Two Smiles for Showfreaks

[For a Thai-language version “แสยะแสยง แสยะสยาม,” click here.]

Image from PPTV HD 36 of a defaced election poster of Suthep Thaugsuban, founding member of political party Action Coalition for Thailand.

A child by night rides a three-decked cruiseferry up or down the coast or river. He sits at the frontmost table paradiddling with his chopsticks in the interlude. Lights come on the stage. Sludgy and myriad like acid dream. Black globe with holes shoots pink green magenta. Spiral projections on languid faces in the karaoke pandemonium. Satiate deathmasks huddled in groups and eyes glinting like dim stars. And there’s the show. An eruption of plumes and seethrough dresses lined with the most sequins he has ever seen gathered in one place. He doesn’t know why but he can’t keep his eyes on the dancers. Can’t keep his eyes on when one steps close and wiggles her belly inches from his face. Can’t get a rise out of his unbonneted dick like his friends say he’s supposed to. Like he doesn’t know what he’s supposed to be seeing.

Perhaps sensing unease in the child the father leans over the table, over scraps of lime-steamed snapper or fucking shark fin soup nobody else has touched, and assures, These aren’t real women.

When the headliner loses her top he looks up. Squints not to see sharper but to not be seen back. Courage reciprocated with a longlashed wink and a rouge airkiss he could feel burning his head whole. Jerky twitches stretch thin the corners of his mouth and he holds it there. This is the first smile.

Fast forward to the future and Thanaton J. has challenged the notion of the thai smile as indicative of thai people’s worldfamous geniality, to the effect that, rather than to display genuine amicability, we force up the corners of our mouth because we realize too well the absurdity of saying anything while powerless or because we lack the critical faculty to understand what we are facing beyond the ideological level. Thanaton’s observation, met with criticisms from pro-status quo oppositions, invites wariness of the second smile, one employed by party candidates for house representatives whose billboard portraits appeared overnight a few weeks ago everywhere and out of nowhere like adverts for some once in a lifetime show on March 24. For my district some of these new freaks are running with old names larger than themselves. Won YOOBAUMRUNG with a pedostache for PTP. Eggheaded Samat MUANGSIRI for DP and his family owning much of the Bangbon strip on Eggachai road. While nameless contender FFP’s Ganpong P. competes under the ridiculous epithet Lord of smile.

Whether these billed clowns know any better than we do, how complicit are they in the crimes that constitute our history, what changes can be expected from a new management, these questions that seem perpetually relevant to the point of impasse may not lead to any meaningful breakthrough according to Thomas Ligotti’s short political allegory The Town Manager1. Students of the weird genre of fiction will recognize the tendency to make a circus out of everyday life as Ligotti’s bread and butter. Unlike Lovecraft’s learned and financially worryfree protagonists who slum wherever their morbid curiosity would lead; Ligotti’s mostly penniless blue or pinkcollars live a nightmare of existence enlivened by barnumite freakshows and bizarre pleasures sold in seedy cabaret joints or rundown carnivalesque attractions, allow themselves to be swallowed up in surreal grotesqueries to stave off a return to their default state of lassitude, to conceal from their own eyes the puppet strings drawn taut upward from their own backs into an impenetrable darkness. The difference between the two weirdists in their positing of terror — the former in clear-cut cosmic determinism, the latter as freely willed reactive hedonia to inarticulable unfreedom — is telling: while Lovecraft’s underlying philosophy bears the mark of an amateur Nietzschean2; Ligott’s brings to mind a more horrific, contemporary imaginative strain of Kafka.

Judge for yourself The Town Manager, in which the citizens of a small unnamed town suffer from the poor and nonsensical governing of the titular official. The unnamed narrator, who sweeps the floor at Leeman’s barbershop, reveals the vague circumstances surrounding this position. Each manager since the time of the town’s founding has always been an outsider, each equally nameless male as nondescript in appearance as the town itself, each accomplishing fewer and fewer superficial and unnecessary civil projects before suddenly disappearing, only for his successor to arrive as suddenly by unknown means of ingress. Who appoints these incompetents, and by what criteria are they selected, is a matter so removed from everyday life that no one even bothers to speculate. The townsfolk’s doubt in this arrangement, detailed without reference to its actual provenance in the town’s charter, waxes almost to self-determination during the brief period of absence of the previous town manager and wanes back to docility as soon as they discover that a new one has arrived.

The tenure of the final town manager before the narrator takes his leave, an unseen illiterate who knows only one vowel and communicates in capital letters through short messages on pulpy scraps of paper carried down Main street by wind, seems at first to promise a new age of prosperity. Unlike his predecessors, the final manager abandons all formal pretenses at civic improvement, his first decree being the demolition of the town’s novel trolley system. When the townsfolk hesitate in carrying out this order, unprecedented in that no reason for it is given, the grewsome remains of Carnes the trolley operator is found the following day on his usual morning route.

In a span of few weeks, the manager converts the town into a tourist trap, announcing with a banner at the entrance WELCOME TO FUNNY TOWN. Its former amenities and their operators are repurposed. Leeman no longer trims hair but serves as attendant to a gigantic playpen wearing only an oversized diaper; store walls are knocked down to form one massive indoor labyrinth of toilets and locked rooms; alleys behind the buildings on Main street expand vertically and horizontally, fusing residences with byways through which tourists come and go as they please3; and so on.

On the surface, Ligotti’s allegory may seem to apply only to a decentralized form of authoritarianism which the united states of America epitomizes. In truth, the monarchic institution of thailand and its prime enforcers have also adopted something similar. Recall the thai royal guards parade in 2015, when moribund king Poomipon had grown too bedridden to even be wheeled out of the hospital. Cadets and draftees from units designated as royal guards marched in full regalia past thousands of spectators to declare fealty to an empty palace, which is itself open to tourists all week long.

Another example of untraceable authority is the upcoming purchase of S-70i helicopters by RTAF to be added to the royal fleet. Everyone knows who wants these birds but none will find any mention of a Mr.X in RTAF’s contract. It will name instead a slew of group captains and air marshals on committees with elaborate designations, bearers of fragments each enough to be held accountable only for bits and pieces of defective equipment upon delayed delivery, fragments that combine into one ultimate signatory. The purchaser of these personal transports some fucking how becomes the kingdom of thailand. Complaints directed toward policies such as this, even on fiscal grounds, are brought up only insofar as the defence ministry is involved and no further. Like Ligotti’s human puppetry, the strings can be traced only so far up.

The recent constitutional court ruling to dissolve the TSNP, following its controversial nomination of rogue princess Ubonrat, demonstrates how the will of the ruling elite is carried out through a process of dissipation that relegates responsibility to some Lacanian Big Other4 and dissolves a clear topdown chain of command which everyone expects in a government run by military traditionalists.

The closing scene of The Town Manager offers a look at a radical quandary that some of us may have arrived at. After the novelty of FUNNY TOWN has worn off and tourism has died, the illiterate town manager absconds with the town’s coffers, filled to the brim through racketeering by an outsourced police force. The narrator, of late repurposed to sell papercup soup to tourists exploring the deepest recesses of the Main street alleyworld, has had enough and decides to leave town on foot before the arrival of the next successor. He travels far and wide as an itinerant worker, but everywhere he goes there are only towns and cities operated under the same principle as the one he escaped. Finally, at the absolute end of his rope, he sits down at a coffee shop in a city or town for a bowl of soup and contemplates suicide. As he finishes the last spoonfuls, a welldressed man sitting at the other end of the counter approaches. The man introduces himself as a representative of a recruitment commission and offers the position of town manager to the narrator, who appears to the man like someone who has been to places and ‘knows his way around’. The story concludes with the narrator wearily justifying his acquiescence to this offer: It was either that or make an end of it. This statement echoes from the deepest depth of despair, an antineutral space where nonparticipation is inconceivable, where the scrivener Bartleby cannot even voice his preference not to.

When Sereepisut says he’s going after corrupt government officials, and when Thanaton J. asks if we have not grown sick of five idle years with no progress, be wary of what corruption really means and what this nebulous progress entails. The horror of The Town Manager lies as much in the surreal as in the townsfolk’s compliance to their constitution and in the final manager’s frantic activity. To proclaim a definite negative to the Big Other, like the narrator’s unrealized suicide, remains our only truly free albeit potentially fatal option.

1 First published in the 2006 collection Teatro Grottesco.

2 Indeed, Lovecraft’s fascination with Nietzsche, whom he read not long after WWI, is well documented in biographical materials. In the October 1921 issue of Sonia H. Green’s fanzine Rainbow, appeared Lovecraft’s Nietzscheism and Realism in which he construed Nietzsche’s denial of free will as an affirmation of his affected Toryism.

3 An imagery highly reminiscent of Junji Ito’s 道のない街 (The Town Without Streets) and such real-world networks of alleys existing in increasing ubiquity as this here city of gods claws its way toward the prosperity it keeps promising. Students familiar with both weirdists will not fail to notice an overall thematic and aesthetic kinship between their respective portions of absurdist works.

4 The Big Other is a type of social reality conceptualized by French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan. Perhaps it is best understood in relation to George Orwell’s more popular concept of the Big Brother. If Big Brother is this symbolic or actual figure of highest authority in society, then we who consume the fiction creates a reality in which the Big Brother retains its power with minimal direct involvement. This reality, which can assume juridical or etiquettal forms, is the Big Other.