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Nam Le has a way with language, and his debut short story collection The Boat captures the complexities of memory in a way that's both global and universal.
You couldn't think of after, you only thought of now, and come to think of it, you didn't do that either – you were left with pools of memory, each stranded from the next by time pulling forward like a tide.
In his debut short story collection, The Boat, Nam Le fluidly weaves together characters who deal with memory, heavy with circumstance. The stories take place in locations as varied as Tehran, Colombia and Australia, but Le doesn't just spin randomized stories about romanticized nostalgia in international settings. It's much more than that. He is careful and complex with his plot constructions, and the way he uses memory and flashback in each short is unique and individual.
In "Halflead Bay," adolescent protagonist Jamie reflects on the secret fishing excursions he takes with his father and brother. He remembers his mother's matter-of-fact words, declaring that these trips were not so secretive at all. In the sentence following, we learn that the fishing trips cease to exist after the mother has a relapse. But Jamie is not just coping with a dying mother, he's also experiencing the inklings of young infatuation and the vulnerabilities of what it means to become the school bully's next target.
Le establishes a particular knack for illustrating details when telling stories about diverse characters and settings. His writing moves with a kind of syncopation and rhythm that invites readers to read his characters' thoughts aloud. Here, Le maintains a skill for word choice when describing his "Meeting Elise" narrator's distaste for children:
But I can't help but hate how they look at me, how they don't look at me, I hate their interchangeable bodies, their mass-rehearsed attitudes, their cars that look like boxes, like baseball caps, like artificial enlargements, their loud advertising, their beeps and clicks and trings, I hate how they speak words as though they're chewing them, how they assume the business of the world revolves around them – how they're right – and how everywhere this cult of youth, this pedamorphic dumbing-down, has whored beauty – duped, drugged, damaged, pixilated it and everywhere turned it to plastic.
In "Meeting Elise," Henry Luff readies himself to meet his daughter for the first time in seventeen years. Henry is a "neo-figurative painter" suffering from hemorrhoids. Elise is Henry's eighteen-year-old daughter, a cello prodigy. Then there's Olivia, Henry's former life-study model and lover, thirty years younger than him. But this information is not as horizontal as reading lines from left to right. We learn about Le's characters in more subtle ways, forcing readers to pay close attention to the characters' feelings, rather than assumptions based on their relationship to the protagonist.
New York Times critic Michiko Kakutani writes that Nam Le demonstrates "an intuitive, gut-level ability to convey the psychological conflicts people experience when they find their own hopes and ambitions slamming up against familial expectations or the brute facts of history."
Real history does exist in this collection of fiction: the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, the My Lai massacre, and the fall of Saigon. In one of the shorter stories of his collection, Le comments on Japanese nationalistic fervor during WWII through the brainwashed words of a seven-year-old girl, moments before the actual attack on Japan. In this short, "Hiroshima," Le repeats the propaganda of the time: "One hundred million deaths with honor!" and "Defend every last inch of the Fatherland!" Le allows his characters to speak for themselves.
The first and last shorts of The Boat spotlight the complexities between reality and imagination. Striking parallels exist between author Nam Le and the character Nam in "Love and Honor and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice," a never-ending string of a title. A lawyer turned writer, the fictional Nam attends the honored Iowa Writers' Workshop (the same workshop writer Le attended), and his fellow colleagues talk about writing "ethnic literature."
You could totally exploit the Vietnamese thing," his friend says. "But instead, you choose to write about lesbian vampires and Columbian assassins, and Hiroshima orphans – and New York painters with hemorrhoids.
Sound familiar? Other than the lesbian vampires, these descriptions could be headlines for the rest of the shorts in Le's collection. "Love and Honor and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice" goes on to reveal more of the character's difficult relationship with his father, who returns unexpectedly from Sydney. (Australia is also home to the real life Nam Le.) The story later goes into the father's life history as a survivor in the My Lai massacres and comments on the challenges of doing these real life tragedies justice through fiction.
In a New York Times interview with the author, Nam Le explains, "One of the chief ambitions of the story was to play with that idea of what we consider to be authentic, how much autobiography is implied or assumed, how we read something differently if we think it's been drawn from the author's life," Mr. Le said of "Love and Honor."
"I do believe that you can never know yourself, let alone the person next to you, let alone the person halfway across the world," he said, "yet at the same time, I believe there is nothing like fiction to fully thrust you into someone else's consciousness."
This is exactly what The Boat does. It transports the reader, whether the point of view is through a fourteen-year-old teen assassin in Columbia, an American woman visiting her female activist friend in Tehran, or a young girl who is fleeing Vietnam as a "boat person," hoping for something better.
"The Boat" is the last short and the namesake for the collection. Delving into history, Nam Le writes with vivid intensity about the refugee experiences shared by so many of the Vietnamese diaspora. The story goes into everything from the feeling of nauseated claustrophobia, to being in a boat of 200 meant for only 15, to the act drinking urine to prevent dehydration. These are powerful words to read. The entire story is told through a sixteen-year-old girl's eyes. She is unable to undersand her blind father's past experiences in war, the re-education camps, and the hospital, until she recognizes the expression of her father on the face of young boy, whom she later befriends. She realizes: it's the same expression of dead surprise.
Nam Le, still in his late twenties, is considered young in writers' ages, but already he's received tremendous praise for his veteran abilities and nuanced world view. Le is the recipient of the Pushcart Prize and Michener-Copernicus Society of America Award, and he was recently selected by the National Book Foundation as one of "5 Under 35" fiction writers to watch. Perhaps it's because his stories and characters in The Boat travel with us. It's refreshing to experience things globally, rather than through narrowly defined destinations, and this makes Le stand apart from a list of "ethnic writers." Le teaches us that we shouldn't just judge an author by his last name and make obvious assumptions. You might just be off-course by half a world.
Nam Le, The Boat, Knopf, 2008
Date Posted: 10/3/2008