Books: Cambodia as metaphor

Brian Fawcett‘s angry, bracing Cambodia: A Book For People Who Find Television Too Slow: a daring act of intellectual guerrilla warfare.

A poet by trade (see, A Poetry War in Prince George 2012/04), Brian Fawcett has a side job deconstructing modern civilization in a stunning series of fiction and non-fiction books and stories (his Virtual Clearcut: Or, the Way Things Are in My Hometown won the 2003 Writer’s Trust prize for Canadian non-fiction). Cambodia, a volume that uses thirteen riotous, edgy, mildly experimental works deploring the mind-destroying impact of consumerist culture and sensationalist mass media to annotate a powerful denunciation of the agonies, extraordinary even measured against the exalted standards of 20th century atrocities, endured three decades ago by Cambodia’s people at the hands of its murderous Khmer Rouge overlords.

The book’s awkward layout — short pieces run across the top of its pages, the long essay along the bottom quarter its entire length — contribute to its subversive appeal. I can’t imagine what section of the bookstore you’ll find Cambodia: it’s at once an incendiary indictment contemporary society, a dissertation on the role of the fiction-writer — the artist — in the late modern era, and a thoughtful, passionate, well-informed and provocative meditation on the lasting poison of imperialism.

What it is not, strictly speaking, is a travel book, although it does capture the faith in human interconnectedness that animates so many of us to caravan to other cultures and places.

Habitual travelers, it seems to me, are frequently driven to explore other societies as a reaction to, almost as a kind of protest against the accelerating homogenization and debasement of their own. It wasn’t so long ago that you wouldn’t have needed to travel much beyond the other side of the next hill to encounter an alien world. Now mass media is forging a universal culture whose shallowness — language coarsened, simplified; bland, anything-goes-as-long-as-no-one-is-truly-offended aesthetics; wealth and power exalted, the cloak of powerlessness meekly donned; dehumanizing indifference to violence and suffering; feeling and “faith” triumphant over fact, seance before science, history reconstituted as subjective fiction; critical thinking feared and rejected; memory and imagination annihilated — causes Brian Fawcett to worry that, on a planet where “Cambodia is as near as your television set,” we risk the loss of “our right to remember our pasts and envision new futures.”

Cambodia: A Book for People Who Find Television Too Slow (Collier 1986) by Brian Fawcett is available at Amazon and other booksellers.

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