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Nam Le: The Boat

Before you read the book:

On my book’s dust jacket, short story writer Charles D’Ambrosio says Nam Le’s collection of short stories, The Boat (2008), 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-consious, 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 almost always 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 Columbian 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 enough 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 ellusive.  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’ devestating 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 personna will he adopt since he can’t now in good faith go for the hot, easy, exploitative, boring ethnic thing?

10 thoughts on “Nam Le: The Boat

  1. Stewart says:

    This book came to my attention earlier in the week when it was longlisted for the Dylan Thomas Prize. My ears pricked up, thinking it may be something I would like, but realising now that it’s a bunch of short stories, I may not bother.

  2. If you’re not interested in short stories at the moment then this is definitely not a book for you, Stewart. I would classify these as “model” short stories – a bit too model. A lot of experimentation, a lot of breaking new ground . . . for the writer, but not for the genre. Though it is great to see so much talent and control in such a young writer.

    And thanks for bringing my attention to the Dylan Thomas Prize longlist. The only book on there I’ve seen around is Karen Russell’s St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves.

  3. Stewart says:

    It’s not that I’m not interested in short stories, it’s just that they typically come off so subtle that they go over my head. I’m usually left, on reading the last line, wondering what that was all about.

  4. That may have been my problem with these stories, though it didn’t feel like I missed too much. They aren’t really opaque. But come to think about it, not feeling that I missed too much might speak worse for me than for the book!

  5. Rob says:

    Thanks for reviewing this. It’s on my TBR pile right now, so I’ve only skimmed the review, but I’ll be coming back once I’ve read it…

  6. I sympathise with Stewart’s problem, I’ve been reading Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love recently, and I rather dread finishing it and then of course having to write it up on my blog.

    Not because it’s bad, it’s not, but because it’s so subtle I frequently find myself wondering what I’ve just read and am left sitting with a mood but no concrete conclusions(which I suspect is often the point).

    Good review Trevor, though on this occasion not one that tempts me to read further I’m afraid. Do you think you’ll be reviewing Tim O’Brien at any point? He’s a writer that’s caught my attention, but that I haven’t yet tried to engage with.

  7. Rob, I’m anxious to read your thoughts on The Boat. I was definitely pleased, but not blown away. Make sure you let me know which stories you liked the best!

    Max, I’ve actually been meaning to write up on O’Brien’s The Things They Carried which is one of those excellent books of short stories where each story fits into a larger whole. It’s been a while since I read it, but I visit it frequently, and one of these times I’ll post a review!

  8. Rob says:

    Sorry to resurrect an old post (is that bad “netiquette”? I have no idea), but I’d be very curious to hear/read your response to my review of this one, as you’ve read it yourself. I think your feelings about it were slightly more mixed than most, but I found it very… well, I didn’t like it. I won’t drop a link in your comments, but if you have a moment, it should still be visible on the front page of my site somewhere.

    Actually, I’m also curious to know whether you’ve warmed or cooled to the book in the months since you read it. Was it one of those books that takes a while to form its final impression?

  9. Rob, I’m glad you left a comment on an old post! I get the most pleasure out of the comments, and when one gets me to revisit a book I read a while back, all the better!

    Also, I don’t mind if you (or anyone else) leaves links to legitimate sites where all can enjoy. So I’ve put a link to your review of The Boat HERE.

    I actually still remember most of the stories in The Boat pretty well, but not because I’ve thought about them since I finished. I think they’re still the way I left them – decent, but nothing extra special. The impressive thing to me was that Nam Le managed to adopt so many distinct voices at only twenty-nine years old. I think unlike you, I felt like he sounded pretty authentic when he was out of his element – especially in “Catagena.” To me, The Boat was much better than most first books. Le managed to avoid overwriting, which is a major sin in my mind, and one many new writers, especially those fresh from the workshop, are prone to.

    About whether I’ve warmed to it: not really. I think if you didn’t like it when you finished it, you probably won’t change your opinion over time. It’s just not one of those that makes you think about it long after putting it down. Not a bad thing. There’s pleasure to be had in the occasional short story that doesn’t go down as a great work of literature.

    Thanks for giving me the opportunity to think about it again, though, Rob. Glad you revisited the site and made good on your promise to let me know your opinion!

  10. Rob says:

    Thanks, Trevor!

    One of the reasons the first story worked better for me was that it felt a little looser. I wonder whether he wrote it at the end, as a way to tie the others together, and so had less time to (over) revise it?

    Anyway, I think I’ll revisit The Boat in a few months’ time, maybe just a couple of the stories on an individual basis. My reaction against it was almost physical—there were times when I was actually writhing in my chair like a bored six-year-old—and such a strong reaction, even a negative one, can be enough to make a book worth going back to.

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