Sunday, September 24, 2017

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The Refugees by Viet Thanh Nguyen

Phuong searched for the words to say what she had never told anyone before, how one day she, too, would leave, for Saigon was boring and the country itself not big enough for the desires in her heart. "I want to be like you," Phoung said, gripping her sister's hands in her own.

Nguyen won the Pulitzer Prize in 2016 for his novel The Sympathizer, a dense and complex look at how the lives of Vietnamese refugees in the United States look back at the war.  He placed characters in what seemed to be every possible political point of view and attempted a plot that aimed at military, political, personal and economic truths.  While much of it was compelling, I found it too large, with digressions that felt less than fully imagined however important they might be to a whole truth.

These are short stories, many set in post-war Vietnam, again involving people looking back at the war and the effects it continues to have on their lives.   An American tries to find the Vietnamese-American who donated a liver so he could live and gets taken in by a scam-artist, a man attempts to reconcile with his wife while living with his judgmental veteran father, a veteran returns to Vietnam to face his half-Asian daughter and her desire to live and work in the country he tried to destroy.

In many cases the plots and characters are interesting, but the prose fails to grip.  Too often they are unique stories being told in ordinary language, and more than once I winced at cliche.  (Of course, had I actually winced, that would have been cliche.)

The most compelling and well-written story is the final one, "Fatherland," which tells the story of a daughter who suspects her father does not love her (for good reason) and must face a visit from the long-absent beloved half-sister by his first marriage, whom she was named after.  In that story, and the best of these, Nguyen simply does not let his writing get in the way of his material.
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Lock and Load, ed by Deirdra McAfee and BettyJoyce Nash

All three women had been married, rough marriages full of fighting and black eyes and sobbing imprecations, all of them knew the trouble that came with drinking men and hair-trigger tempers.  from "A Lonely Coast" by Annie Proulx

OK, I am cheating a little on this one - I didn't have to read all the stories because I wrote one of them.  This is an anthology of gun-related fiction designed to spark thinking about the second amendment and our gun culture.  There is a wide range of material here and a wide range of quality, though it is generally a range from good to excellent.  I probably should not have been surprised at how rural the settings tended to be - that is where the guns are, after all.   But I was surprised to find that I was surprised that my story was one of the few that was urban, and one of the few that involved crime.

Proulx story does a masterful job of creating a Wyoming world awash in liquor and anger and guns, and you feel the tension toward disaster building.  The ending still surprises, though in part because it generally seems to come from nowhere.  My favorite story was "Family Reunion" by Bonnie Jo Campbell because the narrator's voice is so compelling and the final brutality creates a poetic justice I have not encountered before.  One more gem I would mention is Nicole Louise Reid's "Pearl in a Pocket."  Again there is a narrative voice you have to follow and again you are lead in surprising directions.

I was impressed by how the stories kept surprising me - given that you know the gun will appear and that you are fairly certain it will go off - and how much I enjoyed the reading.

I felt I was in good company all around.

The Honorary Consul by Graham Greene

"I believe in the evil of God," Father Rivas said, "but I believe in His goodness too.  He made us in His image--that is the old legend.  Eduardo, you know well how many truths in medicine lay in old legends.  It was not a modern laboratory which first discovered the use of a snake's venom.  And old women used the mold on overripe oranges long before penicillin.  So I too believe in an old legend which is almost forgotten.  He made us in His image--and so our evil is His evil too.  How could I love God if he were not like me?"

Sometimes reading a Graham Greene novel is like ordering the newest item at Taco Bell.  It's new all right, but it's mostly the same raw materials--beans, cheese, tortilla, meat--combined in a new shape.  In The Honorary Consul, it's easy to recognize some of Greene's hallmarks, his beans and cheese.  The protagonist is once again a world-weary cynic and agnostic.  Like in The Quiet American, his foil is a bumbling civil servant.  This time it's Charley Fortnum, the alcoholic honorary consul for the UK in a small Argentinian town, who gets kidnapped by Paraguayan revolutionaries thinking they've nabbed the American ambassador.  And then of course there's the ex-priest, the conflicted man of God, who over the course of the book moves backwards into his own past and rediscovers his religion.

The priest is a man named Father Rivas, who left the cloth to marry and join up with the revolutionaries.  The cynic in The Honorary Consul is Eduardo Plarr, an Anglo-Argentinian doctor whose relationship with Fortnum and the kidnappers both puts him in the middle of the botched kidnapping.  He's also, of course, sleeping with Fortnum's wife, an ex-prostitute:

In a real love affair, he thought, you are interested in a woman because she is someone distinct from yourself; then bit by bit she adapts herself to you, she picks up your habits, your ideas, even your turns of phrase, she becomes part of you, and then what interest remains?  One cannot love oneself, one cannot live for long close to oneself--everyone has need of a stranger in the bed, and a whore remains a stranger.

I don't mean to disparage Greene's books, which often get a lot of mileage out of a very narrow set of themes and situations.  There's something comforting about their familiarity.  (Of course, it's when he breaks those molds that his books are most valuable, like The Power and the Glory and Brighton Rock.)  But The Honorary Consul never finds a way to rise above that narrow set, like The Quiet American does.  It has much to say on the nature of God and the religious life--like the whiskey priest in The Power and the Glory, we get to watch the hapless Rivas dragged back into the life of the priest he thought he'd left behind.  And the character of Fortnum is a good and vivid one, a man who's alcoholism is self-destructive and whose life is small, but who is ennobled by the love he bears his wife.

Like those other books, it's a thriller as much as it is a religious meditation.  The kidnappers try to do their best with the honorary consul, whom they want to ransom in exchange for the release of political prisoners in Paraguay, but the Paraguayans can't understand the vast difference between the office of consul and the honorary title, which makes Fortnum such a small fish that no one--the US, the UK, or Argentina--is willing to do anything to save his life.  Everyone ends up trapped: the kidnappers, who never thought they'd have to kill anyone; Plarr, who's caught between trying to save Fortnum and bedding his wife; and of course Fortnum, who's literally trapped.  The final section of the novel, where all parties are sitting in their hut in the barrio waiting nervously for the deadline to come, is talky and slow, but manages to capture something essential to Greene's worldview: the ineluctable cruelness of international politics, and the heavy hand exerted by God.

Saturday, September 23, 2017

Mystery and Manners by Flannery O'Connor

It is when the individual's faith is weak, not when it is strong, that he will be afraid of an honest fictional representation of life; and when there is a tendency to compartmentalize the spiritual and make it resident in a certain type of life only, the supernatural is apt to be lost.  Fiction, made according to its own laws, is an antidote to such a tendency, for it renews our knowledge that we live in the mystery from which we draw our abstractions.

Mystery and Manners, a carefully curated collection of Flannery O'Connor's prose, opens with a hilarious article she wrote about raising peacocks.  "Most people, I have found," she writes, "are congenitally unable to appreciate the sight of a peacock.  Once or twice I have been asked what the peacock is 'good for'--a question which gets no answer from me because it deserves none."  O'Connor's rapidly multiplying peacocks eat everything in the garden, blow dust over what they don't eat, collapse fences, and fill the air with their loud, screeching calls, but as the title says, they remain "King of the Birds."  It's the kind of affectation one might expect of a personage like O'Connor (it contains, among other interesting things, the admission that she likes to knit clothes for her chickens, including one in a "white pique coat with a lace collar" named Colonel Eggbert), but it's also possible to read it as an oblique statement on the nature of art, which is useless outside of its aesthetics and its mysterious nature.

Most of Mystery and Manners is an elaboration on that theme.  The pieces are collected from various speeches and articles O'Connor wrote on the art of writing, and they have a limited and repetitive set of points to make.  There's the degenerate relationship between the burgeoning social sciences and literature, which O'Connor claims has come to embody a kind of narrow and despiritualized realism that fails to appreciate the particularity of human life.  Literature, she says, should be about "possibilities, not probabilities."  Another is the relationship between the writer and her geographical region; O'Connor says that any writer worth her salt is steeped in the traditions of folklore of where they come from.

Much is made of the proper relationship between the Catholic and art.  (O'Connor mostly rejects the label Christian, because "the word Christian is no longer reliable.  It has come to mean anyone with a golden heart.  And a golden heart would be a positive interference in the writing of fiction.)  She pushes back at the idea that an orthodox Catholic is too limited to write fiction:

...the Christian novelist lives in a larger universe.  He believes that the natural world contains the supernatural.  And this doesn't mean that his obligation to portray the natural is less; it means it is greater.

Mystery and Manners wasn't meant to be a single piece, so when it feels repetitive, it's hard to blame O'Connor.  Every now and then pithy aphorisms appear, and it's these you're likely to hear in other locations (as I did in Bird by Bird).  When asked why she writes, O'Connor replies, "Because I'm good at it."  She strikes at the heart of teaching when she says, "Like the college student who wrote in her paper on Lincoln that he went to the movies and got shot, many students go to college unaware that the world was not made yesterday; their studies began with the present and dipped bakward occasionally when it seemed necessary or unavoidable."  Preach.

The most interesting parts perhaps are where O'Connor talks about her own work.  She talks, for example, about the wooden leg in "Good Country People," which is, yes, a symbol, but started out merely as a quirk.  (Do writers really do this stuff on purpose?, my students ask.  O'Connor shows the answer is, yeah, sort of.)  She also insists that she didn't know the Bible salesman would run off with the leg until a few lines before he did so.  Tolstoy said the same thing about his characters, that they were always surprising him.  In this case I'm not sure I believe her.  But it's interesting, and encouraging, to know that some of the greats are making it up as they go like the rest of us.

Monday, September 18, 2017

The Medusa Frequency by Russell Hoban

There are two ways to tell a story *.

The first is to come up with a plotline--boy meets, loses, regains, mutates girl--and play it out beat by beat until it reaches its natural endpoint. This is a great method! Most books are like this, in my experience.

The other, of which Hoban seems to be a fan, is to take a concept like, say, the ephemerality of life or the reality of real aloneness or the permenance of loss, and pick a seemingly arbitrary entry point and follow it through to an equally arbitrary endpoint, and make the reader do the hard work of making an end-to-end narrative out of it. In The Medusa Frequency, he cops directly to this tendency, or maybe just to its origin:

Page one? I didn’t think so. Suddenly the idea of turning one’s experience into a story seemed not only bizarre but perverted. Where was the beginning of anything, how could I draw a line through endless cause and effect and say, 'Here is page one?’

And Hoban sometimes seems to fully embrace the quixotic nature of that question in the novel, starting with half-made-up conversation with the mythical Kraken that takes place on the green and black screen of an old Apple II, and ending with a comic book adaptation about a monster who is the plug in the plughole of the universe. Its name is The Great Snyukh. Oh, and the decapitated head of Orpheus, which manifests as any rounded object, probably has more dialog than anyone else in the book.

But in between, and often during, these fantasias, Herman Orff, the epically (lol) named protagonist of the book struggles to come to terms with the loss of Luise, an ex who acts as his own incarnation of the mythical Eurydice. With his act of looking at her too soon, he has lost her--although, as Orpheus informs him, the real crime is looking away. And the cyclical nature of the world means this story will happen again and again, with different details but the same prosaic, banal ending--loss and some form of either death or rebirth. As Herman says:

"The death of a moment's longer than the moment. The goneness is what we're left with. It's very hard to have anything, isn't it?"

In summation, this doesn’t sound like the kind of book that would be much fun to read. But Hoban has a light touch and squeezes a lot of humor--often actual jokes--into less than 150pp. I enjoyed his explanation of why villains in pulp stories never get inappropriately sexual with the heroines:

“For the same reason they can never shoot straight: they’ve got no self-confidence. That’s why they’re the bad guys--repeated failures have made them bitter and antisocial.”

And, of course, as in the equally strange Riddley Walker, Hoban nails the moments of pathos, making real flesh-and-blood out of Herman, Orpheus, and a number of delightfully-named minor characters (surely Pynchon is a fan--Melanie Falsepercy, Gom Yawncher). What could have been a tedious meta exercise in navel gazing instead functions almost like poetry in the end.

When Herman, rapidly falling apart in his confusion and post-breakup malaise, says, "It seemed so little to ask, that the next moment should come." it feels real, even when he’s saying it to a talking cabbage.

*I know there are a lot more than two ways, but this is a rhetorical device, dear reader.

Saturday, September 16, 2017

The Crossing by Cormac McCarthy

You will see.  It is difficult even for brothers to travel together on such a voyage.  The road has its own reasons and no two travelers will have the same understanding of those reasons.  If indeed they come to an understanding of them at all.  Listen to the corridos of this country.  They will tell you.  Then you see in your own life what is the cost of things.  Perhaps it is true and nothing is hidden.  Yet many do not wish to see what lies before them in plain sight.  You will see.  The shape of the road is the road.  There is not some other road that wears that shape but only the one.  And every voyage begun upon it will be completed.

Cormac McCarthy's The Crossing opens with a vagrant Native American--an Indian, in the language of young Billy Parham, the young rancher's son who is the novel's protagonist--coming upon Billy and his brother Boyd out in the wilderness around their New Mexico home.  He demands under threat that Billy and Boyd steal food from their parents and bring it to him, which they do.  That is to say that it begins more or less like Great Expectations.

But the Indian never returns.  He never comes back to pay his respects or to menace further; when Billy's parents are murdered by horse thieves there's no intimation that it's the Indian who's responsible.  He comes on the page and plays his part and then leaves.  Don't look for coincidences, McCarthy seems to say; don't expect the shapeliness of a literary story, even as one of the themes of the book is the way that we use stories to shape our knowledge about the world which is essentially unknowable.

The Crossing is really three separate crossings.  In the first, Billy traps a pregnant shewolf that has been terrorizing his family's cattle and resolves to bring her, muzzled in a homemade strap, back to her home in the mountains of Mexico.  But she ends up being taken hostage by a traveling feria and made to fight dogs.  Billy, unable to secure her freedom, ends up shooting her.  It's a Ned Stark-level surprise, because to this point it seems as if the thrust of the novel is about Billy and the wolf, but just like the opening episode with the Indian, McCarthy enjoys dashing our narrative expectations.  The second crossing is when Billy returns with his brother Boyd to Mexico in order to hunt down the horses that have been stolen from his family's farm when his parents were murdered--an event that Boyd stayed home to witness, hardening him and making him alien to Billy, whose priority is protecting him.  The third is when Billy returns to Mexico to find Boyd, who has been shot in the chest and run off with a young Mexican girl.

Each of these plays like a dreamscape, or a nightmare.  The Parhams' adventures in Mexico are episodic and lyrical, containing hundreds of characters who may appear for no more than a page or two.  There's a blind man whose explanation for his blindness is straight out of a more baroquely violent McCarthy novel like The Road or Blood Meridian, the primadonna of a traveling theater company, a band of gypsies towing a downed airplane.  It reads something like a cross between Dante and Don Quixote.  Oh, and most of the dialogue is in untranslated Spanish. 

I've found that reading McCarthy is more fun when you approach it with a sense of humor.  It keeps you from rolling your eyes when he writes sentences like, "Dreams of that malignant lesser god come pale and naked and alien to slaughter all his kin and rout them from their house."  Paradoxically, I think it makes me more receptive when McCarthy is most profound, when he deals with his major theme, which is the essential unknowability of the universe:

Finally he asked him why this was such a blessing and the blind man did not answer and did not answer and then at last he said that because what can be touched falls into dust there can be no mistaking these things for the real.  At best they are only tracings of what the real has been.  Perhaps they are not even that.  Perhaps they are no more than obstacles to be negotiated in the ultimate sightlessness of the world.

Stories, for McCarthy, are also "tracings of the real," as the corrido ballads which strike Billy as being about his missing brother's courageous and tragic exploits.  As someone explains to him, the stories are older than his brother, but his brother has become a part of them, and that is a kind of truth that is as real as any other we might trust in.  That is, not very real at all, but whatever reality is we don't have access to it.  McCarthy's at his best--and his scariest--when thinking about these things.

The book ends with Billy alone in an abandoned building back in New Mexico.  He shoos away a dog, and wakes up to a false dawn before the real one and weeps.  I could be wrong but my guess is that this is meant to be the Trinity Test, the testing of a nuclear bomb in the New Mexico desert months before it was used on Japan.  It's as ominous an ending as any of McCarthy's novels has, a suggestion of the grandeur of evil beyond the reckoning of any individual human being, and a foreshadowing of a novel like The Road. 

Saturday, September 9, 2017

Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott

I heard a preacher say recently that hope is a revolutionary patience; let me add that so is being a writer.  Hope begins in the dark, the stubborn hope that if you just show up and try to do the right thing, the dawn will come.  You wait and watch and work: you don't give up.

I can't name any of Anne Lamott's books; I think a lot of people who know Bird by Bird can't.  There's a special irony to that, that an author's book on writing could so completely eclipse the fiction that they have written.  Budding writers turn to this book again and again despite having no real proof that Lamott is a worthy person to be giving advice.  What could be the reason for it?

It certainly doesn't contain the most practical advice.  There are few exercises, and what there are of concrete suggestions are idiosyncratic.  Don't write on Mondays, she says.  Start by just writing about your childhood.  The magic of Bird by Bird, I think, is how perfectly it captures the neurosis and trauma that visits writers.  Lamott understands neurosis and trauma pretty well, but especially that kind that visits writers.  She writes about it with a dark but assuring sense of humor, managing somehow to provide optimism while reminding the reader that what they write will probably never be successful.  Lamott's powerful, sardonic voice gives the impression of sympathy; there's someone out there who understands what it's like to want to write and have it not come easy.

Ultimately, Bird by Bird makes good on its subtitle: "Some instructions for writing and life."  The writing advice is good, if not always pragmatic, but the most powerful parts are when Lamott talks about the death of her witty, intelligent father from brain cancer, or the death of her close friend Pammy, also from cancer.  She talks about writing their stories as a kind of gift to give to them and it doesn't seem at all maudlin.  She's able to get to the heart, I think, of why writing is so appealing: its ability to transcend, or feel as if it transcends, the narrowness of the world, and even the banal inevitability of dying.  And yet the book is so lighthearted.

I'm teaching creative writing--four sections of it, my gosh--for the first time this year.  I don't know what I'm doing.  I returned to Bird by Bird for some advice that might be useful to my own budding writers, but I also found a lot of good advice about dealing with not knowing what you're doing in general.  Most of writing is just showing up and doing it, she says.  Hopefully that's true for teaching writing, too.

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

The Bingo Palace by Louise Erdrich

He knew from sitting in the still eye of chance that fate was not random.  Chance was full of runs and soft noise, pardons and betrayals and double-backs.  Chance was patterns of a stranger complexity than we could name, but predictable.  There was no such thing as a complete lack of order, only a design so vast it seemed unrepetitive up close, that is, until you sat doing nothing for so long that your brain ached and, one day, just maybe, you caught a wider glimpse.

What does a Native American fiction look like?  Louise Erdrich's terrific The Bingo Palace answers that question with a lot of what seem like cliches: first, the Indian casino, here a bingo parlor where the protagonist, Lipsha Morrissey, works when he returns to his reservation town and rides an incredible streak of luck.  Second, there's a lot of mysticism, including dreamcatchers and a spirit animal in a vision--a skunk telling Lipsha, who's scheming to sell a plot of land where his grandmother lives to casino interests, this ain't real estate.  Oh yeah, that's the third thing: the importance of land, a theme imported from Erdrich's Tracks.

But those things aren't mere cliches; the idea of the Native American being close to the land is the cultural reward given to her for the wholescale theft of Native lands and the bottling-up of her people in reservations on little islands of land.  The spirit-skunk reminds Lipsha that Native land is important because it's what they've managed to hold on to, despite all odds, through centuries.  And the mysticism is not so different from the magical realism of Latin American writers (though more palatable for me personally), yet it imbues the old stale canards about Native Americans with new vitality and specificity.

When Lipsha returns home, he falls in love with an old acquaintance, Shawnee Ray.  Unfortunately for him, Shawnee Ray is living with Lipsha's uncle Lyman, the proprietor of the Bingo Palace, though she, too, feels a surprising attraction to the vagabond Lipsha.  He makes his money riding that luck-streak at the bingo parlor, and his luck is part of the same force that drives him and Shawnee together, despite the unlikely odds:

Fateful coincidence.  Things happen you can't deny.  Good advice speaks from graves and love hints from the hearts of trees.  Bags of light float through open windows on a summer night.  Horses count with the knock of their hooves.  Children are born who can add up unbelievable numbers.  These things happen.

Chapters narrated by Lipsha alternate with chapters about the "luck" of various members of Lipsha's family--Shawnee, Lyman, Shawnee's toddler son, Lipsha's dead mother, his convict father, his grandmother Fleur, one of the characters from Tracks--in which the luck, good or bad, is not always clear.  But the message seems to be that the spiritual forces that animate Lipsha's luck and his love for Shawnee are ones that run deep through one's ancestors, that they are enacted by the passing of generations.  There's little elegance to this structure--the book is a mess.  (It would be easier, perhaps, if one were to read the series from beginning-to-front, starting with, I think, Love Medicine.)  And it ends weirdly, cut off in a strange moment with little closure.  But it's unified by the subtle beauty of Erdrich's prose, often hovering just past the mark of clarity, and the sharpness of her insight.

Monday, September 4, 2017

Expecting Better by Emily Oster and Bringing up Bébé by Pamela Druckerman

But, to put it mildly, I'm not crazy about the implication that pregnant women are incapable of deciding for themselves--that you have to manipulate our beliefs so we do the right thing. That feels, again, like pregnant women are not given any more credit than children would be in making important decisions. 

I'm pregnant (I'm pretty sure I've told the three people I know who read this...if not...surprise!), and I'm a planner, so my first move after my first doctor's appointment was ALL OF THE RESEARCH on what pregnancy books I needed to read. I feel incredibly lucky that this is the first book I stumbled on; it's basically the only book you need (although I also have the classic What to Expect for reference), and it is absolutely fabulous.

Oster is an economist and when she got pregnant, she was understandably overwhelmed by the volume of advice and rules surrounding her pregnancy. She set out to compile and analyze all the research that those restrictions came from and this book is a clear, cogent summary of her work. She divides it up into sections: conception, each semester, and delivery. In each, she provides a readable summary of the scientific research behind all the most common pieces of pregnancy advice, and then distills it down to clear recommendations. When there isn't a black and white rule, she explains her own logic and decision-making process and often gives a counterpoint to consider.

The book drew some controversy when it first came out, mostly because it argues that responsible drinking during pregnancy (roughly a drink a week in your first trimester and a drink a day in your second and third) will not destroy your unborn child, but I found it to be incredibly reassuring. There really is a completely ridiculous amount of rules to keep track of, and Oster helps you cut through to the small handful you really should follow. It made a very scary, foreign landscape much more manageable, and even though there are a few places where I have or will make decisions that deviate from Oster's, I found her insight invaluable in navigating these first few months of the process. She treats pregnant women like adults capable of rational thought (an underlying assumption that does not seem to permeate much of the advice given during pregnancy), and gives you the information you need to make educated, safe choices.

If you are pregnant (or planning on/trying to get pregnant), this is the first and arguably only book you should buy. The handful of questions I've had that haven't been answered here were very specific to my own pregnancy and required an email to my doctor. I haven't picked up What to Expect more than a couple of times, and the research behind this made it much more reassuring.

When I ask French parents what they most want for their children, they say things like "to feel comfortable in their own skin" and "to find their path in the world." They want their kids to develop their own tastes and opinions. In fact, French parents worry if their kids are too docile. They want them to have character.

But they believe that children can achieve these goals only if they respect boundaries and have self-control. So alongside character, there has to be
Druckerman's daughter, "Bean," was born in France, and as Druckerman began to navigate the world of parenting abroad, she noticed a stark difference between American and French children. French babies seemed to sleep through the night earlier, toddlers ate their vegetables younger, and children were independent sooner.

In Bringing up Bebe, Druckerman outlines the basics of "French" parenting. It can be boiled down to one overarching idea: boundaries. According to Druckerman, setting clear, firm boundaries, and then giving children freedom within them is the secret to well behaved children. On some level, it's the antidote to helicopter parenting: draw the frame and trust that your child can operate within it.

While my kid is still safely inside my uterus, this all seems great. I'm sure the reality of raising a child is infinitely more complicated than Druckerman admits here, and cultural context makes things like perfectly balanced French meals more than a little challenging, but I did really enjoy the premise: that it is possible to have children and an adult life simultaneously, that children benefit from boundaries, that toddlers can be expected to follow basic instructions. Check back with me when I have a screaming, terribly behaved two year old who only eats beige food.

Sunday, September 3, 2017

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Dragonfish by Vu Tran

If you ever read this, you should know that everything I write is necessary to explain what I later did.  You are a woman now, and you will understand that I write this not as your mother but as a woman too.

Robert Ruen is an Oakland Police Officer who arrives home to his one bedroom apartment one night and realizes someone else has been there., There is no sign of forced entry and nothing is disturbed, but there is something in the air – a smell, a sense of a former presence.  The sense continues for several nights until finally he comes home to find two men with guns waiting for him. 

None of us is exactly surprised by this, we already know Ruen has some sort of a past – he has demoted himself from detective back to patrol cop for reasons that are never explained to us.  His past, however, will never be our real concern – Ruen and we are sent looking for his ex-wife, Suzy or Hong – a Vietnamese refugee prone to depression and wild behavior who divorced Ruen some years earlier and married a fellow Vietnamese refugee named Sonny.  Sonny is a violent gangster from Las Vegas who is now recruiting Ruen to find a missing Suzy. It is their past Ruen will learn he has become part of.

Tran has absorbed the tropes of noir fiction quite effectively.  His detective is not actually a detective (anymore).  The pursuit of Suzy will take us into a complex and morally ambiguous past that will force Ruen to face his own moral ambiguity – to test the code he seems to have lived by until now.  That past will involve the legacy of the Vietnam War and the horrors refugees faced surviving communist Vietnam and the escape to Australia and America. 

That is the real subject of this novel – that legacy, its affect on individuals who survived it, and how the next generation deals with that legacy.  Both Sonny and Hong have children and their relationship with their children is bound up with their need for survival.  In this novel the familiar stereotype that Asian parents live for their children, that this generation sacrifices everything for the next generation, is at least partially upended:  Sonny and Hong need their children to validate their own survival and ask more from the next generation than they sacrifice for it.  Tran is using the violent and ambiguous world of detective fiction to examine the complex emotional and moral ambiguity that plays out in those relationships all over America, but without the violence.

Robert Ruen is somewhat limited messenger for this purpose.  He knows and cares little for Vietnamese culture or history, and is constantly surprised by the power of the past over the people he meets.  We know little of his past (and what we do know feels as if it is there to set up future novels) and never see him in a morally upright light.  As a result, when the darkness of the world he has entered starts to cast a shadow upon him, we do not have a strong sense of contrast.  Certainly he does things he did not imagine doing before, but we do not know enough about his past for this to fall to seem tragic.  However the fact that these events impact him at all separates this novel from much of American detective fictions.  Ruen is, like Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe or Easy Rawlins, a lone wolf.  But unlike those detectives he seems less than fully committed to solitude.  Relationships are not extraneous to him, he is just not very good at them.  This adds to his moral ambiguity, but leaves that ambiguity… ambiguous.

There is a realism about that however – while Ruen checks off some of the marks of a noir hero, he does not stop being human.  This works well in the very realistic portrait of a Las Vegas with a strong immigrant community.  That realism is also reinforced by the depiction of violence in the novel.  There is plenty of it, but it is all limited.  With the exception of one minor character – a giant Mexican thug who exists solely to intimidate Ruen and who seems to have walked in off the set of a James Bond movie – these are not men who revel in violence.  They accept its necessity in their world, but seemed determined to limit it.  They seem to understand its impact in a way that is refreshing in this genre.