Seven Stories Press ($23.95)
by Thuy Dinh
“After Vietnam, however, Philadelphia will be possible again," the narrator of Linh Dinh's "Two Who Forgot" contemplates. Like the narrator of this short story in Fake House, since 1999 Linh Dinh has returned to work and live in Saigon—the city of his birth—to ponder the notion of home and personal identity after twenty-four years of living as a refugee in America.
Proficient in both English and Vietnamese, Dinh, also a poet (Drunkard Boxing) and translator (Night Again: Contemporary Fiction from Vietnam), is acutely aware of the multi-layered, transnational context that defines him as a postmodern satirist. In this sense, Dinh does not quite fit into the mold of Asian American writers born in the United States, whose literary sensibility, however affected by their Asian upbringing, are removed from the political turmoils of their parents' homeland and as a result become mainly preoccupied with assimilation issues in the American context. Dinh, wielding an ironic, contemporary vernacular filled with scatological descriptions and violent images (not unlike visions created by the cartoonist Robert Crumb), possesses an existential angst that acknowledges, yet ceaselessly strives to transcend ethnic and cultural boundaries.
The title Fake House, for example, is both specific and ambiguous. It is the title of one of Dinh's stories and refers to the shell structure of an abandoned warehouse, devoid of electricity and the accoutrements of a conventional living space. Fake House can also mean "Nha Nguy" in Vietnamese. "Nha" denotes either "home" or "country." "Nguy" is a pejorative word used by the Vietnamese Communists meaning "fake" or "puppet," to refer to the fallen, pro-American South Vietnamese government. Yet, stripped of historical and linguistic references, Fake House, as a metaphor for "false" foundation, can apply to any system of beliefs, depending on who the viewer is.
Structurally, Fake House is divided into two parts—the first part consists of nine stories taking place in the United States, and the second consists of twelve stories taking place in Vietnam. At times, however, the two countries seem to be simultaneously imposed on one another, creating a fun house, bizarro effect—the effect of living in two places at once, or in a twilight zone of cultural and linguistic travesties.
In "Two Who Forgot," for example, a viet-kieu (overseas Vietnamese) revisiting his homeland is cursed by a pedicab driver for being a "Nacirema" ("American" read backward). In "The Cave," an ethnic mountain tribesman questions his allegiance, saying "we are citizens of a country called Vietnam, a word most of us can't even pronounce." In "California Fine View," a Vietnamese living in Vietnam thinks he has vicariously attained America by his acquisition of "Levy's jeans" and his patronage of California Fine View restaurant, where "the pepperoni is real, but the cheese is fake" (because the Vietnamese digestive system generally cannot tolerate dairy products).
Linh Dinh dedicates Fake House to "the unchosen." The dedication serves as a pithy introduction to his gallery of unredeemed outcasts—variations of the wedding guest "without the wedding garment" in Matthew's parable, whose inappropriate dress and bad manners cause him to be exiled into the outer darkness, where "men will weep and gnash their teeth, for many are called, but few are chosen." (Matthew: 22.1-14.) This outer darkness—the exposed, borderless realm of Fake House—is akin to Simone Weil's concept of affliction:
We feel ourselves to be outsiders, uprooted, in exile here below.
We are like Ulysses who had been carried away during his sleep
by sailors and woke in a strange land, longing for Ithaca with a
longing that rent his soul . . . .
[Simone Weil, "Forms of the Implicit Love of God," from Waiting for
God, p. 178 (tr. by Emma Craufurd, Harper & Row 1973).]
However, unlike Weil's rational and clear-headed hero who finally arrives home, i.e., redeemed by divine grace, Fake House's various "homeless" characters—a Vietnamese-American man returning to Vietnam, who, like one of Homer's lotus eaters, allows his impromptu bacchanalia on the Hanoi-Saigon train to erase his recorded memory ("Two Who Forgot"); a divorced American lawyer dreaming of instant fulfillment in the form of a mail-order bride from Origami Geishas catalogue ("Fritz Glatman"); a Vietnam war veteran living among ghosts on a remote Vietnamese mountaintop ("Chopped Steak Mountain")—all are forever distracted and imprisoned by what Weil poetically refers to as "Calypso and the Sirens." "Dead on Arrival," perhaps the most poignant story in Fake House, presents an autobiographical portrait of the author as a young boy. In this story, Dinh illustrates how Weil's notion of affliction—induced by numbing violence, war, and a dysfunctional father-son relationship—utterly destroys a child's fragile moral universe.
For some of the inhabitants of Fake House, an inability to grow up (or assimilate) and a nostalgia for home translate into a hunger for uncomplicated sex with reverse racial and colonial overtones. In "555," a Vietnamese refugee, recently arrived in the United States, squanders his payday earnings on "not so pretty, but pleasant" Chinese and Korean prostitutes because he thinks there is no "dissimulation—only intimacy" in having sex with Asians who are not Vietnamese. In "Uncle Tom's Cabin," Bui, a broke and self-hating young Vietnamese-American (whose name ironically means "rich and savory" in Vietnamese), engages in arid, joyless sex with his sometime Caucasian friend. Bui's sexual encounter, tinged with pity and revenge, falls somewhere between masturbation and (metaphorical) incest. Bui's "friend," like himself, is neither physically desirable nor emotionally connected to others.
Dinh is an ambitious writer whose stories, while bleak and devoid of a higher moral order, are strangely, entrenchedly humanistic. In the wake of renewed diplomatic and trade relations between the United States and Vietnam—which have resulted in blind optimism and unrestrained greed on the part of denizens from both countries—his fictional characters show that the Vietnam War's consequences linger on in more variegated, insidious contexts. The central tragedy that still plagues those who have been affected by the war is the inability to forget and forgive. Yet, to forget and forgive would be to erase, to "cosmeticize" the past. In "Saigon Pull," the narrator, a disabled Vietnamese war veteran, muses, "It is true that the new generation has very little tolerance for ugliness, for whatever that is unglamorous, maimed, unphotogenic. All reminders of the war embarrass them."
In "Saigon Pull," Dinh exposes an outré sentiment that flies in the face of anti-war believers (yet shared by many overseas Vietnamese and Vietnamese currently living in Vietnam), that perhaps it would have been better for the North Vietnamese, like Germany or Japan in World War II, to lose the war and win the cash ("they see the cash-friendly Americans on the street and cannot imagine why we ever fought them"). Such sentiment reflects a profound postwar disillusionment with both American foreign policy and Communist Party rhetorics. It nevertheless represents the most honest assessment of the Vietnam debacle, by angry and depleted souls who are no longer deceived by the reductive images seen inside the Cave.
Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2000/2001 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2000