In translation, the book and series have attracted a loyal following throughout Southeast Asia, Japan, and Korea, inspired a knock-off in China, and engendered the complex architecture of an Internet phenomenon, with clicks in the millions for populous social-media groups, elaborate fanfics, and video mash-ups. Superficially, “Love Sick” mimics the mythic vision of high school found in American television series from “Dobie Gillis” to “Glee.” Yet it exemplifies an ethos that is, in some ways, as alien to Western sensibilities as the court of Siam was to Anna Leonowens.
The theme is universal: true love overcomes all obstacles, but in this case the all-conquering love is between boys. Phun and Noh are seniors at a private all-boys school in Bangkok. Phun is the son of a government minister, the secretary of the student council, and the model boy of his class; Noh is the president of the music club, a high-spirited slacker who careers from one crisis to the next. Phun is tall and handsome, Noh is small and frequently described as adorable. Phun lives in a mansion, with a staff of servants and a car at his disposal, while middle-class Noh rides a motorcycle. When the story begins, both boys have girlfriends, students at a girls’ academy affiliated with their school.
The mainspring of the plot, in Chapter 1, establishes the antic tone. Phun and Noh know each other as classmates but aren’t particularly close, until one day Noh storms into the student-council office in a panic over a cut in the music club’s budget. Phun promises to reinstate the money and says, “Will you be my boyfriend?” Noh, taken aback, responds with a curse.
Phun explains: his tyrannical father wants him to date the daughter of a political ally, and the only one who can change his mind is Phun’s little sister, Pang, who is daddy’s darling. Pang, like many Thai girls her age, is a devoted reader of yaoi, a genre of light fiction about schoolboys in love, which originated in Japan. Phun tells Noh that if he will masquerade as his boyfriend, a beard in reverse, then Pang will be so pleased that her brother is gay that she will talk her father out of making Phun date the girl he has chosen for him. The feckless Noh lets himself be dragooned into this ridiculous scheme.
The novel, written by a woman using the pseudonym Indrytimes, chronicles the boys’ passage from make-believe to rapturous reality, as narrated by Noh, who embodies the book’s subtitle, “The Chaotic Lives of Blue Shorts Guys” (a reference to the uniforms at Thai schools, which keep boys in short pants until they graduate from high school). Noh’s candid, freewheeling narration, which radiates an instinctive decency as he struggles to comprehend the changes in his life, will remind some readers of Holden Caulfield. Like the narrator of “The Catcher in the Rye,” Noh talks directly to the reader in an ebullient monologue that can shift from trivia to soulful confession in consecutive sentences. The novel was first published online, in installments, and runs to more than two hundred thousand words in English translation.
In Chapter 34, after Noh and Phun have consummated their love, Noh tells Phun, “I’m not gay.” This line created a furor in the “Love Sick” fan community, but Noh is not in denial: he frequently says that his relationship with Phun is the only constant in his life. He doesn’t like boys, he loves Phun. To Noh, “gay” describes the kathoey, outrageously effeminate students at his school, budding “lady-boys.” Trans men have long held an accepted, if marginal, role in Thai society. Traditionally, the Thai did not have a strong taboo against homosexual behavior like the Judeo-Christian proscription of sodomy,and thus did not perceive the need for a gay-liberation movement or foster a tribal subculture like that in the United States in the pre–“Will & Grace” era.
“Love Sick,” the novel, marks a significant evolution in the yaoi genre. Yaoi is a self-derogating acronym derived from the Japanese phrase “yama nashi, ochi nashi, imi nashi” (“no climax, no point, no meaning”), which was coined in the nineteen-eighties to identify sentimental stories about beautiful adolescent boys. Yaoi fiction typically follows a tragic arc that is common in Japanese fiction, ending in an operatic death by suicide or by murder at the hands of a jealous lover. The yaoi market is huge throughout Asia, supporting hundreds of novels and manga, which have led to spin-off films and computer games.
One of the most popular series centers around a character named Takumi, a student at an exclusive all-boys academy in the mountains of Honshu. The school’s most sought-after studs are both besotted by the shy, frail Takumi: Nozaki, the arrogant, brutally handsome captain of the basketball team, and the lordly Gyi, Takumi’s true love, who epitomizes every manly virtue, with Byronic charisma. Their rivalry is settled by a foot race, a noble competition with a classical pedigree. In twenty-eight novels and five popular films, the Takumi-kun series elaborates a fictional world that excludes females altogether: every character is either in love with or being pursued by another boy.
Yaoi (also known as B.L., for Boys Love) demands the romantic pairing of the seme, the dominant partner, who is big and strong, with the girlish uke, who is often slightly younger. The implied sexual roles, equivalent to the Western gay terms “top” and “bottom,” are strictly enforced. In its essentials, yaoi is an updating of the cult of boy worship in feudal samurai culture, known as shudō, the Way of the Boy, in which an adult warrior took an adolescent disciple as his lover. In the Tokugawa shogunate (1603-1867), this pederastic arrangement was not only tolerated but normative, regarded as a more refined taste than the love of women, with spiritual connotations. The seme–uke dichotomy in yaoi fiction follows the samurai model, with the key modern innovation that the lovers are the same age, or nearly.
“Love Sick” occupies a middle ground between the insipid fantasies of B.L. genre and the slice-of-life approach of serious dramas about gay youth that take a polemical tone advocating tolerance—an issue with a blunted impact in societies that not only accepted but idealized homosexual liaisons until the modern era. In the television series, a recurring chorus of kathoey explicitly identifies Phun as the seme and Noh the uke, but the convention is hollow; in bed, the lovers’ sexual roles are flexible. The boys are presented as equals, with strong-willed Noh pursuing Phun as much as Phun chases him.
The detailed portrayal of life at a Thai high school is alternately familiar and curiously quaint. Current technology often propels the plot. Music cues (with hyperlinks for the bright and bouncy pop score embedded in the text) play an integral part; Phun’s rival for Noh’s affections declares his love with a ring-back tone. Other aspects seem to belong to a different century. Students who talk in class are made to stand in the corner, and boys who don’t tuck in their shirttails are caned.
The TV series quickly recovered after a disappointing première and attracted a fanatical following, partly on the strength of the actors playing the lead roles: Chonlathorn Kongyingyong, suitably adorable as Noh, and Nawat Phumphothingam as Phun, a dreamboat with fathomless, Sophia Loren eyes. (They are known to their fans simply as Captain and White.) Like most of the actors in the show, they were discovered in an open casting call and had no previous professional acting experience, which obviously sets a limit to their dramatic range but also endows the clichés of teen love with a moving freshness. The stars were cast for their looks, of course, but it’s the look of normal Thai boys: they’re skinny, they wear braces.
The series was renewed for a second season, of thirty-six episodes, which required the scriptwriters (including the novel’s author) to develop subplots and to create new characters. Noh’s best friend, the oafish Om, has a crush on an underclassman, the childlike Mick, who closely adheres to the uke stereotype. Om is goaded into making his move when he sees a gym teacher being openly affectionate with Mick, hugging him and stroking his hair. It’s a tease: the teacher is revealed to be Mick’s cousin, who is keeping a protective eye on him at his mother’s request. It’s difficult to imagine this plot line being used as a humorous complication in a Western television series, regardless of the circumstances.
The impact of “Love Sick” is intensified by its classical structure. In the final episode, the story comes to a satisfying end, with Phun and Noh together at last and all of the romantic subplots resolved, like the denouement of a comedy by Shakespeare. This sort of cathartic ending has been mostly abandoned by American television dramas, which typically drag the viewer through years of suspense and season-finale cliffhangers until the show is cancelled and a resolution must be confected. The meandering, overstuffed scenario of “Love Sick” might not get high marks at film school, but the crowded cast of characters and the abrupt mood swings and lapses in logic suggest the emotional anarchy of adolescence. The central story, Noh and Phun’s blundering progress toward love, binds the piece together, and the show finally succeeds in constructing an almost painfully real world, which anyone who went to high school will recognize.