Dilettante's Diary

Nov 19, 2021

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Two Novels by BARBARA PYM
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OTHER STUFF: Art Exhibitions, Concerts, etc.

Reviewed here: The Committed (Novel); Win (Mystery); So-Called Normal (Memoir); The Haunting of Hajji Hotak (Short Fiction)

The Committed (Novel) by Viet Thanh Nguyen, 2021

This novel follows on the author's The Sympathizer, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 2016. From the reviews and the hype surrounding the publication of The Committed, I gathered that anybody who cares about contemporary literature must take this book seriously.

Which I did.

However, I almost gave up about half way through. It's not easy to understand what is going on in this confession written by Vo Danh, our narrator. He tells us at the get-go that he's dead, that he's been shot in the head by his best friend, that his brain is leaking out of the bullet holes. He frequently engages in short dialogues with two people he killed. He is clearly a Vietnamese refugee but the chronology of his past is murky. He makes references to time that he spent as a student in the United States. There is also talk of time he spent in a re-education camp somewhere. He tells us that he was actually a spy for the Communists in Vietnam, a secret that his best friend (the guy who shot him) didn't know.

The two of them have now arrived in Paris (it's the 1980s), their arrival there having been sponsored by a woman whom the narrator refers to as his aunt, although she isn't. She too seems to be a secret Communist sympathizer. She entertains intellectuals and politicians in her living room and her bedroom. Vo is given a menial job in the worst Asian restaurant in Paris. Soon, he's conscripted into selling drugs to his "aunt's" elite friends. Meanwhile, there's a lot of talk about "The Man" -- someone who apparently had some power over Vo and his friend in the re-education camp. I'm not sure if this is the same "faceless man" that the narrator and his buddy often refer to, but it seems they are determined to wreck vengeance on some such person. That provides the only element of an on-going plot, in so far as I can discern one in this novel.

From the information on the book's fly leaf (which I didn't look at until I'd read the book), it appears that it would help if a reader had first perused The Sympathizer. Apparently, much of the narrator's back story would have been much clearer; it would have been much more obvious what was going on in Paris, what Vo and his buddy were trying to accomplish. Even by the end of this book, I wasn't too sure what had happened in some respects.

Lack of narrative clarity not withstanding, it was the power of the writing that brought me back to the book after thinking that I'd give up on it. Mr. Nguyen creates many memorable scenes, beginning with a harrowing flashback to boat people trying to survive a storm at sea. Later, we get vivid scenes in a brothel, not to mention an orgy, and intriguing discussions among the friends of the narrator's "aunt." One unforgettable scene takes place when the narrator is about to be executed but the tables are turned and a remarkable change involving genuine complexity of character takes place. (Occasionally, the narrator escapes some dire fate thanks to the arrival of a deus ex machina, more or less; that sort of thing would be a failing in a thriller, but it's not so objectionable in a novel that belongs in a more literary genre, where the text serves a higher purpose than mere plot.)

And let's face it, perhaps the most powerful allure of the book is the personality of Vo Danh, as created by Mr. Nguyen. Vo isn't exactly the most admirable example of our species, what with his selling drugs and his admitting to things like having killed people, but he gradually becomes a fascinating and intelligent person whose -- sometimes provocative -- thoughts about life are worth hearing. (He keeps reminding us that he has two minds. I don't know whether that's the result of the bullet holes in his head but he says it allows him to look at both sides of every question.) He often refers to the mix of guilt and shame that, thanks to his upbringing, felt so familiar to him. "They went so well together, like gin and tonic...."His mordant sense of humour is beguiling too. With unbridled gusto and explicitness such as I've never read in fiction before, he describes a stupendous bowel movement that overtook him in a moment of crisis

One of the messages that comes through most powerfully for me is what it feels like to be a colonized people. The narrator comes back to this again and again: the ignominy, for the Vietnamese, of being dominated first by the French and then by the Americans. I don't think many of us who lived through the news reports on the Vietnam war thought much about how it felt to the Vietnamese to be under the thumbs of foreigners. The humiliation and the frustration of the colonized people come through so vividly that a reader could never forget how awful that situation must be

In many other respects, Vo Danh's world view is not exactly rose-coloured. Among the subjects that come in for heated venting: racism, imperialism and capitalism. Regarding that last subject, the way Vo sees it is that bringing "civilization" to people who are thought to be less developed amounts, in fact, to genocide for the sake of capitalism. CEOs and gangsters share a most basic skill, he says: "kicking a man when he's down." At the point of a gun, our narrator gets a long diatribe from a woman about how women have always been subservient to men. Although raised as a Catholic, he says all religions are based on quicksand. "They needed people who needed to believe in something. I was one of those people until I was forced to believe in nothing, which, come to think of it, is also what religion is about."

Fascinating as the book is, though, when I got to the end, I was wondering what the point of it was. Yes, this narrator has a complicated and engaging story to tell. But is there anything to take away from it other than the indignity of being colonized? Is there something in it that the rest of us can learn about life in other circumstances? Well, maybe there'd be some hint of a morale in the one extremely long sentence that took up two pages just before the end of the book. I'd skipped over that section of text in my first reading because it seemed too daunting.

On a second reading of the section, though, it turned out to be packed with sizzling ideas of the narrator's amounting to nothing less than an impassioned plea for humanity to wake up, to stop the nonsense and the stupidity, to get us on the road to survival as a species -- this exhortation, presumably, as a result of the hectic troubles Vo has gone through, as related in this "confession." He recognizes that, from the earliest moments of civilization, a dialectic has been moving back and forth between aspiration and exploitation, but he doesn't believe "that such a dialectic requires the sacrifice of millions in the name of communism or capitalism or Christianity or nationalism...." (going on to mention many other 'isms'). Humanity, he says, "already knows everything it needs to know without resorting to murder..." Nonviolence, he says, "could detoxify us and free us from our inferiority complexes, lift us from despair and fear, and restore the self-respect we need for action..." He says revolution is always an act of "insanity," because "revolution is not a revolution unless it is committed to the impossible..." And yet, the downfall of every revolution is when it "loses its sense of absurdity." So you have to take the revolution seriously but not the revolutionaries. When revolutionaries take themselves too seriously, he warns, "they cock their guns at the crack of a joke."

That sounds like a healthy reminder that this narrator (this novelist too?) is one revolutionary doesn't want us to take him too seriously, no matter how grave his outlook on our world.

Win (Mystery) by Harlan Coben, 2021

The title of this book might make you think it's about some competitive adventure, some relentless pursuit of victory in the field of sports, business or whatever. To my relief, however, I found that the book's about none of those things. The title is, in fact, the short form of the name of the narrator: Windsor Horne Lockwood III. And if ever there was a narrator that deserved to have a book named after him, it's this guy.

The main plot starts with the discovery of a recluse murdered in his aerie in a luxury hotel. A Vermeer painting stolen from Win's family estate is found in the guy's rooms. Also, a luxury suitcase bearing Win's initials. Obviously, the authorities want to know if Win has any idea how these items ended up with the recluse. That starts Win on a quest to find his own answers to the puzzle. This being a Harlan Coben book, we can be sure the search will lead Win down treacherous paths. The suspense is taut, the twists surprising.

More than the plot, though, it's the character of Win that makes the book so entertaining. How to sum up his personality? Cocky? Snobbish? Witty? Brave? Conceited? Adventurous? All of those. He knows that he was born with not just a silver spoon in his mouth, "but with a forty-eight-piece silver place setting with a side of titanium steak knives." And he makes no apology for his privileged status. Knowing that people are inclined to despise him for his blonde, effete good looks and his slight frame, however, he has trained himself in martial arts, with the result that he often polishes off an opponent with surprising physical prowess. After one challenging encounter, he says, "I would estimate that I am working somewhere between sixty-five and seventy percent capacity; and modesty prevents me from saying that I, at sixy-five percent, am still a potent force."

That reference to "modesty" characterizes Win's humour about himself. At one point, describing himself leading against a fireplace mantel, "like Sinatra against a lamppost," he tells the reader: "The word you are looking for is debonair." When told that someone sees him as crazy and dangerous, he asks: "Nothing about my natural good looks or supernatural charisma?" When unfolding a somewhat pessimistic theory about human nature, he tells the reader: "I know what you're thinking: I'm too lovely a creature to be this cynical. But stay with me on this." Occasionally, Win uses arch vocabulary such as "doth" and "thusly," as if to satirize the rarefied background that he comes from.

While Win's attitude to the law and morality may not exactly fit into the conventional ethic, he has some stiking thoughts about life and our methods of navigating our way through it. You could call him something of a philosopher of the human condition. Appealing to someone's self-interest is the only way to get them onside, he believes. Not altruism, reason or respect. "The only way to change someone's opinion is to make them believe that siding with you is in their best interest." We're all masters of self-rationalization, he says. We're constantly justifying our narratives. Those of us who are reading his book, he points out, are far luckier than most people in the history of humanity. "Yet instead of appreciating that, instead of doing more to help those beneath us, we attack those who got even luckier for not doing enough." People want to believe that there are reasons for tragedies, that victims are to blame, that there is a rationale behind chaos. "It comforts us to think that we have control when we don't." Arrogant as he may seem at times, he's willing to admit that he can be wrong, that he has doubts. "The stupidest men are the ones who think they can't be wrong. The stupidest men are the ones who are most sure." In a similar vein, he notes that life "is lived in the greys," not the blacks and whites. "Rationality and prudence are difficult, exhausting, mundane."

For one who seems to lead such a starry, exciting life, Win has this unexpected admission: "The secret to fulfilllment is not about exciting adventures or living out loud -- no one can maintain that kind of pace -- but in welcoming and even relishing the quiet and familiar."

While knowing that he's something of a caricature to others, he shows himself to have a knack for turning the satirical lens on other segments of society: his depiction of the "hipster" stereo types in the bar of a craft brewery is devastatingly accurate and hilarious.

For readers who might find Win callous and insensitive in many situations, it's startling to hear his admission of his tremendous vulnerability when it comes to the wellbeing of his biological daughter (whom he didn't know about until her mother informed him long after the child's birth). He says that his concern for the girl tears him apart with worry and pain. "Some would say this feeling, this parental worry, makes me more human. Whatever. Who wants to be more human? It's awful."

Those feelings for his daughter lead to our farewell line from this highly entertaining narrator. He's talking about how the effect of her smile makes the greys wash away and all he's seeing is the white. But, catching himself, he realizes that we may think his expressing such a thought is hackneyed. But then, with insouciance and wit and a well-deserved middle-finger at the reader, making for one of the best last lines of any book: 'But since when have I cared what you thought?"

So-Called Normal (Memoir) by Mark Henick, 2021

The cover of this one stared out at me from the library shelf: a photo of a good-looking young man promising to tell how he struggled through mental illness and came out on the other side. What would that be like? How would a guy talk about that?

Very articulately, as it turns out.

Mark Henick, in his mid-thirties now, a husband and father of three kids, suffered through very turbulent teen years in his home town of Sydney, Cape Breton. His father left the family early in Mark's life (he's the youngest of three siblings) and didn't have much to do with them after that. Marks' mother teamed up with a man who, following an accident to his head, was not the most stable personality. He and Mark's mother fought constantly; she took her kids and fled his house many times, but always returned for more tumult. As Mark became more and more insecure and depressed, presumably as a result of the insecurity, this man kept urging him to shape up, to "be a man," to snap out of his sadness.

Eventually, psychiatric help was sought for Mark. Involvement of various professionals, several hospital stays and doses of different medications didn't lead to any lasting improvement. In one major crisis, a high school guidance counsellor leapt across his desk to stop Mark from slashing his own neck with a knife. After a mother berated Mark for having sex with her daughter, he found himself on a bridge, preparing to jump as a way of ending his misery.

From that nadir, Mark's life began to improve. He gradually came to understand that his emotional difficulty wasn't his fault and that the self-contempt plaguing him had nothing to do with his real worth. As he began to get better, Mark felt the need to talk to other teens about mental health. Although educators were wary of his doing so, he soon had a tremendous response to the telling of his story. Today, Mr. Henick has a thriving career as a speaker on issues of mental health.

Nothing not to admire about his story, right? And yet, I found the narrative a bit flat. It strikes me that Mr. Henick isn't a natural story-teller. He gives the facts honestly and matter-of-factly, he does about as good a job as anybody could at explaining the -- perhaps unexplainable -- reasons for his mental illness, but there's a pedestrian "this-happened-and-then-that-happened" pace to the book.

Some parts of it, though, are more compelling than others. The description of how he was rescued from that dire situation on the bridge is gripping. As is the account of how, many years later, he learned the indentity of his saviour and the two men eventually met. It turns out that Mark was fortunate in the person who spotted him on the bridge. The other man showed tremendous wisdom by engaging Mark in bland, friendly small talk until the arrival of the emergency responders (whom the man had alerted). This man's behaviour could serve as a guideline for anybody who -- perish the thought -- should ever find himself or herself in a such a dire situation.

The Haunting of Hajji Hotak (Short Fiction), by Jamil Jan Kochai, The New Yorker, November 8, 2021

What we have here is a view of a Muslim family from Afghanistan now living in West Sacramento, California. The elderly father of the family potters about, not able to do much because of an old injury. The other family members come and go, seeing about their daily business, shopping and cooking, praying and so on. There are the usual squabbles about nutrition, culture, the ambitions and lifestyles of the young adult children. It's all very ordinary and mundane.

Except that we gradually realize the story is coming to us from someone who is spying on the family's privacy through secret technology that has been installed in their home, presumably because of suspected terrorist associations.

What an ingenious way to make the story's point! On top of which, it ends with a startling note of compassion.

You can respond to: patrick@dilettantesdiary.com