James Grainger of the Toronto Star reviews The Refugees, Viet Thanh Nguyen’s short story collection. In follow-up to award-winning debut The Sympathizer, Nguyen instinctively understands what to leave off the page, what to include, and when to allow readers to fill in the most painful details.
Literary award juries are not noted for rewarding bold, innovative fiction, but last year’s Pulitzer Prize jury, along with about a half dozen others, got it right when they handed the prize to Viet Thanh Nguyen for his debut novel, The Sympathizer. Nguyen’s jagged, hostile and at times outrageously funny novel managed to turn the conventions and pieties of the immigrant novel on their head without compromising its lucid moral vision.
The Refugees is Nguyen’s follow-up, a collection of short fiction that explores a more restrained cast of displaced people than the scheming soldiers, spies and politicians of The Sympathizer. In each story, characters are dropped into situations of extreme cultural, linguistic, and geographical displacement, forcing them to radically adjust their assumptions about themselves and the world.
Many of the stories take place in the Vietnamese communities of California, communities created by the fallout of the Vietnam War, a cataclysm ever present though rarely spoken of. Nguyen’s protagonists negotiate the war’s continuing fallout — displaced, resilient, often bound strict codes of behaviour and conduct completely out of place in contemporary America and even communist Vietnam.
It is not surprising, then, that the stories abound with images of doubleness and surreal twists of perception, often imbuing the narratives with a dreamlike clarity and strangeness. Nguyen’s characters have, naturally, been raised to view the world through a particular lens. What happens, he asks again and again, when that lens is made redundant by history and displacement?
In “Fatherland,” a philandering Saigon business man whose wife and three children escaped Vietnam without him at the end of the war, later marries his mistress and gives their three children the same names as his first brood. When his oldest daughter visits Saigon from America, she becomes the temporary obsession of her younger namesake, a half-sister with the same name and father but separated by an impassible cultural gulf.
“The Other Man” begins at an airport, a literal and symbolic way station for so many newcomers to the West. There Liem, an eighteen-year-old Vietnamese refugee, is met by his gay, middle-aged white sponsor and his young Anglo Asian lover Marcus.
Liem, conditioned to his role as the receptacle of other people’s good intentions, wryly sizes up the power dynamics: “With body erect and head tilted back, Marcus had the posture of someone expecting an inheritance, while Liem’s sense of doubt caused him to walk with eyes downcast, as if searching for pennies.” As Liem and Marcus’s subterranean relationship deepens, the power balance shifts, allowing Liem to express his suppressed homosexuality.
Memory is naturally a recurring theme in the stories, but Nguyen avoids the mawkish tone of so much backward-gazing literary fiction by anchoring his characters’ recollections in vivid often grotesque imagery.
“Black-Eyed Women,” the book’s most powerful story, seamlessly eases readers into the fractured first-person narrative of a ghostwriter whose closest relationship is, ironically, with the ghost of her older brother, murdered at sea decades earlier while the family was fleeing the war.
The remembered murder scene, as refracted through the narrator’s traumatized consciousness, is masterful and restrained. The narrator notes that the pirate who kills her brother is the same age as their father, a chilling, homely detail immediately contrasted by an observation about the pirate’s nose, described as a “sunburned pig’s foot.”
Here and throughout the collection Nguyen crafts a personal language and imagery superbly fitted to each character’s volatile, near-inexpressible memories and reflections. He instinctively understands what to leave off the page and what to include, and when to allow readers to fill in the most painful details for themselves.
For all of the collection’s strengths — and they are many — the final impression, at least for this reviewer, is of a novelist recharging his creative batteries and exploring tropes, ideas and character types that will likely be expanded upon in a future novel. There is much to look forward to.
James Grainger is the author of Harmless.