Gloves Off: Round XXVIII
Doctors talk doctor talk
Today’s deep dive takes us to Bangkok Blues by Mustafa Marwan
It’s the first chapter of a novel, but stands alone as a story. To read it as originally published, please click here.
I am sitting inside a go-go bar in Bangkok waiting for someone to get shot.
The blue fluorescent lights are getting closer. And hotter. I move my hand to the brown prescription bottle in my pocket, but something tells me maybe those little white brain mechanics could be the cause of these claustrophobic feelings from the first place.
My Comments: Let’s look at the gerund construction “am sitting.” Minimalism has a bugaboo about gerunds (the “ing” form of verbs). As I’m led to believe, the gerund never seems as strong as, say, “I sit in side a go-go-bar in Bangkok and wait for someone…” Or, “I sat inside a go-go bar in Bangkok and waited…” It’s a matter of taste, but I also have to steer you toward submerging the “I” by not leading with it.
A model steps to the stage and mechanically takes off her rope and stands naked in front of a semi-circle of white tourists of the type referred to here as farangs.
Her first act is a ping pong match. Thailand has invented its own version for strengthening international relations. Unlike Nixon’s Ping Pong diplomacy, the Thai version is more euphemistic.
My Comments: I am so glad you went here. Thank you. This lets me work my stripper analogy yet again. It goes like this:
Imagine a stripper walking out on stage fully naked — Magic Mike, let’s say — he points as his exposed junk and says, “These are my genitals. Any question?” No mystery. No tease. The audience hates this. They want a slow reveal. The reader wants to see the idea generated the way a stripper works a pole. We’ve all seen genitals, big deal. So we want to delay that reveal for as long as possible. With that in mind, your opening “I am sitting inside a go-go bar in Bangkok waiting for someone to get shot” is a little like the stripper saying, “I’m going to dance for you and show you my genitals.”
Initially, it sounds enticing, but it’s not your best lead. What is the smallest teasing bit of information — indirect, but compelling — that you can offer the reader? Consider:
You never want to find yourself in a bar like this without a tourniquet.
Or, Whatever happens, I need to not get blood in my mouth tonight.
Or, Yeah, maybe I’m not white enough to teach English, but I know my way around a bullet wound.
The point is to entice with something small. You’re a stripper just taking off one glove. Once small physical action that suggests a long reveal.
The model flexes her pelvic muscles as she lodges the ping pong ball into her privates, which no longer are, and squirts it to lob like a mortar shell inside a half-full glass in front of one of the cheering crowd. The lucky faranag picks up the glass and drinks.
At the fuzzy periphery of my vision, Ponaloee is approaching in a halo of outer space blue fluorescent light. He winks at me and smiles with yellow teeth and brown gums. ‘Hey doc, you like?’
My Comments: Attribution, please. And a doctor would know/name exactly which pelvic muscles. He could unpack this whole physical act. That’s his body of knowledge, so prove to us he’s a doctor. He could look at a nude woman and read her entire dietary/medical history. Drug use. Skin conditions. A doctor would know her life from her body.
‘Come on. No judgement in Thailand. Especially here in Mickey bar.’
I just shrug and wish if he would just shut up. The little white mechanics are hammering down at the wrong synapses in my brain.
My Comments: Attribution. When you let dialog hang in space like this you pass up the chance to tell us what Ponaloee is doing with his hands. His feet. How his hair hangs in his face, or not. These are the characteristics that will plant him in the reader’s mind. As he speaks, let him snatch a rocketing ping-pong ball out of the air. Show that he lives and breathes this place.
He finishes his drink and pushes back his bar stool. ‘I go for my business, okay?’ He waits until I give him a sign of life in the form of a nod. He continues, ‘I call you if I need you.’ He wiggles his finger in my face and nods to the stage. ‘Don’t give her your mobile. Her pussy can swallow anything.’
Ponlawee goes to the model on the stage, kisses her and slips her an object that looks like a kinder egg. She giggles and I almost believe she is genuine. She shoves the kinder egg inside her pussy as she holds his gaze, tilting her head to the side and half squinting in that way women think men can’t resist.
My Comments: What’s a kinder egg? Really step on this, if it’s a gun or clock — if it will resolve the scene by doing something. But that won’t work if the reader is forced to set down the book and Google “kinder egg.”
And again, if a doctor is narrating this, he’d be more clinical in his language, right? By his language we should know he’s a doctor, so you won’t have to tell us. Let your reader realize “He’s a doctor!”
Ponlawee goes inside a back corridor where the "management" is. After a short break, the show moves to a round of drinks where the model opens the beer bottles by some insert-and-twist action from her pelvic muscles. No trace of the kinder egg hatching inside her.
How did I go that low? I have moved to Thailand a few months ago after my medical licence were revoked in the UK for reasons related to my consumption of the little white mechanics like M&Ms.
My Comments: Ouch, we’re already out of the scene. Summarizing and in flashback. This is all second chapter information. You’ve got the first chapter to hook us with action and tension and raised questions. This summary merely tells us some background. If it’s needed, it should come much farther along in the story.
Again, his language and knowledge should mark him as a doctor so you don’t have to leave the scene to tell us.
I thought it would be easy for me to work as an English teacher in Bangkok, but I was not white enough to convince top schools I was a native speaker. With my increased headaches, I had to look for more experienced and stronger little white brain mechanics. Pethidine, Diludid, Demerol, DF-118s. The dependence on these mechanics strengthened my ties with Ponlawee who had contacts with the underbelly of Thailand’s crime life.
My Comments: Yeah, all of this should be demonstrated in a scene. Or many. As soon as you use the verb “thought” it signals that you’re taking a shortcut and summarizing.
Also, what are the different distinctions of “white” in Bangkok? We’d love to hear how race is broken down and judged. That kind of insider detail would give you even more authority.
That's how things ended up for me. In the span of a few years, I moved from being a respectable NHS surgeon to an off-the-books one batching up gangsters thousands of kilometres away. Tonight, Ponlawee is brokering an important business deal in the “management” quarters between two rival criminal families of Bangkok. A deal concerning a big shipment of Yaabaa, the Thai version of ecstasy, and the BMW of brain mechanics for Thailand’s night-life rides.
My Comments: Batching = patching? Instead of summarizing all of this, we need to see the doctor in action. Shoot someone. Save them. Show the narrator doing his job, and you won’t have to summarize and describe it.
And beware, the character is so wrapped up inside himself that this begins to feel like the dreaded Character Alone. Keep the camera looking elsewhere. Keep us aware of the pills in his pocket because these are the most important objects in the scene.
Ponlawee, the criminal broker, and aspiring gangster, has brought me here as a public health mitigation measure in case the deal went south. No one here cares for a medical licence as long as I know how to suture a knife twist wound and not ask questions. He said it was unlikely, but a good broker must account to all possibilities.
My Comments: Again, put all of this into action. And what’s become of the ping-pong ball? Keep track of your objects. As always “thought verbs” like cares and know and account are shortcuts that preclude the power of you actually showing these things in action.
I met Ponlawee through Max Gorsky, an ex American marine turned private security contractor, whom I have been taken a hostage with in a hospital in Yemen where I worked as a war surgeon a couple of years ago. Max had met Ponlawee when he was in Thailand a while back as a part of a private investigation team hired by the Saudis to reveal the whereabouts of the infamous Blue Diamond.
My Comments: A lot of names for a first chapter. Again, you’re forcing the reader to assimilate too much general information. The reader will watch and retain action, but not this summarized backstory.
The official narrative was that a Thai domestic worker has stolen a priceless blue diamond thirty years ago from the palace of a Saudi prince and fled back home. Until now, the diamond remained unearthed but what surfaced instead was dozens of Thai and Saudi dead bodies. At the time he met Max, Ponlawee was hustling as one of the body guards of the Thai former chief of police who was suspected of helping the domestic worker hide the diamond. After a light stint in jail that was much better than serving Arab royalty, the enlightened Thai worker and the former chief of police turned into monks. True story.
My Comments: Again, too much too soon. We need action and objects to keep us grounded in the scene. You’re rushing.
I order a Ginger Ale as the ping pong match turns into an archery class. With the accuracy of an SAM guided missile, the model is shooting down party balloons with darts fired from a flute-like apparatus in the sharp eye of her pussy. The balloons collapse and hit the ground like unfortunate paratroopers.
My Comments: What becomes of the errant darts? Keep track of your objects?
Funny how Thai people, who don’t even kiss in public, never attend these shows which are marketed only for foreigners. Something in this reminds me of a parent not wanting to upset a spoiled child. But what that makes me? I look at the door with its exit sign pegging me to follow its instruction, but it is past mid-night, and my home is far away. The hard-working white mechanics in my brain hammer down the thought that I am different than those miserable low lives. The hammering pops out a dent, a wrinkle, in my cerebrum and I drop the subject and smile.
My Comments: Good start at Big Voice. I’d rather hear an observation about the culture than about the narrator’s mind. You’ll earn more authority by teaching us something.
An almost naked petite and glazed-eyed Thai girl is in a sexy nurse custom leaning on one of the three stainless steel poles next to the stage. She pulls a duck face, and a Kardashian ass pose, as another girl snaps photos of her with her mobile camera. A couple of white men, one old with silver hair and the other young with a hipster beard, chat and drink with two other Thai girls, one of them is sitting on the old man’s lap. This country is full of different types of farangs. Old ones hoping to enjoy things they couldn't in their youth. And young ones fearing of missing out on something they are not sure even exists. Greedy gardeners plucking beautiful roses pre-maturely.
My Comments: If no one gets shot in this scene, the promise to the reader will be broken. Again, how would a doctor see these sex tourists? How would a doctor see any disease that might be present? That forensic stuff will register with us longer than a metaphor about beautiful roses.
As I stare at my piss-coloured ginger ale, my mind hooks dives deeper into the interesting insights you get when your head is a garage full of white little mechanics with fuckall to do. I am having the most profound epiphany as I realise for the first time that each set of ten digits have different colours when visualised inside the mind’s screen. The tens are tan coloured, twenties are neon white, thirties are kinda reddish, forties dark cold colour somewhere between green and blue and fifties are yellowish. Before I start exploring sixties, the screen in my head changes to an old familiar basement. I am surrounded by medical equipment and people from half a dozen nationalities. Bullets whizz over our heads. The thud of a mortar landing on the roof over my head snaps me out of my reverie. My head jerks back and my eyes open as the mortar explosion fades back into my past.
My Comments: So these are actual bullets and mortars? Can you morph the popping of balloons into the popping of bullets? Can you morph the threat of in-coming darts into the reality of missiles? That would be a smart way to morph your objects. And I still want to see what’s become of the “kinder” egg and the first ping-pong ball.
If the kinder egg is shot out, and ends up delivered to someone else. A tourist? That would show us the object changing hands toward its destination.
Instead of blacking out — which seems like a cheat in order to avoid depicting action, and used just to elapse time — why not show the narrator saving lives? That demonstration of skills would establish authority and hook us into reading further.
Outside my head, noise has fallen off a cliff with a faint whistling sound. I blink the sweltering heat and the fact that I am on my back. I try to engage my memory banks to know where I am but all I see there is a demolished garage and a lot of dead little white mechanics. A ball of panic blooms from my solar plexus and squeeze at my vital organs as I try to take stock of my surroundings.
My Comments: It’s tough to build tension when the narrator is so inside his own head. Can you turn the camera elsewhere and just show us the events and scene taking place? You’ve established several characters — old men, hipster, sexy nurse — why not put the focus on them? This constant filtering through the narrator never allows the reader to experience the scene.
That jolt of uncontrolled fear never gets old no matter how many times these blackouts happen. As usual, it is followed by the thought: Make sure your trousers are on.
I have this condition. It started with the collapse of my nervous system under the weight of my hostage crisis in Yemen and a chronic battery of an DSM-5 all-star mental health illnesses. I then started to have these blackouts. Holes in my memory like a gap tooth that could go on for hours.
My Comments: Wait! You’ve just got the action started, and you’re already leaving the scene to talk about the past and a medical condition? Demonstrate the black out. After the narrator recovers you might hint at the condition, just by saying it’s not the first time. When you explain up front about the condition you destroy all the tension by telling us what you’re going to do next. Instead, just do it.
The world through my eyes looks unreal, dancing around the edges. Everything has changed except for the blue fluorescent light. The music has stopped, and the air is full of cordite and smells of terror. I realise I am laying behind the bar and the lifeless body of the waiter is slummed over me, exhausting my breathing.
The whistling sound in my ears is replaced by sirens that grow louder. I hear a commotion and arms in blue first aid uniform grab me and lead me outside into the old night. The indifferent humidity of Bangkok hits me like a slap in the face as people I don’t recognise keep saying words I don’t understand. Someone puts a blanket over my shoulders as I sit on the stepping step of an open ambulance. I check my watch and it is past three in the morning. I look across the narrow alley at the bullet ridden go-go bar and I feel parched. The bar sign is slanted and its M and E blue neons are off and the rest of the letters keep blinking: iky…iky…iky.
My Comments: If this narrator is a doctor, I’d like to see proof of that in this mayhem. Language specific to a doctor. I want to see this all through his body of knowledge. Save a life. Especially if it’s Ponaloee’s.
I recognise the model with the polymath pussy nearby smoking and shaking with two other girls. There are blood smears on her face and the top of her incredibly short blue dress, but it doesn’t look it is hers. I think of asking her what happened? Where is Ponlawee?
My Comments: Careful. You’ve gotten to naked, bloodied women shaking in fear. But when you say something clever like “polymath pussy” you wreck the tension and edge into comedy. Is this what you want to do?
I stand and start walking towards her as she moves away from her friends and gazes at something in her hand. What looks like a kinder egg. She covers it with her other hand and gasps as she opens it. A blue glint escapes from between her fingers but maybe it is the reflections of the ambulances’ lights.
My Comments: Good, great. But rather than have us knowing it’s the diamond, why not stretch out this discovery process? Don’t mention the diamond in this chapter. Allow the reader to wonder about the blue glint, and carry the mystery forward.
A paramedic is waving at me to get back down but I brush him away. I reach for my pocket and a hole replaces my heart as I realise I have lost the prescription bottle with all my little white mechanics. MIA. When I look back up, the girl was gone.
My Comments: Again, the thought verb “realise” robs you of the frantic patting of pockets, the looking around the floor, all the physical action that will show the narrator’s desperation. He flings the dead and dying aside as he searches for his pills. He crawls through blood and broken glass, feeling for his pill box. That’s the panicked action of your end. Don’t look up to find the girl gone. That resolves tension. Instead, crawl in debased horror looking for the pills, then — cut.
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