Book Review : Mark Rapacz - Foreigners (Waeguk) (2015)
Mark Rapacz' novel Foreigners (Waeguk) appeared on my doorstep sometime last year. It's always nice to receive unexpected mail from authors, but it's been known to sometimes cause editorial logjams. I don't know much about Rapacz except that he's based in Minnesota and has released another novel titled Boondoggle with 280 Steps this September. Foreigners (Waeguk) looked like a perfectly fine novel, yet I've delayed my reading for an obscene amount of time because I couldn't find it a pertinent calendar slot. It's a tough book to summarize in one sentence but it sure remained interesting in its highs and its lows.
Foreigners (Waeguk) is the story of two young American expatriates teaching English in Korea. Ben is an angry and anxious young man learning to cope with his homosexuality and Durst is satisfying his various tough guy fantasies somewhere he can truly live off the grid. Both young men are moonlighting in a drug smuggling operation their employer is running, and experience an interloper lifestyle they wouldn't have dared dreaming of in America. But living out fantasies carries a price tag wherever you go and the convenience of being off the grid waeguks is eventually going to turn against them. Living on the edge is life-affirming but you're always one breath away from a terrible demise.
What a weird book.
Foreigners (Waeguk) is, first and foremost, a novel about American expat culture and it is quite critical of it, which is fine. Mark Rapacz depicts the expatriates as existential tourists seeking enlightenment by wreaking havoc like wild toddlers in places where consequences can be avoided by simply sprinting away. I mean, it plays in Alex Garland's iconic novel The Beach territory a little and it doesn't quite compare but I can only praise the courage it must've taken Rapacz to tackle a theme an iconic author already covered so eloquently. It's difficult to ask for a more original setting for a crime novel, though. I mean, we're far removed from all the Joey Baloneys from the Bronx or from the schmuck detectives trying to find a single mother's kidnapped child in order to reconcile themselves with a traumatic event in their past. It's also what differentiates Foreigners (Waeguk) from Garland's soft dystopian novel. For better or worse.
My problem with the novel - and I'm not 100% sure it's a problem - is that Ben (who narrates the novel in first person) isn't ironically what he criticizes. He's much worse. Him and Durst are kind of assholes. Not only they buy into American expat culture in a conscious, self-aware and self-loathing way, but they're peddling dope in a country that was kind enough to welcome their no good, drifting asses AND Ben complains his life feels unreal. He keeps repeating in the novel that it feels like playing a video game. Of course, I'm sure you've figured out already that he complains even worse when his life feels TOO real. So that put me in a curious headspace throughout my reading. It kept me reading with a furious intensity because I wished for terrible things to happen to Ben and Durst. So, I must've perversely enjoyed my antagonistic relationship to the protagonist, yet I questioned the self-awareness of the process.
Anyway, the are a lot of original details about Mark Rapacz' Foreigners (Waeguk) that make it a unique reading experience. For example, the protagonist is homosexual. I can't think of another occurrence of this in contemporary crime fiction aside from Joe R. Lansdale's Leonard Pine and yet he's not even the star own show. He exists in a novel narrated by another character. White men who write tough guys have the terrible habit to write white tough guys with LGBTQ friends who can only exist under their protection, so kudos to Rapacz for crossing that line and writing a complex, flawed and somewhat engrossing homosexual character. I've also appreciated the political undertones of Foreigners (Waeguk), which contributed to the unique, pulpy feeling of the novel. I mean, it's tough to "appreciate" characters you want to see die a horrible death every time you turn a page, but Mark Rapacz went through great pains to make sure we did.
So yeah, Foreigners (Waeguk) is inherently flawed but it always remains INTERESTING, which is half the battle, really. Mark Rapacz' first person narration is engrossing yet somewhat confusing at time and the book made me foam at the mouth sometimes for sparing its garbage human being of a protagonist of the thousand deaths he deserved, but it kept me reading. It kept me frantically turning the pages, so I must've perversely enjoyed the process of wishing ill to the protagonist. Part of me thought it would've functioned best without a rather nondescript crime aspect to it, though. Dope smuggling is dull by any crime novel standard, but it kind of is the only dull thing about Foreigners (Waeguk). It's a really strange book. I'm not sure what else to tell you but to experience it for yourself. It is plenty disorienting.