Somewhere between Margaret Mead's Coming of Age in Samoa and Alex Garland's The Beach lies Mischa Berlinski's debut novel, Fieldwork. With its exotic backdrop (the hill country of northern Thailand), dogged quest for meaning (the facts behind the mysterious murder of an American missionary), and meticulous detailing of tribal customs and anthropological facts, this unlikely marriage of page-turner and dissertation results in some clever and highly entertaining fiction.
First, the premise: A young American freelance writer accompanies his girlfriend to Chiang Mai, Thailand, after the Internet start-up where he works goes out of business. Rachel takes a job teaching first grade to expat children and the uninspired scions of the Thai elite, while Mischa, the narrator, occupies himself by writing for an English-language Bangkok newspaper. It's in Bangkok, surrounded by the city's concentric rings of concrete and thick layer of smog, that Mischa visits with one of his disaffected American compatriots and learns of Martiya van der Leun.
Martiya, an anthropologist who was incarcerated in a Thai prison for the murder of a young American missionary, sets the narrator's own soul in motion. For Mischa, her tale is more than a good story: "There is something about the life as a foreigner in Thailand that draws those who find themselves unwilling or unable to think about their 401(k)s; and in the leisure, freedom, and isolation that the Far East provides, these types swing inexorably toward the pendulum-edges of their souls." The fact that Martiya killed herself while in prison by eating a ball of opium compels him to go in search of the why.
Mischa, about whom we learn very little aside from his antipathy toward steady work and a generally aimless twentysomething quality (cue Leonardo DiCaprio on the beach in Phuket), takes his investigation north to the small Dyalo village of Dan Loi, a collective of thatch huts along the Burmese border. It's there among the rice paddies and swaying palms that Martiya did her fieldwork, and this picturesque location serves as the setting of our murder mystery. With the crime itself already revealed, the narrator borrows the format from Law & Order and goes about methodically researching Martiya's case: her Dutch anthropologist/linguist father, her childhood in an Indonesian jungle village, her graduate studies at Berkeley, her intradepartmental lovers, the challenges facing the modern anthropologist. Without Martiya herself available as a witness, Mischa creates a portrait of her through inperson interviews and letters from secondary sources. What emerges is a powerful personality, a passionate woman, an ambitious scholar, "the kind of kid who got pretty heated up about politics." Martiya spent close to thirteen years living with the Dyalo, far longer than her research grant, and the degree to which she, a farang, integrated herself into their community is one of the keys to the crime.
But what exactly went wrong? And who was the victim? Enter David Walker, the thirty-year-old son of American missionaries. Born and raised in Thailand, David was the inheritor of three generations of Walkers on a quest to spread the Word and convert the Dyalo "slaves" to freedom. Raymond Walker, the family patriarch, believed that "heathenism was like some terrible but easily cured disease" and that he, along with his progeny, had alighted on this corner of the world in order to lead these unsaved souls to the "high ground." David, with his jai-yen, or "coolhearted" nature, was the mellow one, "the kind of guy who saves his energy for things that count." And for David, the thing that counted was the Grateful Dead. On a four-year hiatus in the home country (aka the US), David finds his own religion in a bong and the "Lot," the area outside each concert where the band's followers gather. David ultimately gets "right with God" when he finds his real home after Jerry's rendition of "Uncle John's Band."
Berlinski does a great job of sketching these individuals and their family histories with lush detail. Their stories, both the Walkers' and Martiya's, pulse with the ardor of their beliefs. What's clear is that all are obsessif in their own ways; what's not so clear, or not so finely wrought, is the conflict that brings these fanatics together. In the wake of such a propulsive, vivid story, the crime itself goes off with more of a whiff than a bang. It centers on Martiya's Dyalo lover and a convoluted custom surrounding the planting of rice, but this dispute lacks the drama of its setup and underserves what is otherwise engaging prose.
Berlinski invests his strongest effort in the deeper ethical questions surrounding the state of modern anthropology and the study of "primitive" peoples. Mead's Samoan research may have turned out to be of questionable accuracy, given that much of it was based on her own affair with a native teenager, but Berlinski takes a page from her nevertheless. Martiya, in all her good faith and steadfast commitment to the scientific method, is incapable of maintaining any degree of objectivity. She violates Dyalo sexual taboos and surrenders completely, or at least as much as the Dyalo will allow her, to their way of life.
Both Martiya and the Walkers are equally fascinated by the natives, whether they believe in saving them or in being saved by them, and these divergent points of view provide the north-south axis of the author's moral compass. In the end, Berlinski doesn't point the arrow in either direction, but he spends a lot of time defining the contradiction. Fieldwork offers a dazzling array of facts about a curious corner of the world. That the story gets bogged down in the glut of its own research only makes its Anthro 101 references all the more apt. That Berlinski allows himself these overzealous missteps only reinforces how much he is truly like his own characters—earnest and idealistic, but perhaps in need of a little more real-life experience.
Jenifer Berman contributes frequently to Bookforum, as well as to the New York Times Book Review and the Los Angeles Times. She works at the New Yorker.