Daily Archives: March 7, 2009

‘The Boat’ by Nam Le


2008,  313 p.

I guess when you’ve won a swag of awards and you’re working as fiction editor with the Harvard Review, then you’re no slouch.  And Nam Le is not.

This stories in this collection have been published before, in a range of different publications- Overland;  The Best Australian Stories; The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2007;  Harvard Review etc etc.  He’s had support from many places- The Iowa Writers’ Workshop; James Michener and the Copernicus Society of America (!) etc. etc.   He’s pretty much a product of the writing-as-career environment with its courses, its fellowships and  its prizes, I guess.

But boy, can he write!  I am not particularly fond of the short story as a genre- by the time I’ve relaxed enough to trust (or distrust) my narrator, the story comes to an abrupt end and I’m left dissatisfied.   But he so effortlessly  draws you into accepting the world view of the narrator than within a page or two I was hooked, with nearly every story in this book.  Not all, mind you, but enough to know that I’ve been in the hands of a master.

Normally I would say that if I’m aware of technique, then I haven’t been completely engaged.  But with him, even though I was thoroughly engrossed in the story itself, I’d find myself thinking “Gee he did that well”.  His dialogue always rang true; his descriptions captured a moment in time exactly; he handled time shifts effortlessly.

Even though I know that these stories were written at different times and published in different places, the first story acts as a background to them as a whole.   “..I don’t mind your work, Nam ” a fellow writing-student tells him, ” Because you could just write about Vietnamese boat people all the time.  Like in your third story…You could totally exploit the Vietnamese thing.  But instead, you choose to write about lesbian vampires and Colombian assassins, and Hiroshima orphans- and New York painters with haemmorrhoids.”

And so, he’s off: I didn’t find any lesbian vampires, but the rest are all there.  The first story sets up the idea of “ethnic story” (and I thought of Amy Tan here) and it’s as if he has decided to consciously smash that straitjacket.  The first and final stories are the “Vietnamese boat people” stories he has consciously avoided, but in between he channels Tim Winton’s surf and adolescent boys in the story  ‘Halflead Bay’ and perhaps even Kazuo Ishiguro in ‘A Pale View of Hills’  in  the story ‘Hiroshima’.   But this is not mere ventriloquism or homage:  each of these stories is his alone.  It’s as if he’s breaking out and saying- “there is no ethnic story- just story” and then he explores, plays with and moulds his story within yet another time, setting and context.

Is he as good as everyone says he is? You betcha.