This 2016 Pulitzer Prize Winner for Fiction is dense, tense and astonishing. I worked hard to focus on each word. Each sentence was pumped with nuance and meaning. However, I think there were other reasons why I found the reading hard-going and why I found myself a little distracted.
I recently started a writing class on the craft of memoir. I have wanted to be a writer for as long as I can remember. I always thought I would write novels, but I found that everything I had to say was a story from my own life. Perhaps I could just change the names and call it a novel? The jury is still out on that one, but the idea swirled around in mind as I read Viet Thanh Nguyen’s story, as well as an interview with the author included following the text. In his acknowledgements, Nguyen confesses that most of the story is true, although he states that he took “liberties with details and chronology” (383). Based on what I’ve learned so far in my class at GrubStreet, to me, Nguyen’s novel read like a memoir. I was fascinated to find the characteristics of memoir buried within a novel, so I spent almost as much time analyzing the structure of the text as I did reading it. Was this a memoir -- and whose memoir was it?
At the start of each of my classes, my instructor introduces a necessary component of memoir. We have discussed what makes a good memoir. We have defined narrative voice and central inquiry. And we have studied forms of structure. And as I read Nguyen’s book, I reflected on each of those parts of the craft. The unnamed narrator (“Captain”) demonstrates a strong narrative voice which he uses to reflect on what he knew then and what he has learned since. However, the text is extremely compressed and fast-paced (not to mention heavy, violent and graphic), and I found myself begging the narrator to slow down and give me a little room to breathe.
When we studied structure, I learned that, in addition to a rising action developed in the plot, a good memoir will also demonstrate a rising tension and simultaneous descent into meaning as the narrator searches for answers to the questions he has about his past. In the Captain’s case, questions about his origin, his parents, his “blood brothers”, his nostalgia for his homeland and his place in the revolution that Americans call the Vietnam War.
But is there a rising action in the plot? When we read Tim Bascom’s essay “Picturing the Personal Essay: A Visual Guide”, I considered that Nguyen might be using what Bascom calls the “whorl of reflection”, in which writers “meander around their subject until arriving, often to the side of what was expected.” He concludes that “we don’t read an essay like his out of plot-driven suspense so much as for the pleasure of being surprised, again and again, by new perspective and new insight.”
Now, Nguyen’s plot isn’t lacking for suspense! Dramatic escapes during the fall of Saigon? Covert missions plotted on American soil? An insider’s look at the filming of a movie very akin to Apocalypse Now? A second attempt to overcome the Vietcong only to be imprisoned in a re-education camp?
But this is the Vietnam War -- or, as the Vietnamese call it, the American War -- and we know this book won’t culminate in a dramatic and decisive battle the way we think of D-Day bringing an end to WWII.
So what is the narrator searching for?
In class, we learned that a memoir’s tension is woven through the text by a central inquiry. My teacher said he heard a professor once claim that most memoirists struggled to answer two questions: “How did I get this way? And how do I stop it?”
We learn from page one that the narrator is a spy. As reader, we wonder how he ended up in the role of a mole and how he is going to be found out. We wonder what he truly believes and which side he will end up taking.
After 307 pages of powerful prose, the reader is slammed out of the memoir and into the novel that of course, this awarding-winning fictional piece was all along. Unfortunately, with that twist, I lost interest a little. The spell had been broken.
As one of my former library book club leaders liked to say, “discussion illuminates”, and fortunately, the day after I finished reading this book, I met with my fellow library book club members to discuss it. After commiserating about the way Nguyen portrays women in the book (a book of the times...or did he go too far?), we spent time hashing out the ending and analyzing whether Nguyen wanted to make a statement about Vietnamese people or the Vietnam/American War or both.
By the end of the evening I believed that, true to Bascom’s “whorl of reflection” idea, the narrator ends up “to the side of what was expected.” In an interview with Paul Tran, included at the end of the text, Nguyen comments, “I want readers to be rattled by the book. That might be the most I can hope for the book politically...I want this book to provoke people to rethink their assumptions about this history, and also about the literature they’ve encountered before…” (Asian American Writers’ Workshop’s The Margins, June 29, 2015).
On the fortieth anniversary of Black April, the fall of Saigon, Nguyen published an essay in the New York Times Sunday Review Opinion pages (April 24, 2015). After sharing his own family’s story of escape to the United States and the lives they have led since, he zooms out to look at the impact of not only the Vietnam War but also the wars in the Philippines and in Korea which likewise brought many refugees to American shores.
“We can argue about the causes for these wars and the apportioning of blame, but the face is that war begins, and ends, over here, with the support of citizens for the war machine, with the arrival of frightened refugees fleeing wars we have instigated. Telling these kinds of stories, or learning to read, see and hear family stories as war stories, is an important way to treat the disorder of our military-industrial complex. For rather than being disturbed by the idea that war is hell, this complex thrives on it.”
After reading all of this, my book club concluded that at its heart, Nguyen’s book is an “anti-war” book. He leaves us with many questions and prompts us to seek out the many Vietnamese voices, as well as voices from other minority cultures, that until now have only received non-speaking roles in our movies, and in our society.
This book is a challenge, but I know you’re up to it. Whether you walk away fuming...or whether you walk away thinking this is the “best book you’ve ever read” (one of my mom’s friends thought that), you won’t be sorry you gave it a chance. I’m going to try to soak up what I’ve learned and let it improve my own writing. And perhaps, after we marinate in the juices long enough, the book’s greater messages will soak into the fabric of our society as well so that we can all enjoy a new richness and a new understanding of each other.
Here you will find a catalog of my writing and reflections.