At Arvon last week I was ranting – as you do – about John Burdett’s ‘Bangkok 8’, the only psychedelic transvestite Thai reincarnation police procedural you’ll ever need to read (apart, of course, from its sequel ‘Bangkok Tattoo’).
And, if that whets your appetite for Thai mythology, there’s much else out there – S.P. Somtow’s short stories and in particular his rather lovely coming of age novel ‘Jasmine Nights’ deal very directly with Thailand’s unreal realms, while Graham Joyce’s ‘Smoking Poppy’ is a much more oblique and restrained take on intersections between fantasy and reality. And that’s just for starters…
What’s interesting is how many of the characters in these novels perceive the fantastic. They take visions of past lives, strange ghosts, practising magicians, exotic curses, and so on, completely in their stride. Reading about such things may be a form of escape for us, but for them it’s the everyday world.
Ostensibly, that takes these books into the realms of fantasy, where Frodo is completely unsurprised by Gandalf’s existence and behaviour because he knows that wizards are real. But there are no hobbits in these books. They deal with authentic worldviews, rooted in direct experience, held by entirely non-fictional people who – if you step on a plane – you can go and meet and chat to.
Commonly, fantasy writing is seen as a form of escapism, but this kind of work points to an opposite function. It understands fantasy to include ‘things unexperienced’ as well as ‘things impossible’, reminding us again and again that there are many more ways of interpreting and engaging with this world than the overly reductive, rationalising modes we so easily fall back on.