The Boat by Nam Le (2008) Knopf (2008) 272 pp
On my book’s dust jacket, short story writer Charles D’Ambrosio says Nam Le’s collection of short stories, The Boat, belongs on the same shelf as Dubliners. Wait a minute! In my opinion that statement condemns any book of short stories. Few books of short stories could withstand scrutiny against Dubliners. Its inevitable deficiencies would stand out in stark relief? Luckily, I went into The Boat discounting some (most) of D’Ambrosio’s praise because The Boat is Le’s first book and he’s still very young — 29. If The Boat were truly a book of short stories that sits beside Dubliners, then it would blow me out of the water. If not, hey, that’s not so terrible. It still could be better than most. And since my expectations when I began were not so high that The Boat was doomed to sink, I can now say that this was an excellent book . . . coming from such a young writer.
This collection contains seven short stories: “Love and Honor and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice,” “Cartagena,” “Meeting Elise,” “Halflead Bay,” “Hiroshima,” “Tehran Calling,” and “The Boat.” You can probably tell from the titles that this book is a conscious attempt to span the globe. Indeed, the shifting from one ethnicity to the next is the string (along with the curious presence of the word “boat” in most if not all of the stories) that holds the collection together formally.
Le himself was born in Vietnam, moved to Australia, and now spends his time between Australia and the United States, where for a few years he honed his writing skills at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, presumably preparing this book. At first glance, Le’s work is a new contribution to the saturated canon of ethnic literature.
In the first story, “Love and Honor and . . .,” Le delves into his own Vietnamese heritage. The narrator is a young Vietnamese writer — in Iowa — trying to get out a short story by its deadline. His father, a survivor of the massacre at My Lai, flies in from Australia to spend some time with his son. It’s the worst possible time: the narrator’s story is due soon, and he’s suffering from writer’s block. But what appears an inconvenience could prove provident. His father’s story is excellent, fodder for the masses, and the narrator can easily use it to show how it has made his relationship with his father very difficult. Plus:
“It’s hot,” a writing instructor told me at a bar. “Ethnic literature’s hot. And important too.”
But (still self-consciously), Le subverts the reader’s expectations of another collection of ethnic literature by criticizing it, calling it boring and exploitative.
I was told about a friend of a friend, a Harvard graduate from Washington, D.C., who had posed in traditional Nigerian garb for his book-jacket photo. I pictured myself standing in a rice paddy, wearing a straw conical hat.
This first story teases us by seeming to meet our preconceptions about a book written by “Nam Le.” But Le playfully changes the game, and challenges readers in the process. Speaking of this first story, Le said to Patricia Cohen of The New York Times, “One of my 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.”
So after this first story I saw promise for the rest of the collection because of two main things: (1) a well executed and interesting story of a father-son relationship that, though self-conscious, is not written in self-proclaiming, presumptuous language; and (2) a sort of manifesto in which Le says he won’t be confined to write about his Vietnamese heritage. And the rest of the stories (except for the final one) predictably stray far away from Vietnam.
Sadly, this manifesto and the clever way Le presents it to us is probably the highest point of the short story collection. But it was not the only high point. Le’s writing is mercifully immune to the common plague of pretentious language that is endemic in current “literary” fiction. The stories themselves are interesting and sometimes moving and I was drawn into all of them, which is rare in a collection of short stories — there’s usually at least one that I wish I’d skipped (here, thankfully, my least favorite “Hiroshima” also happened to be the shortest, so I was never tempted to skip it). Also, each story is nicely arranged, full of timely revelations about the characters and events that keep the stories moving at a nice, natural pace. And each is unique in its style and voice. While sometimes when I read a book of short stories I feel like I’m getting variations on a them, I didn’t feel this way about The Boat.
Here are my two personal favorites:
“Cartagena”: in which a fourteen-year-old Colombian boy gets an “office job,” i.e., a job as an assassin, in Medellín, where Andrés Escobar was killed after scoring an own goal in the 1994 World Cup. Le’s writing and voice evoked the place and attitude really well for me. I once lived in Northern Brazil in the favelas of Belém and São Luís, and the atmosphere and mentality was spot on with my own experiences. Made me wonder how Le knew so much about the way these children grow up expecting short lives so that at fourteen they can already, without much irony, say, “He spoke playfully now, as if we were kids again.”
“Tehran Calling”: in which an American, Sarah, flees to Iran from a painful break up with the man she thought made her happy. In Iran awaits her old roommate who went back to revolutionize its treatment of women. In probably the most nuanced piece in The Boat, Le portrays the relationship between these two women and the men in their lives against the backdrop of Iranian politics.
Sadly, though I really enjoyed reading these stories, and I recommend them to others, I’m not sure I’d enjoy rereading them. This is not because they were disappointing — they weren’t — but I feel like I got what I can get out of them in one turn.
Also, though I thought the stories were written well, I’m not tempted to reread them to figure out how they work formally to achieve their effect, which is one of the main reasons I’ve read Jhumpa Lahiri’s “A Temporary Matter,” Joyce’s Dubliners, Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, and anything by Flannery O’Connor so many times. Le’s writing is smooth (and promising), but in these stories his devices are not elusive. Though he impressively adopts a unique voice and style for each story, they are all familiar. And lastly, though each story ends with a satisfying revelation, these revelations are minor, also feel familiar, and while important to the character in the story cannot approach Joyce’s epiphanies’ devastating effect on the reader.
Then again, why should they? We wouldn’t be reading much if everything had to survive scrutiny against a masterpiece. These are excellent stories, well worth the time I spent reading and genuinely pleasurable. Le’s manifesto serves as a great introduction to someone who might have a strong voice in literature in the decades to come. And now I sit anticipating Le’s next work (though apparently it won’t be his 700 page novel produced in Iowa since he’s scrapped it) — what persona will he adopt since he can’t now in good faith go for the hot, easy, exploitative, boring ethnic thing?