Love After War
Ho Anh Thai
(Curbstone)We will never understand the oddities of the publishing world, at least the publishing world in these the United States. Some of the best writers we know get blandly (and blindly) stiffed. Some of the most astonishing doofusses get the reviews, the praise, the awards.The lemmings in the New York literary patch fall in love with first-rate second-rate writers like Joyce Carol Oates, Ha Jin, and most recently, one Jim Crace --- giving them all their plaudits (and prizes).Two years ago, we reviewed Jim Crace's Being Dead. This is what we reported:
Being Dead won the 2001 from the New York Critics' Circle fiction award. It has gotten an veritable army of bouquets from the critics: The L A Times, The Washington Post, the San Francisco Chronicle, The New York Times, Kirkus, Booklist, PW, the NYRB --- all the literary heavies. The Hudson Review said that Crace "will probably be the writer who defines this era for future generations." The Virginia Quarterly Review cited the book for its "gentle and poetic writing."
If you ever had a moment's doubt about those that run the American literary stockyard --- let this be your clue. Because Being Dead is about as gentle and poetic as the bombing at Hiroshima.... Rather than a novel about old love (as some critics have suggested), the author has created a stygian mess. He seems to have a strange fascination with bodily goo. He comes back again and again, during the course of the narrative, to report on new slimy creatures supping down on [the two characters] Celice and Joseph. He gives constant updates on how their bodies are faring in the full blast of the sun, and on the many beasties noshing down on their unexpected rich banquet.
If this is the writer who "defines this era for a future generation," let us off the bus. Please. Eudora Welty said that an author should always have love for their characters --- even if they aren't the nicest of people. Crace obviously doesn't care a whit for his and, indeed, doesn't seem to think much of the world in general. Publishers Weekly reports that he liked his Critics Circle Award because he hoped for "a fatter advance next time around." He also said that "there was nothing critics liked better than making a winner out of a loser --- and short books." With less than 200 pages of pure slime and goo, he may have a point.
Now, despite what Crace says, it so happens that some of us are rather fond of fat books, having grown up on the likes of Middlemarch, Ulysses, War and Peace, Tom Jones, Clarissa, The Brothers Karmazov, Vanity Fair. This week we found ourselves again trapped (happily) in the midst of an excellent lengthy book, being some fifty stories from Viet Nam, entitled Love After War. This book goes over the top at 600 pages. Yet it is rare for us to open it and come away irritated or bored.
Admittedly, the great thing about anthologies is that one can start in the beginning, the middle, or the very last story, as we sometimes do. But in no part of this plump collection have we found ourselves disappointed, and one, "The Saigon Tailor Shop" bowled us over so that we immediately applied to the publisher for an address so we could extend our congratulations and love to the author --- one Pham Thi Hoai.
Why is the story so good? One reason is because it is not trying to punch you in the face (or the nuts) like the stories that appear under the signatures of Oates, Crace and their ilk. "The Saigon Tailor Shop" is the simple tale of a young Vietnamese girl --- they call her Older Sister --- working in a sewing shop, surrounded by people with funny appellations:
There are two professors upstairs who teach the sewing craft, Professor Determined "who was shirtless," Professor Leg who's "shirt was unbuttoned and revealed his bulging stomach." When Professor Determined lay down to take his daily nap,
I couldn't believe the name of the twenty girls, Doggie, Green, Bamboo, Luck, Escape, Perfumed, Soaked, North.
he lay on his back on the table, directly beneath the ceiling fan, patting his stomach and singing. Some of his hair was swimming in a bowl of soup left on the table.
The owner of the school is Ms. Snow, and sometimes she gets angry at the girls, starts in with what the narrator calls "her scary modern poem." One day, she gets angry at Orchid, saying, "You think just because you are talented you can do whatever you want I pay your salary to teach or go to cafes this isn't a whorehouse this is not a market."
Orchid came down. She was wearing her favorite, the pink overcoat and the white miniskirt. High heels. Lipstick. Hair like a waterfall. She dropped down step by step, stopping on each, her legs parting and closing, mesmerizing. Halting in front of Ms. Snow, she said, "Mama, you don't stop, I'm going to put my head in front of the train..."
Ms. Snow wanted to, but couldn't. When she had a crises, her avalanches just wouldn't stop. Orchid rushed out on the streets, crawled through the barriers, and placed herself across the tracks. When we all heard the screeching brakes and ran out, it was too late. She was cut into three, the mesmerizing legs pointing to the shop, her hair falling toward the flower shops. Her coat and her skirt were red. You could only see the pink and white if you looked close enough. Maybe she had faced the sky. Above her were the traffic lights tied to the electric cables. She had probably been smiling and calculating: one, two three, Ms. Snow is going to stop. One, two, three, someone's coming for me...
Her "mesmerizing legs;" her hair "like a waterfall...falling toward the flower shops;" her last words, "One, two, three, someone's coming for me."
We contend that the stuff of great writing has got to be a mix of a powerful plot constructed with poetry-in-words. And the stuff of great short stories has got to be a perfect rounding. Somehow, Pham Thi Hoai --- and most certainly her translator, Nguyen Qui Duc --- have liberated the force of such poetry, such a rounding. One comes away from a story like "The Saigon Tailor Shop" wondering where on god's green earth could one writer get whatever is necessary to create such a broth of magic in such a short space.
At the very end, "Older Sister" is thinking of her boyfriend, the one who has just left her:
Last night our tongues had again been sweet as honey candy and our lips matched fine. I didn't free my lips to talk about marriage. I knew it would be our last kiss.
Then she says,
I was thinking of asking Ms. Snow for a refund of my tuition, telling her that I had to go somewhere immediately on assignment. Perhaps to Saigon. But she was in a crises again and I couldn't cut her off. She was bowing to the pink-and-white girls who were dancing in the streets. "Mama begs you I eat grass eat hay you lived wisely died divine Orchid my dear Tiny my dear please don't dance I beg you."--- E. J. Chin