The Boat, Nam Le. Knopf. 288pp, $22.95.
Nam Le’s short story collection The Boat can be praised with all the conventional kudo-clusters that reviewers bestow on an up-and-coming author. It is emotionally resonant, piquantly written, exciting, promising. It demonstrates a thrilling range of talents and an extraordinary depth of feeling. It is memorable, harrowing, and polished.
Like many young writers of promise, Le does not lack for an exceptional biography. He was smuggled by his parents from war-torn Vietnam on a tiny boat, landing in Malaysia and then finding refuge in Australia, where he wrote his thesis on Auden in rhyming tetrameters and later spent some time as a corporate lawyer. After burning out on the suit-and-tie life, he applied to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. You can fill in the details from there.
More so than most other writers, however, Le anticipates how his fascinating past, his obvious promise, and his polish all combine to shape the way he and his work is read and received. He is exceptionally aware of how his “product details” might encourage the reduction of his writing to the vaguely standardized forms of the “immigrant tale” or the “ethnic story.” He is alert to the rightful narrative power of these categories, but he is also keenly aware that they are, after all, categories, not experiences or ideas. Experience and ideas are what a writer brings to categories, and when successful, that with which a writer overwhelms categories.
The first story of The Boat, “Love and Honor and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice,” does overwhelm with the force of its experience and the audacity of its ideas. It is Le’s greatest success of the collection. A story about a writer appropriately named Nam struggling over whether to use his father’s account of surviving My Lai and North Vietnamese prison camps for a creative writing assignment, “Love and Honor” is pulse-quickeningly perfect in its delicate forcing of the many questions surrounding immigrant or ethnic lit—what counts as authenticity, what counts as exploitation, what is a personal narrative and who can write it. In 26 pages, Le not only invigorates the debates about these questions but manages to excite the reader that they are being asked.
“Love and Honor” is so good at addressing these issues, however, that it dapples the other stories with its shade; one reads the rest of the collection looking for another like it. It is a clear mark of Le’s pure storytelling skill that these other stories are not completely overshadowed, though in reviews “Love and Honor” usually swamps consideration of the rest of The Boat, relegating the rest to thumbnail views and terse, perfunctory praise.
One feels this short-shriftedness to be at once both sadly unfair and absolutely justified. Each story has enough charm and interest that one wants to champion it a little, or at least defend it from neglect. And together, the six stories that follow “Love and Honor” make quite a collective impression, taking the reader on a world tour of places and emotions—a mordant painter’s sharp, ironic Manhattan; a naïve young assassin’s violent, tenebrous Colombia; a wistfully brave teenager’s rocky Australian coast; a drifting woman’s swirling, volatile Tehran.
Yet the natural favoritism for the first story also feels eminently merited. “Love and Honor” is not just the pièce de résistance; it’s a separate meal. The story takes its title from William Faulkner’s 1949 Nobel Prize acceptance speech, where the old man said of a new generation (now old enough to have taught Le’s own teachers):
the young man or woman writing today has forgotten the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself which alone can make good writing because only that is worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat. He must learn them again. He must teach himself that the basest of all things is to be afraid; and, teaching himself that, forget it forever, leaving no room in his workshop for anything but the old verities and truths of the heart, the old universal truths lacking which any story is ephemeral and doomed—love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice.
One of Nam’s friends refers to this quote, then follows it up by saying, “I know I’m a bad person for saying this . . . but that’s why I don’t mind your work, Nam. Because you could just write about Vietnamese boat people all the time. Like in your third story. . . . You could totally exploit the Vietnamese thing. But instead, you choose to write about lesbian vampires and Colombian assassins, and Hiroshima orphans—and New York painters with hemorrhoids.” The implication is clear—not that lesbian vampires are part of Faulkner’s “old verities,” but that fiction which comes too easily from family history or personal experience isn’t part of them either.
On the one hand, Le, like his character Nam, finds himself pulled toward settings, dilemmas and consciousnesses that are extravagantly outside his ken—other than the lesbian vampires, all those story topics Nam’s friend mentions are to be found in The Boat. Le also deeply resents the subtle condescension that accompanies the assumption that he will simply mine his “background and life experience,” which his instructors and two agents tell him will make him “stand out,” especially since “[e]thnic literature’s hot. And important too.” These soft Mephistophelean hints with their glints of patronizing envy are rightly repellant to Nam. But on the other hand, what do you do if your family’s story is better than many—maybe any—you could fabricate?
Nam’s father is a bonanza of “background,” as we find out when Nam retells a scene from his childhood—a suburban dinner party of very drunken Vietnamese émigrés, a raucous conversation which Nam’s father interrupts with his story: he was a 14-year-old boy when American soldiers massacred the inhabitants of the village he lived in, his mother saving him from death by jumping on top of him to shield him from the bullets. Later, he would be conscripted into the South Vietnamese army, forced to serve alongside American soldiers. This forced military service condemned him to years in a re-education camp after the fall of Saigon and the North Vietnamese took over. When he was finally discharged from the camp, he fled Vietnam with his wife and child, smuggling them aboard a crowded fishing vessel with dozens of other refugees.
This is, as Nam says, “a past larger than complaint, more perilous than memory.” It is as large—and as perilous—as Faulkner’s old verities, demanding much more than a slick dip into one’s “background and life experience.” How can it be fit into a fiction, then, and particularly the type of fiction which is produced by the cramped expectations of publics and publishers eager for the latest exotic tragedy? “Love and Honor” is extremely direct in addressing this uncomfortable situation, but Le also somehow manages to pose his questions so smoothly and originally that the straightforwardness of his provocations comes to seem like subtlety.
This overt silkiness is actually one of Le’s most appealing features throughout the collection—each story is, in its own way, blunt and obvious, but also astoundingly nimble. Le’s great gift is in his ability to control his characters through their environments—he reaches into them with the wind and waves of his settings, and provokes their responses without appearing to manipulate them. Le is therefore an experimental writer in the sense Emile Zola meant when he described an experimental novel as “provoked observation.” The author imports into his novel certain ready-made structures, places his characters meaningfully within the jaws of logic pertaining to those structures, and notes the results. In this kind of writing, the writer’s talent is called for when it comes to cloaking the artificiality of the imported structures and oiling those jaws of logic—and Le is exceptionally good at these tasks.
The scattered itinerary of Le’s subjects in the later stories seems to be, however, a willful provocation, as are his choices of settings—a hyper-violent Colombia, a hyper-volatile Iran, the hyper-doomed Hiroshima. As Le brings these unfamiliar emotions and thoughts to life, each body he inhabits more different from his own and more different from the last, he can only be begging the question of what worth these exercises retain in the context of a reading public that prides itself in its ability to absorb and appreciate difference. The sheer extremity of difference and range seems to exist only to defy—perhaps at times a little callowly—the tightening circumscriptions facing a writer like Le. Yet so natural is Le’s control of tone and detail that a reader might be forgiven missing the roughness of these shifts of scene and person.
Le’s deft touch is due in large part to his keenness of perception when it comes to anticipating his audience’s rhythms of attention, emotion and analysis. Le knows when to slip in a meaningful word or observation and, more importantly, when one would go to waste. He is a tremendously sensitive author, and that sensitivity translates to an exquisite confidence and composure while pushing his narratives along. He doesn’t try to break out the fine writing just to shake up the story or reach for conclusions that his characters haven’t given him.
Perhaps part of the reason why Le connects so well and is in such harmony with his audience is the way he is able to articulate an inevitable sense of belatedness which all too easily flatters our own sense that everything after the monumental ’60s is simply post—postmodern, even post-traumatic. The belatedness we sense in the distance of the immigrant narrative from our own mundane personal stories is also the tardiness of the second generation, or of the 1 1/2th generation, in coming too late to the historical trauma which all too often impelled the first generation to flight. This feeling of being historically posthumous is one Americans know all too well—or have convinced themselves they know.
As a writer, Le has some fascinatingly unresolved issues and anxieties which will be the grounds and the material of more great literature. “Love and Honor,” however, will likely determine the reception of his future work, and to some extent any choice he makes in terms of material or form will be read in the context of this story and the questions it raises so well. I would not be too concerned that such a burden, however, will hamper Le’s development; the already manifest skill with which Le is able not only to craft a story, but to use that story to make a vital contribution to the context within which we read such stories signals the arrival of an important writer who is very much in control of his maturation and the honing of his craft.
Although, like most other reviewers of The Boat, I too have given little space to the other stories in the collection, it is important to remember that The Boat as a collection is much more than an early attempt to thrash out Le’s frustrations with the conflicted nature of “ethnic lit.” He has remarked that writing his stories, he felt “a positive imperative rather than a negative fending off, mainly because this was the time I had started reading short stories, had started writing short stories, had started talking about short stories in earnest, having come to America.” The delight in discovering the short story form, exploring its possibilities and traditions, comes through each work wonderfully and makes itself felt in the reader. In the midst of such sustained technical excellence, Le never loses his footing in the humanity of his stories. Every reader should mark him down not only as a “Writer to Watch,” but as a “Writer to Read.”
Andrew Seal lives in New Haven and will be starting grad school this fall. He blogs at Blographia Literaria and his work has appeared online at n + 1 and The Valve.
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