I really wanted to like this book. I had heard a lot about it in literary circles, as it was the new book by Viet Thanh Nguyen, a Vietnamese American novelist who had won the esteemed Pulitzer Prize for Fiction last year for his debut novel, The Sympathizer. The author was a recent visitor to a talk show that I happened to watch (Late Night with Seth Meyers), and I was very impressed—I found him intelligent, articulate, and extremely down-to-earth. Also, the subject of the book—refugees—seems particularly relevant these days, and even though the ones in this book are those who fled Vietnam after the Vietnam War in the 70s and 80s, they are refugees nevertheless. And while this book is a collection of short stories as opposed to a novel which I usually prefer, I have occasionally come across other collections of short stories that I have really enjoyed— the best example being Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies (which coincidentally also won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction when it was published). I hadn’t read any book by a Vietnamese author before, so I was really open and receptive to this one. Thus, I had so many reasons to be predisposed towards liking this book—how could I not?
However, liking the book did not turn out to be as straightforward as I had anticipated. While I really appreciated Nguyen’s writing style—sparse, unpretentious, and eminently accessible—I did not find this collection of stories—there are eight of them—all that interesting, or even particularly insightful in better understanding the psyche of Vietnamese Americans who had fled their country and settled in the US. The horrors of that long-drawn out brutal war are not really captured except in one story, where a sister is visited by her brother’s ghost who died while trying to save her from soldiers on the boat their family was fleeing in. An oblique reference to the many land-mines that are still all over the country appears in another story in which an American military man, who was part of the air force that fought in the Vietnam War, visits it many years later with his wife to visit his daughter and her Vietnamese boyfriend. However, the focus of that story is really about the father-daughter relationship rather than Vietnam as such.
I also found that many of the stories ended very abruptly. For example, in a story called “The Other Man,” a young Vietnamese refugee, Liem, comes to live with a gay couple in San Francisco, is attracted to one of them, and ends up sleeping with him when the other unsuspecting partner has to go out of town for a few days. And the story pretty much just ends there, with Liem reading a letter from his family that he has just received and exchanging a glance with a stranger he sees with another man from his window. In another story, “The Transplant,” an American man, Arthur, gets fooled into storing fake merchandise in his garage for a Vietnamese American man, Louis Vu, who pretends to be the son of an unknown donor of the life-saving liver transplant that Arthur has recently received. The story just ends with Arthur finding out that Louis Vu had lied to him, and that’s it. The merchandise is still in Arthur’s garage, and we don’t know what happens to it or to Arthur. Several of the other stories had similarly inconclusive endings. It seemed as though the story could have well gone on, but the author just decided to pull the plug on it and move on. While I certainly wasn’t expecting a resolution to every story—that would be extremely unrealistic, given how messy life usually is—it would be nice to at least have some semblance of an ending. Otherwise, what’s the point? Why bother telling a story? Why bother reading one?
Of course, I am aware that very often, having a “non-ending” is often a stylistic choice by the author, which may be greatly appreciated by other readers, similar to how movies such as Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life can be vilified by some and widely acclaimed by others at the same time. (I must admit to being one of the former.) However, even if I were to accept that I am one of those who just didn’t “get” the stories in The Refugees, I was disappointed to find that I was not able to really relate to them either, in the manner in which someone of Vietnamese descent might be able to identify with the characters and situations. I find this a real pity as it goes against our notion of universality — commonality of thought and feeling — as human beings. I do not know if the fact that I could not identify with much of the book is a problem with me or a failing of the book.
What I do know, however, is that I would like to give Viet Thanh Nguyen another try as an author, as I really respect him and like his writing style. I will go ahead and put his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Sympathizer, on my reading list. Maybe I’ll have better luck with it.
Author: Viet Thanh Nguyen
Publisher: Grove Press
Publication Date: February 2017
Contributor: Lachmi Khemlani runs a technology publication in the San Francisco Bay Area.