When asked by Necessary Fiction to describe the research for his debut novel, The Festival of Earthly Delights, Matt Dojny hand-wrote a scrawling response filled with oddities, doodles, and this moment of witty insight: “But, you’re asking, what kind of research went into the creation of this novel? I just wrote the thing. I lived it, then wrote it. That’s what you gotta do. Got up early. Wrote on the subway. Wrote at work. Wrote late at night. Suck it up, people! Do the research. Do the work. Finish your novels.”
The Festival of Earthly Delights takes on a couple of conventional narrative forms and then slants and distorts them. It’s an epistolary novel, but the letters are unsent and go in only one direction – written by Boyd Darrow, a well-meaning and clueless twenty-something to a mysterious recipient named Hap. From the way Boyd writes the letters, it’s clear that he hasn’t seen Hap in quite some time, though the two once shared a strong bond. Boyd writes while sitting on a trashcan outside his new home, “Home Kwan Home,” in Puchai, a fictional Southeast Asian country. Each letter details, in a wandering and unhurried way, the hilarious adventures and predicaments Boyd finds himself getting into in Puchai.
A stranger in a strange land: the novel hints of a standard ex-pat story – the kind of tale where a Westerner immerses himself in the East and in the process steps on cultural toes and meets fascinating characters. But because Puchai is a made-up place, Dojny takes extreme liberties, exaggerating and poking fun. Boyd accidentally consumes a year’s worth of fried moths; steps on and kills a turtle, an animal hailed as a deity; and learns that a wink can have countless meanings (from “You’re fired” to “I just realized that, one day, I will be dead, my body rotting in the ground. I can’t believe it. It’s horrible.”).
Puchai stands in for Thailand, where Dojny lived with a girlfriend fourteen years ago. Boyd, too, has traveled to Puchai with a girlfriend, Ulla. The couple moves to Puchai because Ulla has a job at the Faculty of Theatre Drama, where she is charged with organizing the talent show for the yearly Festival of Earthly Delights. But the real reason they’ve made the move together stems from vague hopes of repairing their waning relationship. In his first letter, Boyd admits that a half an hour after he decides to accompany Ulla, he has to ask her, “Where’s Puchai?”
Though Boyd and Ulla purchase fake wedding rings for the equivalent of ten dollars to legitimize living together in “Home Kwan Home,” their relationship continues its downward spiral in this unfamiliar place. Boyd takes a job as a teacher at an English academy, Y.E.S., and falls in love with his Vietnam vet boss’s daughter, Shiney. Her know-it-all American boyfriend accompanies Shiney everywhere, and Boyd despises him, but none of this stops him from following Shiney to bizarre underground concerts or participating in flirty Puchanese rituals with her.
In the meantime, Ulla admits to past infidelities, and she also has a wandering eye. All efforts at reconnection seem to be failing, and it becomes heart-breakingly clear that Boyd will need to say goodbye to Hap before he can let anyone into his heart.
And here is Dojny’s surprising strong suit: though the book is often slapstick funny, the characters also convey real depth and emotion. At the end, when it seems that things will never look up for sweet-tempered Boyd, you want to curse the holy turtle he squashed earlier in the novel, possibly dooming him for a lifetime of ill-fated luck.
There’s also no comparison to reading a novel that it’s clear a writer had a ton of fun writing. Dojny admits, “Crafting a fictional universe gives me a satisfying god-like sensation and I recommend that everybody give it a try.” Dojny has worked as an illustrator and graphic designer, and he intersperses comic drawings throughout the book; anyone who has lived in Asia will also appreciate the nonsensical English on the notebook covers he designed and included as full-page illustrations. For a light-hearted book, there’s a lot of heart in The Festival of Earthly Delights.