in his life as an expat. Any reader can forgive the odd slip or mistake in the narrative flow when he or she is in the hands of a talented author like Hallinan. All of us (including myself) who write about Thailand, make them. It is what makes books and us human.

The characters in The Hot Countries are finely detailed along with their vulnerabilities, tragic flaws, and mutual dependence. Hallinan takes us inside their dreams, nightmares, fears, and hopes, making them larger than fiction. They are characters that will stay with you. Hallinan knows how to bring memorable fictional characters to life. His characters cling onto the edge of a bleak, hardscrabble expat group as if they’d been tossed from a life raft into the jaws of raging rapids. Poke Rafferty is the one person they trust to conjure up the life vests and guide them safely to shore. The Hot Countries hurls you down those rapid and when you emerge at the end, you will know that you’ve been on a grand adventure with characters you care about.

———————————
Christopher G. Moore’s latest novel is
Crackdown.

Posted: 8/13/2015 8:52:48 PM 

 

Working Magic in the Shadow of Time

This week the producers of the Calvino series are in LA working to put together a deal. Maybe they will or maybe, as in the past, it will come to nothing. This kind of work reminds me of a gravediggers shove—it can be used to build or to bury.

It is a devilishly difficult business. Film. Books. Life.

01

A friend shared the thought of a Danish author who toiled without moral support and against the wishes of husband, family, friends until finally she succeeded in having her novel published. By that stage all of the people who had been negative shrugged off her success and let her know that was nothing special. They, too, were now writing a novel. It seems many people are feverishly writing books.

The Danish author’s insight illuminates a core problem. The vast number of people have led fairly predictable, organized, safe and ordinary lives until one day in their 50s or 60s an alarm goes off inside their head. Maybe someone close to them had a novel published, reviewed, admired, loved. Or someone close to them died on the way to the funeral they started to ask: What is the meaning of life? Have I wasted my life? The thought arises that I can confirm and signal the singularity of my existence by writing a book. Preferably a novel, a work of art, and I pour my heart and soul into this enterprise as if the demon of a new religion had seized hold of me.

There is a slight problem. Writing is more than sitting behind a keyboard, imagining a world as if tapping into a magical pipeline and typing the script of what you’ve discovered. All writing, in the larger sense, in travel writing, notes from the frontier of a journey, which has been unpredictable, unsafe, disorganized, and from that web of uncertainty patterns emerge. It is in the assembly of those patterns after observation and thought that makes us turn the page. When your worldview is turned upside down, you flee or you find a way to restructure, evaluate, modify your factory template of constructs that defined your home reality. You begin to see the context as an aggregation of symbols, patterns, ethics, or morality shaped by forces outside of your own experience.

We acquire an array of weapons and shields when we go into the world. You sense when someone’s shield logs in a speedy reaction time until the psychological or emotional threat passes. Or when they deploy a weapon to defend themselves. Our culture and language equips us with both shields and weapons to go forth in combat mode. Along the journey you learn the art of reading when shield are activated, what they are protecting, and understand it is our vulnerability that makes us human and expressions of that vulnerability differ in substantial ways around the world. We react too quickly. We shoot to fast. We try to hold our ground even as it moves beneath us. What is universal is how people’s shields locked into defensive mode in light of contractions, inconsistencies, disagreement, and disapproval. We have little tolerance, it seems for those who disagree with us or dislike us. We cocoon ourselves in groups that like us and agree with us. They validate our value. We strive for validation at the expense of tolerance and co-operation with those who don’t like us or agree with us.

In my case, I was lucky as taking this journey has been a way of life since I was young. The need to break free of the known and to explore was something that happened to me relatively young. Can it happen in your 50s or 60s or later? Anything allowed by the laws of physics is possible. Of course the door only has to be opened and you walk through. Easy to say. But how many people open that door and close it behind them? That’s where the stories are buried. Mountains of them are waiting to be unearthed by you. Whatever the age you happen to find yourself, there will come a time when the door to new adventures and experience will be closed. You have passed a hundred times, rattled the doorknob, but the distractions of life pulled you away. People can write all they want, but the bank of experience, exploration, wandering, searching, listening and observing only comes easily in one’s youth. Or to the young at heart.

Pull back for a moment and look out at what is around you. It is theatre. You’ve been assigned a part. You’ve played it. Learnt the lines, know your cues, where the chalk marks are for you to stop on stage. Some have become stars and that has made them wealthy and famous. Don’t envy them. They, like you, are a mere shadow, and locked in their roles as securely as any high security prison. Take the red pill and look again. People have been killed in the slaughterhouse of modern consumer online life where they are turned into living sausages and processed and packaged and eaten on elite buns. And that is hugely important to know. They opened a door like in Monty Hall and thought they’d won a prize with credentials, status, position and power. These all prove to be a poor substitute, an illusion of life. You may be a late starter who never had a chance to take the journey, opening the door, which appears to have nothing inside. Strangely, that is the right door. Take it and you can escape the non-living of the past.

Writing won’t recover lost lives. Breaking out of the grave that they dug all those years ago isn’t going to happen at the keyboard. There is the panic, the envy, the jealousy that winds through the system. It’s not so much about money or wealth, it is about the handful who lived their lives and wrote about that experience to be shared their memories of finding the less traveled path that leads to the same edge of darkness. Facing what we all face is within. There is no government change, program, or TED Talk that can act as a time machine and send them back. That makes them bitter, frustrated, angry and vengeful. They are lost. Writing and getting their book published is their way of finding out the scope of that loss.

I feel compassion for these people. I know how very hard it must be to wake up too late. All the appointments, schedules, and meetings that atomized their lives have left nothing of substance behind. That empty hole can never be filled. Compassion, yes, as much as I can possibility deliver to the world. Whether Calvino makes it on TV or as a film, whether new publishers come along, none of that matters against the larger reality. I took a chance. I never gave up. I found friends like you and that has made all the difference in the world. Better than a film or publishing contract. I don’t share the panic of the others. Nor do I deride them. This is the way people are. They don’t wake up soon enough. A couple of minutes before midnight opens a brief moment in time to do a few things that are unscripted. Just do them. Improvise. There is life all around you, hungry and with wings. Don’t waste a moment behind a keyboard, I’d tell them. The shadow merges soon enough. Don’t turn your back and think you can escape. It has your name.

I know these things and share them with you. I was recently in Paris at the Musée d’Orsay where there is an iconic clock. This is ‘me’ in front of the clock. It is my shadow. I am looking out of the window at the skyline of Paris. The picture tells in an image the story I’m seeking to reveal in this essay and throughout 30 plus books.

We are a mere shadow on the clock face of time, facing outward, watching as the darkness closes in to joint. Does the shadow merge with that large darkness and extinguish it? Or does the shadow find its destiny by rejoining the darkness from whence it came? I don’t have an answer. I don’t really need an answer. Let me tell you why. In that space between my shadow and the failing light, I took a journey of exploration, knowing that one-day a void would be lingering on the horizon. There was no reason to fear the coming darkness. The absence of light doesn’t mean nothingness and this is the main lesson from taking the journey. All of our lives we stand at this crossroads watching the flow like a river.

Along the road we pass people whose lives seem to be invisible to us. Often they are beautiful souls seeking a connection with life. As life has often rejected or ignored them, they find other ways to perform small acts of grace. These are people just like us. These are the beautiful people we pass without seeing.

02

I find elegance and beauty in this image. It touches and moves me. No shield is raised, no weapons to attack. This simple human act of reaching out is where I’d like to find myself as the darkness enfolds my shadow.

Posted: 8/6/2015 8:54:13 PM 

 

Bangkok Beat by Kevin Cummings



Bangkok Beat ebook and POD editions available at Amazon.

Reviewed by Christopher G. Moore

The Bangkok artistic scene is a puzzle locked in a box, inside a room, no windows or doors. Four blank walls and a party has been going on inside. Kevin Cummings arrives with a jackhammer and cuts through the wall. After a lot of dust and debris, Cummings sticks his head in. What he reports from those visitations is found in Bangkok Beat. He doesn’t steal the silverware. His tour inside is like the first version of the Lonely Planet; a first-hand, on the ground, description of the expats and locals bonded through creativity, artistic expression, the bliss that comes from following your own demons and angels through the layers of heaven and hell.

Cummings does this like all good literary anthropologists who squatted down beside one of the natives and lulls them into his confidence—that’s interview style and it is a good one, the artistic types opened like oysters in a month with an ‘R’ in it. We have the words of authors, poets, painters, photographers, and musicians. He’s undercover the underground Bangkok noir movement that has been gradually building over the last five years. Why hadn’t this movement come together earlier? I have a theory. Any movement needs a meeting place, a place where people can hang out, talk, interact, gossip, complain and relax. Without such a place artists are atomized individuals. They thrive in colonies where the bees bring back the nectar. Bangkok noir needed a venue to play out the dark musings, images, and sounds. The honeycomb and field of flowers turned out to be the CheckInn99, following the vision of artistically inclined owner Chris Catto-Smith, who turned the club into a meeting place. The rest is, as they say, history.

If your interest includes a roundup of the expat artistic side of Bangkok, you’ll want to read the interviews and articles found in Bangkok Beat. There you’ll find the card carrying, full membership holders such as: Jerry Hopkins, John Burdett, Timothy Hallinan, Colin Coterrill, James Newman, Ralf Tooten, William Wait, Chris Coles, Christopher Minko, Dr. Penguin, John Gartland, along with a lot of others. Here’s the part where I disclose that I am one of the locals Kevin Cummings approached. Let me explain.

It must have been the bone in my nose and I was holding a stick with a rat on it over open fire. It was lunchtime after all. Kevin Cummings approached me for an interview. In the noir parts of the world cultural anthropologists are at their best in a large pot over a well-tended fire. That way, they turn out quiet tender. The meat of my interview, as stringy and wild tasting as a wild boar, also appears in Bangkok Beat. If you asked one of the natives from Somoa about what he thought about Margret Mead’s book Coming of Age, in which he featured as a character, he’d probably aim one of those cool bamboo poison dart weapons at your liver. I never got the hang of using one of those weapons. It’s just practice so I am told. Kevin Cummings is relatively safe. So far. The crew inside that room isn’t always that stable. New people come and go. Old people do what old people do best—they die.

Bangkok Beat is a celebration of a movement, a group of irregulars who have taken a different path. Henry Miller, one of Kevin Cummings’ heroes, would have fit right in to one of the Sunday improve Jazz sessions. When Barney Rosset used to come to Bangkok we’d talk about Henry, and wonder how his life and writing would have changed had he taken the boat not to France but to Thailand. I wished Barney (he died in 2012) had lived longer. Bangkok Beat inspired a thought I’d have liked to have shared with him. It’s about a couple of places I would have liked to have shown him. A back alley and upstairs series of short-time rooms abandoned, and filled with dust and broken furniture.

There is a back entrance to the CheckInn99, which lead to back alley you look around. You don’t need for anyone to describe ‘noir’ to you; just have a look around and you see the characters who live, breath, work and die in the world of noir. Go up the stairs and look at those rooms. The ghosts of the past still walk and talk and make love up there. Barney would have looked at it, taken it in, and understood that something fundamental in Henry Miller’s world view would have shifted, anyone’s perception would change, standing in the old short-time rooms or in the back alley—do it around midnight as the saxophone filters into your consciousness. Of course Henry Miller would have been a changed man. All of us who share our lives in this place have changed through such experience which, Kevin Cummings so richly captures.

Posted: 8/3/2015 8:52:19 PM 

 

 

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