Waiting for the Lady
by Christopher G. Moore
Published by Heaven Lake Press
342 pages, 2003
Buy it online
Waiting and Waiting
Reviewed by Kevin Burton Smith
The title of Christopher G. Moore's newest novel, Waiting for the Lady, is a little misleading. What I ended up waiting for wasn't no lady -- it was for the plot to kick in.
You see, unlike most North Americans, I've heard of Moore, and even read some of his previous novels. Dubbed the "the Hemingway of Bangkok" by the Globe and Mail newspaper, this former law professor and Canadian expatriate is almost totally unknown on his native continent, but in Thailand and most of the rest of Southeast Asia his name appears consistently atop bestseller charts. His English-language novels, most of which (like last year's Minor Wife) feature hard-boiled, Bangkok-based private eye Vincent Calvino, easily sell 20,000 copies in that city alone, and they can hold their own against competition from such international heavyweights as Michael Crichton and Stephen King. Moore's works have also been translated into German, Japanese, Chinese and Thai, making him, quite simply, one of the world's most popular and best-selling writers.
The problem is that Waiting for a Lady is not a Vinnie Calvino story. It's not even really a crime yarn. Instead, it's that most scary of all things -- a "serious" book. Sometimes it's uplifting and enlightening, but at other times it's simply a pain in the butt, the only mystery being where this tale will detour to next. Yet while the novel seems periodically pointless, it does have considerable charms. Moore's no dummy; he's created here a long, thoughtful, meandering and richly complex story about a lot of things, including history, legend, rumors, memory, dreams, ideas, truth and mostly, well, stories.
But God, what stories! They twist, they turn, they peter out, they start and stop, only to re-emerge pages or even chapters later. Like Calvino (and the author himself), the narrator of this novel is an expatriate, an American now living in Bangkok. When we first meet him, Sloan Wolcott is 52 years old, with his birthday hovering only a few days away. Sloan's an interesting narrator -- an affable tour guide with a zillion tales to tell. But like any overzealous guide, he soon starts to grate: he's not always trustworthy as a narrator, nor is he always likable. He's a dissipated Scheherazade, prone to self-pity, and he has an over-inflated view of his own worth. Sloan thinks of himself as a sensitive artist, though he's mostly just a horny middle-aged photojournalist and sometimes-smuggler who deals in Ming porcelain and is trapped in a loveless marriage to a woman several years his junior. In fact, Saya, his chilly Japanese wife, is another expatriate, whom he originally met when she was still a green-haired misfit teenager and he was her teacher.
This seems to be Sloan's dominant flaw: he's weak and easily led astray, whether by young women (he's had a series of extramarital affairs) or alcohol (usually Tiger Beer) and assorted drugs, especially marijuana (he's always only moments away from lighting another "fat one," it seems). His one big claim to fame was a book he wrote more than a decade ago, entitled The Art of Chin Ways, about an obscure, isolated Burmese tribe. Sloan took the pictures and his best friend, Hart, wrote the captions. Hart lost interest in the book soon after its publication, but Sloan obsessively keeps track of its ranking on Amazon.com's sales charts (it was at 352,172 the last time he checked).
A year ago, while returning from a foray into Burma (known officially as Myanmar), Sloan came into possession of a camera, complete with film, that belonged to a late Japanese reporter. Curious, he developed the film, only to discover it contained images of a 1996 assassination attempt on Aung San Suu Kyi, the "Lady" of the title. Suu Kyi is the real-life, democratically elected leader of Burma, who's been held house prisoner for years by the military junta that has ruled Burma since the early 1960s. But lately, perhaps embarrassed by Suu Kyi being awarded the 2002 Nobel Peace Prize, the junta has started to make noises about releasing the Lady.
Ever aware of the passage of time, Sloan has decided that he wants his 53rd birthday to be "a living piece of art, something very special ... something that would be etched in my memory until the day I die." So he plans to head to Rangoon and, he hopes, present the Lady with his photographic proof of the junta's treachery.
Sloan enlists the aid of his friend and fellow expat, Hart, a 38-year-old pool hustler and ne'er-do-well reporter who does the bare minimum to survive, shooting pool and doing occasional proofreading and copyediting work. Hart owns three shirts, three pairs of pants and two pairs of shoes, and lives off a succession of bar girls who are easily swayed by his slow-fading charm. Hart is British, although he has a prior connection to Southeast Asia: his grandfather was stationed in Burma during World War II. He's also an expert on Ming porcelain ("[H]e knew every fake, phony piece," according to Sloan). The photojournalist doesn't exactly trust his friend -- he thinks Hart's "too clever by half" -- but Sloan is also a big believer in luck. "That was one reason I wanted him to go along on the trip to Rangoon," he confesses.
And Sloan will need all the luck he can get, because, just as this book has stories within stories, so too does Sloan have motives within motives. Not only is he out to give Suu Kyi those 1996 photographs, and possibly pick up a few more Ming treasures, but he's on another, more personal and private quest. It seems there was one other photograph on that late reporter's roll of film, showing a beautiful young woman with a blue scorpion tattooed on her thigh. The woman's image seduces and haunts Sloan, and he becomes convinced that somewhere in Burma he will discover the truth about her.
The third corner of the uneasy triangle with Sloan and Hart is Sarah, who they encounter in a Rangoon bar frequented by journalists, outside the compound where the Lady is being held under house arrest. Sarah is another drifter a long way from home, the 20-something child of an overly strict American Vietnam vet (who later committed suicide) and a meek Thai mother. She grew up in Hawaii and Vancouver, British Columbia. She and Sloan first corresponded via e-mail three years earlier, when she was a graduate student, just wrapping up her doctoral dissertation about "Modern Gender Politics of the Burmese Hill Tribe People as Evidenced by Body Tattoos," but he doesn't even recognize her when she suddenly turns up in Burma. As he puts it, "Sarah was someone you never forgot. Only I had forgotten her ..." Sarah's response is to confide to Sloan and Hart that "Your book on the Chin changed my life."
As I said, Waiting for the Lady is a book of many stories, and how those stories change the lives of both the tellers and the told. There are love stories here, though it's not always obvious who's in love with whom. Sloan casts his randy middle-aged eye upon Sarah, yet she seems to favor Hart. But this is a book about friendships, as well -- sometimes it seems that as much as Sloan might desire Sarah, he's also jealous of the way in which she can occupy Hart's time.
This trio's mission to Rangoon to see the Lady is just the start of Moore's yarn. With that mission accomplished relatively quickly, the real quest in this novel begins. Sloan, Hart and Sarah venture far upriver, at least metaphorically, deep into Burma's northern interior -- "enemy" territory, if you will -- in search of Ming plunder and the story behind that tattooed young woman who's become Sloan's obsession. As in Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, the journey itself becomes the tale. Our three adventurers swap stories, half-truths and lies, passing them back and forth like ice-cold cans of Tiger or big, fat ones, traveling further and further into the wild, using increasingly dubious modes of transit. They eventually come face to face with the past, a place at the end of the line where the ghosts of World War II "comfort women" (native women forced to work as prostitutes for the occupying armies of Japan and, later, Britain) have never really been lain to rest.
A big part of author Moore's charm is his unerring eye -- not only for the curious demimonde of the Southeast Asian expatriate community, caught forever in the tug-of-war between East and West, but for the native culture itself. This is no fawning, touristy look at Burma, but a jaded, tough and often sad portrayal of a country torn asunder by poverty, politics and clandestine treachery. (In the "huge dark backroom of Burma ...," Moore writes, "[e]verything that is done is done off-stage.") This is the story, too, of a people "cut off for so long that they had lost the connection with time; the past no longer had meaning and had lost any value, being replaced by junk and kitsch." And so a scene in which a Burmese "antiques" dealer demands more for a cheap plaster statue of Elvis Presley than for a 400-year-old Chinese Ming bowl becomes almost heartbreaking.
Unfortunately, all of this jaded charm, tawdry color and cutting detail isn't enough to push Moore's oddly circular story in any sort of narrative direction. Worse, the novelist adopts what Sloan explains (several times) as one of his failings: "I had this tendency -- from childhood -- of repeating myself, repeating myself, somehow repeating myself even though I knew I was doing it." And repeat himself, Moore does. Phrases, images, trivia, ideas, facts, descriptions and stories are replayed endlessly in these pages. Time is twisted back and forth, stretched like a tired old elastic band, almost to the breaking point at times, and then released, lethargically snapping the reader back into the tale.
Expect no great revelations here, only a slow and gradually dawning awareness that, as Sloan concludes:
"There are so many ways to tell a clever story, but it is difficult to find the true narrative, one that is faithful to the lives of the characters."
It soon becomes clear that not all of the stories told in these pages are created equal. Some are enlightening observations on the human condition; others are no more than vaguely unpleasant and unsavory, self-pitying anecdotes, fueled by too many beers and too many drugs, tossed back and forth late at night, long after the last round should have been called.
Waiting for the Lady comes off as a strange book, both compelling and repulsive -- a frustrating and uneven mixture of beauty and ugliness, truth and lies. Somehow, an observation like "the thing about traveling with someone you know, they know without a lot of explanation what lies beyond the irony of a phrase" exists between the same covers as the account of a dog shitting on a kitchen wall. And the end, when it comes, is in many ways not much of an ending at all, but the beginning of another story. Or is that the point?
As Sloan says, "Much of the human condition is wasted on secrets and lies and waiting to discover that most truths are too fearful to admit. Much of life is like reading a bad translation of a great work of literature. We can never know the original."
Yet the fact that we continue to tell stories, to seek the truth, to know the original, resonates long after the last page of this temperamental, ambitious and sadly beautiful book is read. Waiting for the Lady is not an easy work to get through -- nor an easy journey for its main characters, for that matter -- yet once you reach its conclusion, you'll know you've been somewhere. It's a challenging but frequently rewarding read.
Now, what that has to do with Sloan Wolcott standing on a back road in the middle of a Burmese nowhere and staring at the square eye of a goat is another story... | June 2003
Kevin Burton Smith is a regular January Magazine contributor, a Mystery Scene columnist and the editor/creator of The Thrilling Detective Web Site. A Montrealer by birth and inclination, he's been spotted recently lurking around the Los Angeles area. And oh, the stories he could tell.