Last year, first-year students at my uni were able to buy this book for $5. After successfully convincing (well, bribing) a fresh-faced student, Nam Le’s collection of short stories sat on my bookshelf for nearly a year. And this is what The Boat taught me: the first (and probably only) rule of short story reading.
Rule #1: When you finish one short story, DO NOT flip the page and immediately continue reading. You might be in the mood to keep reading. Don’t. Put the book down and back away. Go for a walk, watch reruns of Arrested Development, take an advanced acrobatics class—I don’t care what you do, but you need to make sure that you don’t treat the next story in the book like the next chapter of a novel. It’s not. It should be obvious that each short story is a self-contained work, but if you don’t give yourself space between each story, your brain will not treat the next page as a new beginning, and will flow on from the last story. Every time I dived straight into a new story after finishing the previous one, I had to stop and re-read those first few pages in order to re-establish the characters, and to relocate myself from modern-day coastal Victoria to mountainous Japan in the 1940s. Nam Le’s prose knows no geographical bounds, and you will need to adapt accordingly.
These short stories vary greatly in terms of character and setting—Le takes us from parched Vietnamese boat people to a 30-something American woman visiting Iran. He goes inside the mind of a New York artist estranged from his daughter and a child solider in Colombia. He leads us through the tumultuous times of a teenage boy living in a Victorian coastal town, and uses disjointed prose in the story of the young Japanese girl before the fall of the atomic bomb in Hiroshima. Needless to say, Le is capable of thoroughly researching his stories and he doesn’t shy away from creating protagonists who are profoundly different from himself. Nor does he shy away from writing about himself as a writer and his tense relationship with his father. Overall, I generally prefer my prose to be a little more poetic, but Le’s storylines are fascinating and the writing is solid and to the point.
In terms of book set-up, I would have swapped the first and final stories. (I also would have made sure that the font was consistent throughout, because it’s INFURIATING when it’s not, but this is probably not Le’s fault). The first story—Love and Honour and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice—is extremely good, and probably the one that has stuck with me the most after reading. It’s an autobiographical story about Le’s father visiting him in Iowa, where Le is undertaking a writing course. Detailing the days before a deadline, this story is Le writing a story about writing a story, which is very meta. Initially, I wasn’t convinced by Le’s prose, especially the fairly uninspired line: “Her body smelled of her clothes.” By the end of the story, however, I came to appreciate the raw and real way Le wrote about himself and about writing. It’s a rare insight into the author that you wont usually get as a reader. As a stalker, maybe, but not as a reader.
But here’s why breathing space between the stories is so vital—this first story, autobiographical, written in first person, precedes two other stories that are also written in first person prose. This requires the reader to suspend disbelief more than usual, especially seeing as we have just gained access into Le’s mind and his position as a writer of characters. For this reason, I probably would have put the autobiographical story at the end of the collection. On the other hand, we see immediately that Le is grappling with his role and personal ethics as a writer, and this is a worthwhile observation. Perhaps the writing is not as captivating in this first piece, but the story is powerful.
The second work, Cartagena, took me a while to get into because I read Love and Honour and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice immediately before it. (Do not make this same mistake. See Rule #1 of short story reading). Le successfully builds a sense of danger, but at first the story felt unreal. Instead of immersing myself in this new protagonist—a Colombian teenager for whom violence was a job—I found myself wondering how Le devised such a character. I couldn’t fully sink into the alternate reality of the story because I had read Le at work and now I irrevocably saw him as the puppeteer. The end of the story makes this one—I was completely captivated by the final paragraphs.
Meeting Elise makes you feel all kinds of things for its protagonist (a New York artist seeking a reconnection with his daughter): outrage, pity, disgust, despair. The story is fragmented and it, like father and daughter, never quite match up—it’s a series of close misses. The ending is mildly confusing, rainy and open to interpretation.
At first, I felt Halflead Bay was a stronger piece that the other stories, but this feeling dissipated because the story dragged on for too long. It’s a classic coming-of-age type story with impending tragedy. It follows teenage boy Jamie, and Le’s depictions of Jamie’s interactions with friends, girls and family seem so true to life that the scenes play themselves out before you.
Hiroshima—I liked what Le was doing here; staccato sentences delivered from the mind’s eye of a young Japanese girl. In terms of plot, it’s the least memorable of the collection. This story is more about capturing a moment from a specific angle than tracing a narrative arc. This story shows that Le can describe want, and make the reader hunger and thirst, and this ability comes to the fore in the final harrowing story, The Boat.
Tehran Calling is ambitious, but well-executed. Many of the shocking facts of this story were blunted for me, because I have already encountered them in Marjane Satrapi’s poignant graphic novel Persepolis. Nevertheless, Le circumvents this potential problem of not being a first-hand witness by telling the story through Sarah, a 30-something American lawyer, who is visiting her activist friend Parvin in Iran. Sarah can’t quite comprehend the stifling theocracy, and neither, it seems, can Le. While there is some reflection on Sarah’s relationships, with Parvin and with her former lover, Paul, the story is essentially a snapshot—we are given no solution or resolution as the story fades out.
I was honestly exhausted by the time I got to the final story, The Boat. Every story is a serious tale of identity and loss, and is always so earnest in its execution. The Boat is permeated with heat and salt and an ocean of torturously undrinkable water. It follows Mai, a young Vietnamese teenager who is put on a boat by her family to escape. We’re given clues of the horrors of war and reeducation, but the real horror is life on the boat—the oppressive heat and the stench of coming death. Nothing is overtly said about the politics; it’s all about one person’s struggle on the boat, and this represents everyone’s struggle. It’s hard to find relief in these stories—a sense of lightness or a dash of irony would be a welcome release for the weary reader. Le makes us feel like the characters on the boat—we thirst for a drop of cool water to relieve the harshness. But we won’t find this relief in The Boat, because Le’s boat people do not.