lê thi diem thúy (2003), The gangster we are all looking for, Anchor
Much like the last book I reviewed here, I somehow ended up reading this book by accident, but I don’t regret it – lê thi diem thúy’s debut novel is a very good book. Among the shorter books I recently reviewed, it doesn’t rise to the heights of, say, Herrera’s novel, but apart from smaller issues of style and pacing here and there, it’s hard to find flaws with it. As the book progresses, it picks up pace, power and emotional resonance. It takes no formal or stylistic risks, there is no complicated mythical or metafictional conceit, but for a traditional narrative of immigration, it is exceptionally well done, and what’s more, lê has developed a very recognizable, very vivid voice right out of the gate that is not reliant on tricks, but on a solid control of language. Her observations and the images she chooses to use are usually on point – sharp, meaningful, insightful. The book’s broader range is chronological but the narrator keeps moving backwards to illuminate other episodes from her childhood, finally to reach all the way back to her earliest childhood in Vietnam. Dreams are incorporated into the narrative not as exotic or fancy artifacts but as parts of reality, equally as important to understanding the protagonist’s life as the wide awake observations of life as a Vietnamese refugee in San Diego. It is pleasant to read a novel that is both so solidly crafted, so well written and so emotionally resonant as this one. It’s what one hopes would emerge from the MFA author mills instead of the cheesy formulaic pap that usually ends up on our shelves. If you teach writing and structure to someone, a novel like The gangster we are all looking for is surely the desired result. lê conveys the cultural barriers that open up for refugees without hokeyness, she tells us of loss and family ties in a language that is both taut and expansive. Sure, the novel could have been a bit tighter, but I suspect that my quibbles with it stem from the joy I had of reading it. The gangster we are all looking for is an exceptional book that I immediately reread – and it somehow gets better the second time around. So if you are up for a lovely, conventional but exceptionally well done little book about the Vietnamese immigrant experience, do read this book.
The book follows its protagonist, a six year old girl, who lands with her father and four other Vietnamese men (she calls them the four uncles) in California, after an arduous flight that led them to the US via Singapore (look up Boat People if you want to know more). Her mother stayed behind, but would join them later. For the majority of the book the mother is present and significant. The book is broadly structured chronologically, with the first page essentially describing the landing of the six year old girl, and the last chapter structured around her return visit to Vietnam 20 years later. Between these basic elements, the book moves back and forth, withholding certain elements only to fill them in later. The management of time feels fluid and expertly done, the effect is of a mosaic of memory without losing readability or fluidity. I’m not surprised to read that the novel is, among other texts, based on a performance piece of the author’s, because that explains the taut cohesiveness of the whole book despite all the small episodes and the changes back and forth in time. An audience can’t just go back a few pages to figure out something confusing, it needs to make sense as a flow of story, in the moment. And that’s certainly true here. This fluid mosaic technique is not associative. Instead, lê uses hard cuts, having structured her book through paragraphs and chapters, which makes the easy cohesiveness (unlike, say, Jirgl’s excellent but less easy to read mosaic novel Die Stille, with each chapter/paragraph dedicated to a photograph) even more impressive. Another example of the author’s smooth handling of her material is the way the book is both clearly narrated by the adult who remembers the early days of her life, and yet in many childhood vignettes, we are offered the child’s sense of wonder and -sometimes- her obstinacy and strangeness, unmodulated, uncommented. We never feel, I don’t think, a real contrast between the way the childhood scenes are narrated and the way the adult fills in other portions of the narration (including occasional sections where other people’s thoughts are imagined). It’s all just – and I’m sorry to repeat myself here – extraordinarily well handled, so that the book’s surface is always smooth (but never slick).
Another interesting aspect is the way the novel handles immigration or migration. We don’t really see the process of fleeing a country and entering another, apart from the occasional memory. The book begins exactly at the moment of landing: “Linda Vista, with its rows of yellow houses, is where we eventually washed to shore.” The author very rarely explains things and customs to us, so most of the time, our knowledge does not vastly outstrip the child’s – or rather, our horizons are similar. So of the process of immigration, the signing of forms and the learning of language, finding jobs etc., none of this really turns up in the book. Instead, migration is presented as a negotiation of living spaces. The child, her father and the “uncles” first live in a wealthy benefactor’s house and later, she lives with her father and mother in several different houses and apartments. Houses, according to Gaston Bachelard, “would appear to have become the topography of our intimate being” and they give us “illusions of stability.” It is that latter phrase that I find particularly interesting, in the light of some things I’ve been reading recently, but let’s start with the first phrase, because it describes part of the author’s method. The book very diligently takes upon itself to describe to us the different houses, especially in the early stages. While the child’s personality is being formed, our attention is being directed to the spaces wherein the transformation takes place. And transformation is the exactly right word. The author even suggests it to us in one of the book’s strangest and most intriguing sections: having found a butterfly trapped in amber, covered in glass, the child protagonist becomes convinced she can hear the butterfly’s wings, she can hear it talk and becomes increasingly interested in freeing the butterfly, which culminates in a minor disaster, and a borderline unhinged dialogue. The butterfly is an obvious reference to transformation, but the child’s truculent obsession with hearing its wings through the amber and the glass leads us to something else: the book’s dissatisfaction with the structures and houses that it builds up.
“Illusion of stability,” indeed. Water moves through the novel in all kinds of places, doors are literally un-hinged, and family traditions and structures are reduced to symbolic acts, and unstable symbolic acts at that. Usually, immigrant narratives are about finding a place, a space, inscribing an identity onto the crowded slate of a national identity. Settling. Take another book I reviewed last year, Akhil Sharma’s Family Life. Most of the book’s post-migration narrative takes place in the same house, and while physical and mental illness destabilizes that new home, the ultimate result is one of growing roots and becoming almost too happy. Even immigration narratives that don’t end in success are basically negotiations of the same paradigm, just with a different outcome. In the case of this novel, however, lê cleverly combines two different movements. There’s the movement from house to house, trying to find, as they say with rescued pets, a “forever home.” That this search is unstable, with lovers from the old country, alcoholism, violence, poverty and desperation all helping to destabilize it, does not make this search any less goal-oriented. At the same time, the protagonist slowly but surely extricates herself from this process. This is no leaving the nest and growing one’s own home, the way Sharma’s protagonist did. This is just a dissatisfaction with this structure. It reminded me of Deleuze’s correction of Foucault in which he suggested that society is not just strictly structured through power, but instead through “lines of flight.” For Deleuze, it is desire that oozes out of structures, that opens up narratives of power, and lê’s protagonist’s path through the book charts that slow undoing of stability. As with the butterfly, sometimes lê rigs her book to make this process extra clear. For example, in an abandoned house, where the neighborhood children play, they put up a big carton box, just large enough for two kids to fit inside. They added a curtain to it and then they named it “The Other Room” and then just “The Box.” So I’m sure the box was meant for shenanigans to begin with, but we are not shown that. We are however shown the moments the protagonist spends in the box with a boy, moments we follow in extraordinary detail. The box itself is an attempt to provide additional stability to a stable but disintegrating environment, and what do we find inside? The discovery of desire.
But the Deleuze idea that I have been most preoccupied with these days is the idea of cartography. It’s primarily of interest to me with regard to Lowell’s and Bishop’s poetry, but the way lê structures the journey through houses can, I think, be excellently described using Deleuze’s concept of looking at journeys through maps as trajectories, journeys through different milieus with their own subjectivities and their own negotiation of territoriality. Those trajectories “merge […] with the subjectivity of the milieu itself.” If we follow Deleuze and look at the sturdy, seemingly immovable object of memory and the narrative of origin as “displacements” instead, it encourages us to see narratives of becoming, as the one that lê’s protagonist undergoes as a challenge to thresholds and simple identities. The book doesn’t end with an identity arrived at or confirmed, it ends in an absolute image of fluidity and open possibility. The narrator’s becoming-woman is inverted against the certainty of place and context. As a narrative strategy, it strikes me as unusual in immigration narratives. Take Sunjeev Sahota’s booker-shortlisted The Year of the Runaways, which starts in a similar environment, of adult immigrant men living together, negotiating their new space. But Sahota’s very good novel is primarily interested in looking at one milieu and a process of becoming that is determined by a very narrow set of thresholds and enclosures. The gangster we are all looking for is about a protagonist attempting to escape into indeterminacy. It’s quite a feat that the author manages to do all this and yet stay consistently readable. Ultimately, it’s this conventional smoothness that keeps this from reaching quite the heights that it could reach, but, you know, it’s really good, after all.
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