Laura Jean McKay’s debut short story collection explores the intertwined worlds of Cambodia's residents and its many visitors.
If the title of Laura Jean McKay’s first story collection, Holiday in Cambodia, didn’t explicitly set out her agenda, then its first story, ‘Route 4’, not only makes it unmistakeable but disavows any expectation of subtlety in the 16 that follow. It’s something of a red herring though: while the collection hammers away at notions of atrocity or disaster tourism and the confliction of modern Western imposition, the stories are mostly echoes of the kind of sentiment Jello Biafra loaded the titular phrase with.
Ignoring for a moment the thematics of the collection, the stories are stridently social realist accounts, with several notable exceptions. In ‘A Thousand Cobs of Corn’ McKay deliberately, lyrically sets up inside the head of the long-suffering rural Cambodian wife of a man whose hands ‘have shaken since he was a boy soldier’. In ‘A Pocket Guide To Phnom Penh’, a George Saunders-like turn, the protagonists, a pair of holiday-makers, are thrown around the ‘Paris of Asia’ by a malfunctioning gadget that can’t satisfy them or get anything right. The stories alternate, almost as a rule, between Cambodian and foreign (usually Australian) voices, often making it usefully difficult to know whose desires are whose.
But to discuss the collection as simply a collection of stories would be to miss the point. In that opening story, McKay drops the reader into a train carriage packed full of an early wave of Westerners combing the east in search of enlightenment. Told more or less from the perspective of a Khmer boy, the foreigners speak as we expect foreigners to speak in this situation – with naïve worldliness – and watch everything with ‘shining, fevered eyes that suck it all in like plugholes, swirling and unfocused’. The train is hijacked, the boy derided for having ‘spent too much time with the foreigners’ and said foreigners are pushed by cadres ‘into the jungle’, figuratively taking the reader with them.
What we find there is a sprawling study of the relationships between Cambodians and (usually Australian) foreigners and the factors mitigating them. It is sprawling because it traverses most of the country’s recent history from the perspectives of characters of almost inexhaustibly varying backgrounds and motivations. It is a study because the stories hang most simply on the minutiae of the space the Cambodians and foreigners share with each other. The extant facts leading to their arrival here and the fates that await them are mostly projections arising from the snapshots of life in this tropical paradise. The snapshots themselves are vivid, though not in the sense of feeling the hot, heavy air moving or the whirring of traffic or the people talking in the background. They are vivid in the sense that one recognises the rising intonations, the sudden deliberations and the eventual resignations in the voices and movements of the characters drifting through cities, deserts and forests according to a scale of time belonging distinctly to where they are.
All of this is not to say McKay’s control of her characters extends to inhabiting them. She uses a similar register to articulate the worlds of so many different kinds of characters that she sometimes risks accidental semantic colonisation. However, the problems inherent in this approach are somewhat validated by her ability to capture with significant poignancy the politico-historical, in its most oppressive form, writ personal. A representative example is when a Cambodian prostitute stares at a protagonist for ‘a long time without blinking’ he turns ‘her towards the wall’.
In Holiday in Cambodia, McKay derives a spectacular array of pasts and futures from the small twists in the intertwined fates of people who call Cambodia home and those who look for one there, however temporary. They’re not stories about what Cambodia looks or feels or tastes like but about what those things mean to those who live there. Which ultimately makes it less about a ‘Holiday’ and more about a vocation of some kind, complete with contradictions and complications and people who really just want to get something ‘fifty cents cheaper that way.’
Rating: 4 stars out of 5
Holiday in Cambodia
By Laura Jean McKay
Paperback, 224pp, RRP $24.99