Before the phoenix rises, it must burn. You could say it’s a sort of death the bird goes through, dipping and disintegrating through fire as it does. Nam Le’s The Boat
deals intimately with the creep towards death, actual or figurative, and the possibility that something seemingly worthy of immortality might simply be a bird. Whether it’s the life of a story, tortured and guilty on a Vietnamese son’s typewriter, or the life of a mother who wants to die by the sea, Le writes experiences that glow and ignite with incandescent power. The violence of reality spends these lives without regret.
The heart of these stories is large, their scope undeniably ambitious. Hiroshima is beautifully textured with the wonder, vocabulary and privations of a child whose future, we are aware, is the stuff of historical atrocity. I was predisposed to admire and love Halflead Bay, the slow heart of the book, from which I’d heard Le read at MWF. Set in an Australian fishing town, this story, about familial friction and the lassitude of waiting for loss, thrums deeply and long with myriad complex notes. Yet a note on the execution: they are sophisticated and assiduous, but sometimes fall short of feeling lived in. Reading Tehran Calling, where the writing leans towards didactic, I felt like a horse whose rider forgot the reins, except for an occasional graceful whisk to the right or left. Though these stories had many, many virtues, to read them was sometimes to lean against glass and gaze upon the heroism of pain, without much hope of traversing the barrier.
Not so with the titular story, Love and Honour and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice, which had my lungs extrude air with pure emotion (warning: not a great public transport book). The barriers between reader and story here attenuate to the extent that you can press your face as if through evaporated glass, so numinous does Le render catastrophe. This is a story that has had a lot of attention from reviewers and readers. The protagonist is an almost-Le; ‘Nam’, a young man of Vietnamese descent struggling with meter and typing in Iowa when his father arrives, wearing ‘black trousers and a wet, wrinkled parachute jacket that looked like it had just been pulled out of a washing machine.’ It’s a heartbreaking, yet incredibly formal treatment of story, its capacity to exploit and be trafficked, the accomplishment of it, its ownership.
I’ve kind of run out of time. I want to discuss the story Love and Honour a bit more — I think I’ll have to make it a separate post. Some last reflections: I was very attracted to this book, and I finished it, despite its occasional clunkiness and at times extravagant formality. I am still thinking about it and will continue to do so. I admire its scope and ambition. I admire its non-skittishness. I would recommend it above anything else I’ve read lately. I feel like I don’t quite understand it and why I’m so affected by it. I feel strangely unaffected by some of it. But, I don’t know, is the only value of a book to love it resoundingly? Isn’t it best to read a book that makes you think unremittingly?