The Boat by Nam Le

14/02/09, The Times

The entire world has declared Nam Le the Next Big Thing. His debut short story collection, The Boat, has garnered hyperbolic praise from every corner of the globe, which seems fitting because Le himself is a bit of a globalized creature himself – born in Vietnam, brought up in Australia, educated in the USA, dividing his time between Australia, UK and the USA – and each of the seven stories in The Boat whizzes and hops around the globe. The first, ‘Love and Honor and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice’, is a bit of postmodern trickery about a writer called ‘Nam Le’ putting together a collection of short stories, each set in a different part of the world, for his Iowa Creative Writing degree, when he is visited by his Vietnamese father. The story then modulates into an illustration of the seemingly unbridgeable gap between the agony of lived experience, in this case, Le’s fathers survival of the infamous My Lai massacre, and secondhand narrative of the same. The second story, ‘Cartagena’, the finest in the book, is about a fourteen-year-old Colombian hitman who is asked to assassinate the man who saved his life. The next story, ‘Meeting Elise’, moves to New York to follow the painter Henry Luff, in the advanced stages of colorectal cancer, trying to see his eighteen-year-old daughter for the first time in seventeen years while she is in the city for her Carnegie Hall debut as a cellist.

There are stories set in small-town Australia, Hiroshima (on the eve of the bombing) and Tehran, while the final story, ‘The Boat’, returns to Vietnam, thus describing a circularity which becomes a kind of diagrammatic metaphor for the world itself. The story also links up with the concerns that were first sounded by Le’s father in the first story, bringing the book full circle. These are clever, dazzling exercises, flawlessly written, each world and place intensely inhabited. How does Le know that the onomatopoeic call of the rare Japanese cicada, tsukutsukuboshi, sounds like a birdcall: ‘chokko chokko uisi’? Details such as these move each story from the merely diligently researched to something more extraordinary. Yet, cumulatively, the self-conscious stories seem to be very calculatedly thrilling performances, as though Le were playing to the gallery in producing a collection that ticks all the boxes required by the publishing industry and its current craze – the writing of globalization.