CR of Australia’s Saturday Paper reviews The Refugees, Viet Thanh Nguyen’s short story collection.
In this sophisticated collection by Vietnamese-American Viet Thanh Nguyen, whose novel The Sympathizer won the Pulitzer Prize last year, eight individuals seek meaning from the past, or just as often, find this meaning takes them unawares, when they are busy with the business of living.
Many of them are Vietnamese refugees in California, or their children, whose knowledge of Vietnam comes through “thin letters thick with trouble … no food and no money, no school and no hope”. In Vietnam, the characters know mainly of America through letters reflecting more positive lives. Both types of correspondence address only the surface; sometimes the characters are advancing outright lies. But Nguyen is less interested in what we wish to show other people than what we wish to see in them, however erroneously.
Many of these short stories are bona fide perfect. One of these is “The Other Man”, in which Liem, a young refugee, arrives in San Francisco to stay with his sponsor, Parrish, and Parrish’s boyfriend, Marcus. “We’re a couple. In the romantic sense,” Parrish quickly explains. Liem decides this has to be an idiomatic expression of the kind his refugee officer said Americans use, something like “you’re killing me” or “he drives me up the wall”. The statement is meant to clarify, but, at least for a while, the effect is exactly the opposite. The reader now believes the story will explore a clash of cultures, but this is only Nguyen flipping through many possible outcomes and coming to rest briefly on one. Each story is so smooth that you don’t at first realise how richly the author is layering his worlds. The meaning of this story, like many in the collection, is secreted down a byway you don’t immediately spot.
This is apposite, because the characters, too, are seeking secret byways, often identifying with people many times removed, sometimes appropriately, sometimes not. In several stories, Nguyen raises mistaken identity and exploits the concept for its full narrative range, as when an ageing professor starts calling his wife by the wrong name. He even explores mistaken organs, when one character tracks down a donor and ends up gratefully engaging the wrong man. Places are also valued at some kind of remove – a Japanese woman wants to visit Vietnam because relatives tell her it reminds them of a “bucolic” Japan. Nguyen’s character studies are languorous and spacious, a collection that feels like a whole.