“If my credit cards have taught me anything,” American backpacker Robin tells Piv, her Thai lover and, as a result of that romance, business partner, midway through Zoe Zolbrod’s Currency, “it’s that you might as well face things.” One can only accrue so much debt, she means, until one hits the limit. Transaction denied. Robin is speaking, of course, about the specifics of the moment, a scene involving a batch of live turtles she and Piv some far more professional criminals to smuggle. The turtles are crawling all over each other in their cramped container. They are poking out each other’s eyes. This, too, is an allegory, for turtles are far from the only live flesh reduced to commodity in the course of this narrative.
Pit vipers, coral snakes, women, all exchanges for “Something silver, something gold.” Indeed, Piv and his farang lover are likewise mere objects to those in more privileged positions, pieces of disposable property, tools. Their original plan—inspired by a woman who turned out, like so many others in this story, not to be what she presented herself as—was to book passage to Bali, buy jewelry there cheap, sell it for a profit on the streets of Bangkok. A clever plan, derailed by those credit cards, by the reality of that limit, the point where the bill comes due on all that pleasure that’s been, until then, seemingly free.
Fittingly, Robin and Piv meet over a puzzling English phrase, a kind of impromptu language lesson on the words “incipient conspiracy.” Soon they are couriers, cogs in the wheels that deal “Dead things: tiger bone, parts of elephant, rhino,” alongside “Alive things: kinds of snake, kinds of lizard, tortoise, frog, kinds of bug.”
Zolbrod, who has put in her own time on the ground in Southeast Asia, alternates chapters, first through the first person voice of Piv, then through third person coverage of Robin. This is a gutsy move, not least because of dialect. Here’s Piv: “I don’t want to meet bar girl, prostitute, nothing like that, but maybe I can meet one girl that knows about the rock and roll club, the good restaurant, something special, sure. She speaks English and I speak English, too, and she lies with me on this bed, and she wants to make something. She wants to be with me. She’ll feel very sad when I have to leave.” This choice of form, too, means that Zolbrod must enter fully into two personalities, similar yet also worlds apart, and channel their confusion at this swirling world of capital as well as the more bone-basic emotions of love and pride and humiliation. Feeling “manipulated; of use but not beloved,” for instance, Robin accuses herself of being “an orgasm-addled naïf who’d fall for anybody who’d do her, anyone with a tight belly and pidgin phrasing. She was the kind of stupid, easy Western girl who gave others a bad name.”
Robin’s real naïveté, however, is about capitalism itself, about currency as a category and its omnivorous nature. As one nefarious character explains, “a rich man is willing to pay much for a relatively small thing, if his neighbor does not have it,” a bloody and naked thumbnail of the situation. Piv gives us a business meeting that is a simultaneously a naked lunch: “We go to restaurant where the food is as ugly as that Russian. Big meat in one piece. They give you knife, and you have to cut. This is one farang thing I don’t like. Vol points his fork to the ceiling. Big piece of meat on that. He eats from his fork.” If everything is a commodity, then is anything for free? We learn early on in Currency to not trust anyone who loans you anything, but is there really nothing beyond betrayal and blackmail, exploitation and use? Piv, speaking to us, the readers, in the first person, as if we’re just tourists he meets on the street, promises at the start of the book to tell us something about his life, “Something about danger. Something about love.” If danger is the economy of sex clubs and numbered girls, rhinoceros horns and lies, opium and Johnnie Walker Red, then love is, potentially at least, that with which this system can be shattered. But this is easier said than done, as Robin and Piv find out, in this clever and exciting novel.