Coswell's Guide to Tambralinga

by Scott Landers (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), appearing at Broadway Books, 1714 NE Broadway, Tuesday July 20, 7 pm

S omething about most contemporary fiction really rubs me the wrong way. Authors scatter their formal efforts and fail to provide appropriate weight to character development or engaging story conflicts. The stories seem unfocused and tend to exhibit an excessive reliance on "driving concepts" that, as it turns out, can't drive.

That being said, Scott Landers' new book Coswell's Guide to Tambralinga fails to deliver a conceptually interesting treatment of American travel, and struggles to hook the reader with its somewhat toddling plot. The story follows Conrad and Lucy Shermer, a couple who embark on a second marriage in a last-ditch effort to save their relationship. Their adventures are set in the non-existent Southeast Asian nation of Tambralinga. The dysfunctional duo separate shortly after their arrival; we alternately follow the paths of each character--Conrad in his search for a famous brothel, Lucy in her quest for an authentic cultural experience. The climax and denouement of the story surprised me with their sparkling pace and originality, but the middle of the story sagged, and the beginning barely roused me at all.

Fiction needs focus, and Coswell's suffers from annoying distractions. To begin with, Tambralinga is a fictional amalgam of Southeast Asian countries, an inexplicable trick that disarms and decontextualizes Landers' several attempts to weave cultural and political issues into his story. Placed in a u topos like Tambralinga, these issues aren't elaborated sufficiently enough to function as powerful narrative devices or didactic plot twists.

If Landers' book is meant to sharply critique the notion that the world is a backdrop for the self-discovery of American travelers, as the book jacket suggests, it never works up enough energy to prove its thesis. If it's meant to be good fiction, as Landers' choice of narrative storytelling suggests, its plot mechanics are too flaccid to be engaging or exemplary. "Straddling the line between fiction and non-fiction," a tag line that seems to sell a lot of contemporary fiction these days, has at least one fatal flaw: publishers are churning out books like this one, that are impotent to fiction readers and irrelevant to non-fiction readers. EVAN JAMES