Tales Anchored in the Deep Sea of Humanity

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By Jonathan Penner,
author of the story collections "Private Parties" and "This Is My Voice"
Wednesday, July 16, 2008

THE BOAT

By Nam Le

Knopf. 272 pp. $22.95

Ambitious and confident, these seven stories rise from diverse cultures and are filtered through characters of radically different sensibilities. Nam Le combines research and dreaming in a wonderfully wide range of imagined worlds. But he has set himself a difficult task: moving us with personal grief against the backdrop of historical disaster.

In the title story, 16-year-old Mai flees Vietnam after the communist victory. She buys passage in the stinking hold of an overcrowded junk. Adrift for many days, people die of thirst and are thrown to the sharks. When Truong, a little boy, dies with land at last in sight, Mai is stunned with sorrow.

The boat people's story is one whose horror we already know. We have a sense of its epic scale. We're already sad, already moved. Only through art that's intimate, patient and precise might we be made to care about particular knots -- Mai's grief, Truong's death -- in this great winding-sheet. In this, his first published book, Le does not quite manage that. However harrowing, the sufferings of his refugees earn no sympathy beyond that we already feel for people in their circumstances. Why does treating the child's death as tragic make it seem sentimental instead? Because the value of this particular life -- as distinct from the lives of all children, all people -- has never been persuasively shown.

Similarly, "Tehran Calling" can't break free from its vivid historical background. Sarah, the American protagonist, flies to Tehran to visit her friend Parvin, an Iranian women's rights activist. At a meeting of political dissenters, she witnesses an argument over whether an inflammatory play should be staged on a Muslim holiday. Later, at a rally, the activists are beaten by religious vigilantes.

We've read of such outrages, and already know what we think of them. To mark the story as Sarah's, Le makes her the shaken survivor of a romance back in the United States. But that subplot never connects with events in Tehran. The story's great achievement is cultural portraiture, with Sarah as observer: portraiture of such hue and brightness that, posed against it, the characters barely catch the light.

No historical background could be more blinding than the start of atomic warfare, and that's what the author takes on in "Hiroshima," which is told from the point of view of a third-grade girl, her voice full of jingoistic slogans. The artistic task here is immense: to make the bomb become part of the story of the child, rather than -- as historians tell it -- vice versa. For of course we know what's at stake. As we wait for the fateful B-29, we hurry through the little girl's prattle about patriotic duty.

In other stories, Le does better by inventing his contexts. "Halflead Bay," the longest piece, feels more relaxed than the stories mentioned above, less program-driven. It's a loose-jointed, coming-of-age story set in Australia (where the author, Vietnamese by birth, was raised). Jamie has a problem at home -- his mother is dying -- and one at school: Pretty Alison flirts with him, so he must fight her thug of a boyfriend. The buildup to the fight is suspenseful, though the story would come more fully alive if we knew more of what Jamie thinks and feels.

The protagonist of "Meeting Elise" is an artist with colorectal cancer, mourning his dead mistress while he yearns to see his long-lost daughter. The latter refuses to meet him, though: She breaks a dinner date, then forbids him to attend her cello performance at Carnegie Hall. Handsomely tuxedoed, he heads there anyway, but meets only with heartbreak. Though these disparate elements are forced together with some bruising, their intensity makes this the collection's finest story.

"Cartagena," a tough-guy tale, finds a secure balance between characters and backdrop. Narrated by a 14-year-old Colombian assassin, it's an exciting adventure with underworld derring-do and a trapdoor plot. Finally, "Love and Honor and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice" is the collection's foray into metafiction. A character bearing the same name as the author, attending the same writing program, writes about his father's life as a My Lai survivor, and the father, who has come on a visit, burns the typescript. With any luck, this talented writer (the real Le) is now done with fiction inspired by critical theory.

"There's no place that's not strange to us," Le has said in an interview. "Fiction makes strange even the places we think we know." It's true. And he writes best about the places whose strangeness he discovers himself, where history and headlines have left no footprint, raised no flag.


© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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