Book Review: The Boat, by Nam Le

The Boat is written as a certain promise trying to be fulfilled by the author: that I, Nam Le, no matter how much people want to associate me with my Vietnamese heritage, refuse to be defined. I have the right to be any person I want to be, and so I’m going to from any time period, perspective, and nationality I thus choose. Literally, the first story takes place in the mind of an MFA student who so chooses to write his stories wherever he pleases, in order to ignore the pressures that his immigrant father puts on him to settle, as well as the pressures of the students around him to write from the space of his ethnicity. The bet that the un-named protagonist takes in the first story becomes the framing device which gives the rest of the story collection their structure. It is with this motif that Nam Le sets stories from lands as diverse as Hiroshima, Japan to Tehran, Iran. Make no mistake that Nam Le’s debut collection of stories is over a decade old, and one cannot dare deny the splash that the book had when it was published. At the same time, audacity is not the only thing which can make a collection of stories work. Nam Le has fulfilled his promise to the reader, but the story he has delivered seem bereft of much humanity.

The Boat certainly does not benefit much from the range of places Le has chosen to write from. It often feels that Le decided he wanted to write a set of stories set all over the world, but being unable to travel, or really spend time in each of the said given places, he chose the most ‘representative’ place of the country he could think of, summoned the most obvious stereotypes one can encounter of such a place, and rather than write against his assumptions, wrote towards them. Drug dealing in Colombia, the Atomic bomb dropping on Hiroshima… these are all stories long hashed out by the media, long expired of any novelty or interest. And yet these are the situations in which Le chooses to write from. To be fair, he does try to give a more human concern to each of the stories, but the stories and stereotype associated with the backgrounds he has chosen already so strong, that to even consider setting a story in such a landscape already works against his favour. The stories often feel like they are plodding in mud rather than having something to say.

One cannot merely use Google Maps or research to create characters. One has to put oneself in that land, and in that perspective, and really emote as how people of that place of origin would. When one lacks this desire to connect, the stories will read hollow, no matter how ambitious or well put-together they superficially appear. And, so, if one dare decides to write from the perspectives of all the nationalities of the world, one must not do so not because they can. They must do so because they really want to do something on their behalf.

That being said, The Boat certainly showcases them. His capacities with structure and timing are on-point, and his ratio of dialogue to narrative are well done. His stories do have the feeling of workshop writing, in that they seem almost too perfected on the craft level, but not completely thought out at the implementation stage. So, there is a lot to admire, there is the sense that something of much greater insight and humanity – perhaps even globetrotting – will come from the same pen.

It is just meant to be in another piece of writing.

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