I came to understand more about Cambodian society from any one of the stories in Anthony Veasna So’s Afterparties than I did in the years during which I regularly visited the country, in the mid-1990s, as an occasional stringer for the upstart Cambodia Daily.
The country was just emerging into a self-governing democracy, or trying to, complete with its own free press, however fragile. I wandered the streets of Phnom Penh grasping for a clue as to the nature of a place and a people with which I was entirely unfamiliar. In literature, as in life, or maybe in death, since I am talking about a country ravaged by war, Cambodia had been a sideshow.
And here is Anthony So, 25 years later, with his first-generation Khmer-Americans living in the shadow of not just genocide but “AUTOGENOCIDE,” as one character puts it incredulously, as though that makes the individual suffering collectively worse.
In the opening story in Afterparties, “Three Women of Chuck’s Donuts,” two sisters work for their mother at her doughnut shop in a dusty backwater city in California. When a man comes to mysteriously sit for hours in the shop, he summons the specter of their absent father. It’s probably the most tightly plotted, restrained, even vaguely noirish story in the book, which is otherwise propelled by an antic, profane energy, the characters brimming to the point of overflow. But it establishes a milieu of “Cambo men,” who “fixed cars, sold donuts, or got on welfare.”
There are some obnoxious rich mings (aunts) dotting So’s landscape, but the vibe is down-and-out. “Maly, Maly, Maly,” the third story, and the point at which the book lifts off into an altitude of incandescence from which it never descends, opens with the narrator and his cousin Maly banished by the mas (grandmas), who are preparing for a Buddhist ceremony to honor Maly’s dead mom, “because one of us—not me—would not shut the fuck up.” So they sit outside “in a rusty pickup truck, the one leaking oil, the one with the busted transmission that sounds like the Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Here we are with the engine running for the AC, the doors wide-open for our bare legs to spill out. Because this, right here, to survive the heat, this is all we have.”
I have a thing for debut collections of stories. They seem possessed of some essence of the author’s sensibility, which blooms and then permeates all the later work, where it is elaborated on but often never really improved upon. I’m thinking of Dubliners, In Our Time, Miguel Street, The Enormous Radio, Bad Behavior, Transactions in a Foreign Currency, The Interpreter of Maladies, Drinking Coffee Elsewhere, Venus Drive, even Nine Stories, though that one is not technically a debut. Also, my late friend Robert Bingham’s first collection, Pure Slaughter Value, which I happened to be re-reading at the time I received Afterparties, a welcome new addition to this illustrious pile.
The book is propelled by an antic, profane energy, the characters brimming to the point of overflow.
Really, I should leave Bingham out of this—So’s book is a literary event in itself. But the serendipity of my reading one book when I brought home the other and the similar notes of profane confidence in the voice make me want to compare them. Also, it was Bingham who convinced me to join him in Cambodia.
At first glance, the settings of these books could not be more different. “Doubles,” the story in Pure Slaughter Value that I happened to be reading the day I brought Afterparties home, recounts a tennis date between a young commodities trader and an older married woman. “Money, age, and marriage,” the protagonist thinks on the way to the court, “they were a perplexing mystery he felt fated to fuck up.” The competing imperatives in the world So depicts are sex, family, and independence—the sticky impossibility of sustaining them all without sacrificing them all.
So’s protagonists are first-generation immigrant kids, at once liberated and nestled to the point of imprisonment in the claustrophobic confines of the “Cambodia-American” community, with its rigid hierarchy of mings and pous (uncles), the good Cambodian grocery and the not good grocery, those that work crap jobs and those who have risen to the exalted rank of pharmacist.
Bingham alchemized his Cambodia experiences into a novel, Lightning on the Sun, which came out six months after he died of a drug overdose. So died in December, also from an overdose, before the release of Afterparties. In both cases, one reads with a knowledge that all the life on the page comes from somebody who is already dead, and much too soon.
I approached the end of Afterparties filled with the grief and ambivalence that one feels toward the end of all great books, a kind of literary separation anxiety. But I will say this for Afterparties: I can’t think of a book I’ve read more filled with the joy of life.