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The Boat

Nam Le

"As if she knew. As if before it all, she already understood how it would happen: one moment you were bunching up the full strength of your body for a throw and the next you lost your purchase on everything you’d slipped on squid guts and woke up drowning in pain, your body a hurt, disobedient in paper-thin sleeves.  After all, what was to say it shouldn’t hurt? – to feel or move; to push a hand or eye across a plane? If your body endured for no real reason, what was to say you should feel anything at all?"

Reviewed by Elaine Chiew

I had a good chuckle when the main character, also named Nam, in Nam Le’s first story in this debut Love and Honor and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice, took note of the prevalence of ethnic lit. "It’s hot," says a literary agent. "I’m sick of ethnic lit. It’s full of descriptions of exotic food," says one of his friends. "You can’t tell if the language is spare because the author intended it that way, or because he didn’t have the vocab."

Nam Le then sets out in the next six stories in this collection to disprove the fact that he’s just another ethnic minority writer. He’s not that guy, because he will write about teenage contract killers from Colombia (Cartagena ) or white middle-aged painters disenfranchised from their daughters ( Meeting Elise ). He’s not afraid of far-off locales – a fishing town in provincial Australia (Halfhead Bay ) or Tehran (Tehran Calling ) or a refugee boat adrift on the South China Seas (The Boat). He will delve into historical imaginings and the voice of a little girl in Hiroshima before the atomic bomb (Hiroshima).

This ambitious, wide-ranging debut is impressive not just because the writer is so young and fearless in his imaginative explorations, it is also noteworthy for its prose – at times, hard and spare and sad, with echoes of Jhumpa Lahiri , at other times, lyrical, replete with breathtaking landscape descriptions edged with a cold ethereal and poetic beauty. His facial close-ups of the heartbreak and confusion and loneliness and hope of his main characters feel like the unwavering and private aim of a movie camera. It’s as if Nam Le is determinedly proving to us that his vocab goes beyond that of an ethnic writer. Perhaps it’s a function of having had a prestigious education at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop that the scatter of words like "striate", "strafe", "rime" and "rinse" appear in so much literary academic fiction, nevertheless, Nam Le seems to find new ways to manipulate a supple language to give us his "scree of bodies" and "inlet of neck" in The Boat , a face "crimped in fear" and a truck ripping "skins of water off the bitumen" in Halfhead Bay.

Of the seven stories in this collection, the ones that stand out the most to me are Love and Honor and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice, Halfhead Bay, and The Boat. Strangely, perhaps not coincidentally, all three deal with the theme of parental love and parent-child relationship. In Love and Honor, Nam’s father comes to visit him in Iowa and the story explores the burdens a son confronts in a father’s war stories; in Halfhead Bay , James’ mother is dying of multiple sclerosis and the scenes that involve James’ inarticulate and conflicted feelings about his dying mother and his father’s expectations are some of the most poignant and heartbreaking in the story; and in The Boat, this grim, unrelenting story that documents a refugee boat’s progress across the South China Seas, as the engines fail and the water and food supplies dwindle, the heroine’s attempt to save a small Vietnamese boy’s life is harrowing indeed.

In each of these stories, Nam Le demonstrates considerable technical skill – that of looking at the heart of a story from an angle (and yet, never sacrificing story-depth or emotional involvement), and in doing so, he lets the reader breathe. But in The Boat, this technique makes me want to stand up and applaud – ostensibly, the story structures around a grim day-to-day account on the seas, and any writer will attest, it is not easy to sustain emotion and suspense with this kind of unrelenting, monotonous grimness (we’re talking about bodily fluids and secretions and smells and illness and the deaths of multiples among two hundred bodies packed into a boat meant for fifteen). By doing so, Nam Le places this boy’s illness within the perspective of two hundred other suffering bodies, the story becomes swallowable, but the heartbreak is crushingly magnified – their suffering seeps into your consciousness with the kind of unforgettable anguish that keeps you from being able to go to sleep.

I found it curious that the main character, James’ nemesis in Halfhead Bay is rumored to have killed a Chinese poacher, and some racist sentiments voiced by the nemesis and his uncle towards ‘chinks’ make their way into the story – the phenomenon of an ethnic writer looking at ethnic slurs is inherently politically-fraught, and the effect is strangely metaphoric, like placing two mirrors at 90-degree angles to each other, so that they endlessly reflect. I held my breath, wondering if Nam Le will inevitably reveal his leanings here, or stay fictionally neutral; he does the latter but leaves you wondering if he’s merely holding his tongue. For now.

The remaining stories in this collection are more uneven in terms of effect and voice, and the jury may well be out on whether this debut is susceptible to the accusations of "armchair traveller" writing. Is this question apropos, however? Aren’t you by definition an "armchair traveller" if you choose to write "what you don’t know"?

The question for literary excellence at these top echelons is not whether the stories are authentic and believable. It’s whether they can shed literary illumination in the sense that no one else but this writer could have written them. This second criteria is often the one that trips up writers writing far beyond what they know; for example, I’ve no doubt that the details and setting of Cartagena are exactingly researched and presented, in Tehran Calling, the setting is vividly described, and in Hiroshima, the use of Japanese anti-American war slogans is authentic and true, and yet, in these stories, I want to say that Le hasn’t yielded the essence of these characters to us. Undoubtedly, the stories that ring most poignantly tend to be those that don’t stray too far from home; yet, I will say, The Boat - both the book and the namesake story - is an incredible feat of imagination, emotional stamina and storytelling skills. This is a talented writer eminently well-worth watching and he’s only just begun.

Read an extract from one of the stories in this collection on Random House.

 Elaine Chiew lives in London, England.  Her work has most recently won First Prize in the Bridport International Short Story Competition, and also appeared in the following anthologies: See You Next Tuesday: The Second Coming (Better Non Sequitur Media), Best of the Web 2008 (Dzanc Books), Hobart (the Games Issue), Alimentum (Issue 6) and a number of online publications such as Wigleaf, Night Train, Summerset Review, Storyglossia, et. al. She blogs at http://www.elainepchiew.blogspot.com.
Elaine's other Short Reviews: Nona Caspers "Heavier than Air"   

Kevin Barry "There are Little Kingdoms"

ZZ Packer "Drinking Coffee Elsewhere"

Tobias Wolff "Our Story Begins"


Publication Date: 2008

Paperback/Hardback? Hardback

First collection?Yes

Awards: 2008 Library Journal Best Books of the Year; Short story from this collection, Cartagena, won a Pushcart Prize

Book website: Nam Le Online

Author bio: Nam Le was born in Vietnam and raised in Australia. He has received the Pushcart Prize, the Michener-Copernicus Society of America Award, and fellowships from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, and Phillips Exeter Academy. His fiction has appeared in venues including Best New American Voices, Best Australian Stories, Best American Nonrequired Reading, Zoetrope: All-Story, A Public Space and Harvard Review. He divides his time between Australia and the United States.

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