In The Festival of Earthly Delights, Matt Dojny tells the story of American twentysomething Boyd Darrow’s journey to the fictional nation of Puchai, a Frankenstinian amalgamation of unspecified southeast Asian customs, cultures, stereotypes, and landscapes. The book’s most basic premise invites comparisons to W. Somerset Maugham’s The Painted Veil, although the innards of the novel are more readily likened to a version of Sofia Coppola’s film Lost in Translation if it were written by Michael Chabon. The novel picks up just after Boyd and his longtime girlfriend, Ulla, have landed after a 17-hour nonstop flight from Newark to Puchai International Airport, a journey Boyd has undertaken for three reasons: to stay with Ulla while she takes a position in a Puchanese theatre school, to escape the ennui of being a young American at odds with the world, the economy, and his place in them, and partially in hope of rekindling his relationship with Ulla after her recent episode of infidelity with her boss in the U.S. A healthy, tactful number of illustrations (also by Dojny) mark the chapter ends and diagram several of Boyd’s musings, while ridiculous tourism advertisements for Puchai written in lightly broken English introduce the book’s three major sections.
The book is written entirely in letters, addressed to an unidentified character whose purpose is unclear, even by the end. The epistolary structure and Puchai’s fictional backdrop combine to allow Dojny an extraordinary amount of freedom in his storytelling, a way for him to fire off new, bizarre customs whenever the plot stalls without being held accountable for any research or fact checking. He also avoids any potential accusations of caricature or stereotyping (always handy for someone writing about a part of the world besides their own), and composing the book in letters allows him to write in character, which can be put to use in any number of different ways, ranging from shielding the author from criticism over poor prose, to creating an unreliable narrator who is a filter for the information the reader receives. However, the letter structure of the book breaks down early and often, through the use of Boyd’s personal musings, especially towards the book’s conclusion, as chapters grow in length and narrate hours and days worth of dialogue and live action at a time, and Dojny ultimately doesn’t employ the structure of the book to convey anything beyond what could have been achieved without it. The nation of Puchai, though, is put to more creative use, especially regarding the book’s namesake event that is being built towards over the course of the novel. Before being translated from the Puchanese to The Festival of Earthly Delights, Boyd’s neighbor, Mr. Horse, in response to Boyd’s questioning, loosely transliterates the name of the event to:
“Festival Day of enjoy the pleasant feeling of this saddest world by being drunken, and kissing the neighbor, and become carried away with dancing to traditional music, before you become dead and do not have body for enjoying”
Being, first and foremost, a comedic novel, there are heavy emphases on the ‘pleasant feeling’, ‘drunken, and kissing thy neighbor,’ and ‘become carried away with dancing’ clauses of the ceremony, and less incidents revolving around the knowledge of unavoidable death. Dojny’s comedy is layered through the book at a rapid yet even pace, leaving no scene too concentrated with emotional impact or political discourse. His arsenal of comedic styles is vast, although he becomes notably more effective during the slightly higher minded passages, including the Puchai travel guide that Boyd has brought with him that uses “irregardless” as a word before engaging in blanket stereotypes of the Puchanese as “a mischievous and happy-go-lucky people” and shamelessly selling the country to tourists and retirees. The book also contains hilariously self-aware commentary on the behaviors and presumptions of western expats in unfamiliar territory, and the limitations of humor centered around broken English and linguistic misunderstandings (which Dojny has, by this point, certainly stretched the boundaries of).
Stylistic low points emerge when Dojny engages in scatology on several occasions (all but one of such instances are mercifully short), and when he inserts unnecessary passages that are strange for the sake of being strange, including a segment where Boyd is discussing his past experience with THC consumption that devolves into the characters trying to one up each other with ridiculous, over-embellished stories about their own past drug use. These segments are mercifully few and far between and The Festival of Earthly Delights as a result, is made exquisitely alive and relevant through its underclass indigenous population, the Malchak. They are, as Puchai is, created from a mishmash of characteristics of notable and real indigenous populations who suffer from financial and legislative inequalities, ranging from the Nahua people of Mexico, to the Akha of Southeast Asia and beyond. The Malchak are portrayed just as any persecuted population the world over would be by the travel guide and by less tolerant locals: dirtier, poorer, darker-skinned, and more prone to acts of violence. Boyd has an initial run-in with some of the Malchak on a lonely street on the wrong side of town, but the same haphazardness that allows the story to flow around, over, and past him allows our narrator to come away bearing no ill will towards the Malchak, as he eventually aids them in the most important scene in the book, in which a Malchak protest-performance (in almost certain homage to Russian feminist collective, Pussy Riot) overtakes the conclusion of a hokey talent show put on by the local university. This scene, along with a prior performance by the Malchak musical collective, Kati-Na-Gareng, is the best the book has to offer, and does wonders to lift the book out of the glut of technically sound, aspiring young writers who have a good sense of style but woefully little to say with their lustrous prose. In years to come, such scenes may date the book, but it stands far less of a chance of sinking into ready forgetfulness due to the treatment it gives to timely social justice causes.
The Festival of Earthly Delights is a thoroughly enjoyable and eminently funny book that can keep a whimsical, humorous tone intact whilst addressing very valid, topical issues. The balancing act is as impressive as you’re likely to find in any modern comedy or debut novel, and it leaves you trusting that Dojny can hit an even higher ceiling in the future, in a narrative voice perhaps a bit more deliberate and incisive than that of Boyd Darrow.