Thursday, February 26, 2009

To Nam Le, RE: "The Boat"

My favorite and least favorite aspect of your book was its ambition. I love, perhaps adore, the first and last stories (especially the first, which I first read in Zoetrope by accident and was struck dumb by it), and I love how they interconnect: the story the protagonist writes for his workshop becomes the last story (“The Boat”), and despite the fact that it’s destroyed, we get to read it (or something like it). And having the courage to write a story about an MFA student—when you’re unpublished—is admirable, and the results speak for themselves. “Love and Honor and Pity…” will be taught and read for a long time, I think.

The best part of your writing is the pacing. Even in the middle five stories, which on the whole I didn’t like as much, your narratives have precise internal clocks. As someone who tends to rush when writing fiction, I’m very jealous of this ability. The one exception is “Tehran Calling”, but as that was by far my least story, perhaps I’m not fit to judge it.

And I guess here I should explain what I meant about ambition being negative. I have no problem with the “global” aspect of the five middle stories, no problem with you writing as a Columbian sicatrise, a Hiroshima victim, a girl visiting Iran, but for some reason, when you depart to these more foreign locales, your stories become more conventional in construction. “Hiroshima” for instance takes on that lit fiction trope of a first-person speaker who has some sort of poetic pidgeon English (symbolic of translation, displacement, difference, etc.), Uzo’s “Beast of No Nation” is an example, and relies on this conceit to bypass experiential detail. Conversely, “Tehran Calling” has plenty of emotional realism, but I couldn’t help feeling that, in all the flashbacks, you were constantly trying to figure out what the story was really about. The problem with choosing Tehran during Asura as a locale is that when you flash back to Portland, Maine, we get bored. Besides the fact that I didn’t think I needed to go back to the U.S. at all—I didn’t need to didactically understand all of Sarah’s feelings, in other words.

But I think that’s enough of what I didn’t like, because you’re too good a writer. And I can tell by the way you write that you want to be capital “G” great (back to David Orr!) and I think you will be.

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