Book review: Dragonfish - a maddening, unexplained debut

Vietnamese-American Vu Tran pits his people's past against its future in novel that's a confusing pastiche

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 23 August, 2015, 12:07am
UPDATED : Sunday, 23 August, 2015, 12:07am


Dragonfish, the debut novel by Vietnamese-American writer Vu Tran, has two narrators - and neither is, alas, very satisfactory.

One of them, 43-year-old Hong, is obsessed with the past and the country where it's buried: the Vietnam she fled on an overcrowded boat of refugees five years after the fall of Saigon, accompanied by Mai, her young daughter. Left behind: her dying husband, broken by years in a Communist re-education camp.

The second, 45-year-old Robert, is an Oakland cop and the prototypical optimistic American. He resolutely looks to the future, allowing him to shrug off the past while believing that history can always be fixed - and that he's the right guy for the job.

These two wind up married for eight years before divorcing. It's one of many relationships in this maddening book that goes unexplained.

Instead, we're given variations on Hong's insistence that "people need each other not for reasons they can measure or explain in detail. It happens in an instant, when life becomes startlingly new and frightening and profound, and you turn to the person next to you and see that they feel it too."

There's plenty more where that came from: long on adjectives and abstractions, Dragonfish skimps on actual explanations of why relationships work or fail. Why does Hong marry the Vietnamese man she leaves? Why does she love a fellow refugee, a brutal and abusive man? Most important, why does she abandon her daughter shortly after arriving in California?

"I've tried to explain myself and lay bare whatever truth I can find in the things I've done and the things I've let happen," Hong writes to that daughter, in the journal through which she delivers her first-person narrative - without ever delivering the journal itself to Mai.

"Yet it seems the more I explain, the more I muddy the truth," Hong continues. "My one story becomes so many stories that I feel I can never properly tell it to you, that once you finish reading these words, if you ever do read them, you will be worse off." No kidding: that's what any reader is bound to feel when trying to make sense of her story.

Presumably the frustration at trying and failing to grasp the elusive Hong is typical of the way Westerners presume they can understand Vietnam instead of heeding what one Vietnamese character tells Robert about Hong: "The story is still incomplete. It will always be incomplete. Live with it."

It's certainly true to Robert's experience - much of it told in a bad pastiche of hard-boiled Chandler, in service to a poorly plotted, exposition-heavy crime narrative that's bolted onto this novel.

The one place where Tran consistently pulls off his Chandler homage is in his descriptions of Las Vegas, where much of the action unfolds and where Tran once lived. His descriptions of Sin City are consistently good and the best thing in this book.

Dragonfish  by Vu Tran  (Norton)

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