As I’ve harped about before, my biggest gripe with contemporary novels is that they sometimes don’t finish what they start. They can begin with a certain level of craft, story-telling, writerly attention–whatever you want to call it–and end up in 10 or 25 or 50 pages something less than that. I notice this more in novels from big commercial publishers, but it’s hardly an exclusive club. This sudden slip down the chasm of mediocrity seemingly can happen in any new book, by any publisher, at any time.
I don’t choose this pet-peeve lightly. I choose it because I’m a careful (okay, slow) reader, and I really don’t want to waste my time on a novel that starts out strong and finishes weak. There are so many worthy novels out there, and getting me to page 100 of yours only to have you phone it in makes me resentful towards you. You’ve already gotten my money and my attention once–I’m not going to be a repeat customer.
Currency is about two characters, Robin, a young American female ex-pat who bounces around Southeast Asia maxxing out credit cards and searching for direction; and Piv, her attractive Thai boyfriend with big if not very clear plans of someday succeeding in America. Both of them find a temporary solution to their problems in Abu, a Kenyan trafficker of endangered animals and animal-related products (like rhino tusks) across international borders.
What’s refreshing about Currency is how directly Zolbrod nails both of these characters. I loved Robin, who perfectly exudes the wanderlust that leads so many Westerners to Southeast Asia. Through Robin, Zolbrod offers her reader a great window into backpacker life, like when she enters a Bangkok restaurant called the Hello Guest House:
Robin knew she preferred the cozier places with interesting decor or local haunts that didn’t pander to Western tastes, that she liked to escape the backpacker throng. And there was no other way to describe the patrons who sat within the three grubby yellow walls here. They all wore more or less faded flaps of colored cotton. Their floppy day packs hung from the flaps of their chairs, and Lonely Planet guide books and plates of half-eaten pancakes dotted the tables. Everyone’s age seemed all wrong. The limb of men poked out of boys who otherwise looked so young that they gave the place a freshman dorm feel, their pink ankles and wrists like puttied plastic, while impish patchwork caps sat atop faces creased into middle age by years of sun and drugs. This is where I want to stay? Robin thought….But even as she tried to scoff, she knew that the tourist flim-flam was a harbinger of better, deeper, richer things.
The beautiful part of traveling internationally, in my limited and lately dormant experience, is to see how other cultures differ from your own, but just as relevant is to see how other cultures are strikingly similar to your own. This is how I felt when reading about Robin and Piv’s foray to Piv’s parent’s home in rural Thailand. Robin’s discomfort around Piv’s family–combined with Piv’s obliviousness to her discomfort–struck me as both real and familiar. Piv, who disappears from the house one morning leaving Robin to fend for herself against Piv’s passive-aggressive mom, seems genuinely unaware of the shaky position he’s left Robin in.
Piv came in with a joyful face, with a happy gait, with a bag of fruit.
“You sleep this morning, wow!” he said.
“Where’ve you been?” Robin asked. But he was already talking to his mother, holding up fruits Robin had never seen before–some brown and bulbous, some hairy. Grudgingly, his mother accepted a rust-colored pod from him, sniffed the skin, nodded, then took the bag.
“I told her tonight I take her to restaurant, very good one, in town.”
“Piv, I’ve just been waiting here. I’ve been up over and hour. Where have you been?”
“I rode the motorbike into town. I told you my father has that. You’ll go too. Today we’ll go ride.”
“You couldn’t have waited?”
It’s refreshing to think that the self-absorption of the young and good looking is not just an American trait but much the same halfway around the world.
If I hesitated before buying Currency, it was because I wasn’t necessarily interested in reading a novel about animal trafficking, and I’m grateful to say that Currency isn’t The Great Novel of Rhino Tusks we’ve all been hearing about. The elements of animal trafficking in the book are never relevant in their own terms but only for what they can reveal about the Robin and Piv. One of my favorite scenes is where Robin gets caught in Singapore with illegal contraband. Zolbrod draws out this scene expertly, ratcheting up the drama with each successive sentence, as a customs officer uncovers what Robin is hiding in her suitcase.
The officer reached in farther and drew out an oversized ziplock bag. He held it in front of his face just as Robin once had. There were the horns: two earthy curves spooning; two massive, stacked apostrophes that had previously signified ownership. It’s nothing, Robin thought, steeling herself. She supposed she could feign surprise, but the effort seemed impossible. It’s nothing, she wanted to tell the man who opened the bag, sniffed, then set it on his opposite palm and lifted to test its weight. His face didn’t change as he rubbed the horns through the plastic, sniffed again, then reached in to scratch the surface.
We feel Robin caught in a game she can hardly admit she’s playing, and this incident later forces her hand against Piv and the nebulous organization that recruited them.
How much more interesting and relevant would contemporary literature be if Backpacker Lit had its own section at your local bookstore? Lost summers in Peru, ex-pats in Prague, traveling India by train on a shoestring. Perhaps I’m dreaming. But if a Backpacker Lit section ever should exist, Currency will surely be one of its pillars.