The Boat: A Sail Well Worth the Voyage

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“Widely reviewed and praised on Australia, Britain, Canada, France, the United States, and throughout much of Asia, The Boat may very well be among the most decorated first books of fiction to emerge in some time” (Goelinicht 189). The Boat by Nam Le has many different aspects that make it an amazing read. It is phenomenally constructed with stories that touch base on many different themes and voices. Le’s style of writing and language use was varied and poetic (much like the work of John Donne) but it did have problems as well, this paper will examine the language and themes of Le as presented in The Boat. 

Nam Le’s style of writing varies to fulfill the need of the story the reader is immersed in at the time. His prose changes with voice and adapts to the needs of whoever is the main character. He builds landscapes and tugs at the heartstrings of the reader. For example, in “Love and Honor and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice”, Le blurs the line between fiction and non-fiction when he names the narrator/main character “Nam,” a student at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop who seems to be the author as far as I knew (Le 5). Le uses Metafiction, a postmodern literary device. “Metafiction is a self-referential tool where the writer self-consciously addressed the devices of writing by referring to the parameters of fiction and alerting readers to the storytelling equipment in their arsenal” (Joosten, 5). Although I could not initially put my finger on it, I could see similarities between the author and the main character in “Love and Honor”, which confused me into thinking that the story was autobiographical which would mean that the story means more, I’m not sure why, but it would. I think it would be because the critical thoughts would then be real. 

Le’s dialogue in “Love and Honor” puts the reader in the shoes of an annoyed college student, whose father has just shown up. Nam’s, the main character’s, sentences are short and to the point and you can almost feel the awkwardness in the room surrounding you as you read. For example, when Nam describes how messy his room is and how he had intended to clean it up before his father’s arrival and how his father surveys the room, he snatches up random bottles of alcohol to stash – it’s the most accurate portrayal of the normal college student! It resembles (although definitely not as defiantly) Ammu and her father in The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy when Ammu rejects her father’s blind devotion to the British. The same feeling of being angry and trying to get away from the things that are a part of or special about your family exists between both stories. “Love and Honor” also uses an innate amount of allusion especially when the main character is describing his girlfriend Linda. It’s interesting how I tuned in to this literary device in “Love and Honor” but found myself paying attention to the other forms of writing in the other stories. I found that the way Nam Le chose to use words was very detailed and I started really focusing on what that detail meant.

In the first story of Nam Le’s The Boat, “Love and Honor and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice,” Nam Le uses language in an interesting way that has a certain type of poetic style where meaning is produced and reinforced that clashes against the images that he chooses to show the reader. 

As I walked into the kitchen I thought, for a moment, that I’d left the fire escape open. I could hear rainwater gushing along gutters, down through the pipes. Then I saw my father at the sink, sleeves rolled up, sponge in hand, washing the month-old crusted mounds of dishes. The smell was awful. “Ba,” I frowned, “you don’t need to do that” (Le 4).

The language is calm and creates a slow feeling that I’ve felt before in British movies or in Japanese Haiku. But because the dishes having a stinking crust, and because a fire escape and gutters are present, and because this man’s father is shown doing low work (the dishes), all of these things show that these characters are poor, lower class. But the slow way the narrator considers the specific details of every action: thinking about the fire escape, noticing the rolled-up sleeves. That reminds me of a thoughtful art, and that kind is more connected to high class and smarter works of art. This mix makes simple actions interesting because it doesn’t feel how one would normally feel about this kind of action. It would not be written like this normal and so when you read it, it makes you feel two things at once, and that can change your mind about all the things you thought about this kind of people.

In the story, “Cartegena,” Nam le totally changes his writings in that everything he says is happening as it’s happening in the story. I noticed that there was a change from using the past tense to now where he is using the present tense in “Cartegena.” When you think about it, reading the first story that had all of the past tense makes things go slower and you feel like you have to stop and think and that feeling feels too fancy. But in “Cartegena” the story just feels like maybe it could be closer to the gutters, or like that is where you belong. That is what the “Cartegena” writing makes you feel. An example of the “Cartegena” writing is this quote: “They wear skirts up to here, like on MTV, and boots up to here, and it is not like the country, where the audodefensas will shoot them for it. They are taller and whiter and have beautiful teeth and can talk about real things. Nothing like here” (Le 35). The writing shows that there is not being attention paid to the small detail or thinking about things. Instead, it feels like a television where everything is too bright and too loud. Also, the words and the way the descriptions are simple makes it feel more simple and not as important. 

But on the same page, there is another part of “Cartegena” that is too much when you look at it next to the MTV quote. It is too fancy in comparing to the other part of the story. At the beginning of the story it is written: 

In Cartagena, Luis says, the beach is grey at down. He points to the barrel of his G3 when he says this, steel grey, he says. He smiles. The sand is white, he says, this colour, tapping his teeth. And when the sun comes up on your right, man, it is a slow motion explosion like in the movies, a big kerosene flash and then the water is sparkling grey and orange and red. Luis is full of shit, of course, but he can talk and it is true that he is the only one of our gallada who has seen the Caribbean. Who has been to Cartagena (Le 35)?

When this quote is looked at next to the other quote, the words don’t go right. The writing of the sunset is too pretty. It is almost like it feels wrong in my brain the way the describing goes. The character of Luis is not allowed to say things like “white sands” or “kerosene flash” “sparkling grey and orange and red”. He is not allowed to say these things because he is part of the dirty low-class. But it is not ok in this story like it is in the first story because the first story set it up that even though things were low class and poor, somehow a good mix between the writing and the poorness makes the reader think new things. But in “Cartegena” these two examples do not go right together. They make this story a little bit not believable because it doesn’t feel like the character would talk that way. 

So even though the writing in “Cartegena” is very good. And it is kind of amazing how the way the talking about present in present tense makes the writing feel low class but also like you belong in low class. And it is very different from the first story I talked about and this is also amazing because it shows that the writer can change like that which is impressive. It is also not very amazing because it doesn’t stay like that. It was like the writer Nam Le was too fancy to stay close to the gutters and then so he messed up Luis by making him talk funny by accident. 

The plot similarities between all the stories are that they each have their characters in a crisis that of which they must overcome but most of all, these stories push the relationship between parent and child. “Love and Honor” examines the relationship between a parent and child who have not seen each other in a while but it also touches base on parent-child relationships of other cultures. For example, the way Linda, Le’s girlfriend, does not understand why he hasn’t told his father about her or why Le’s father is even coming if Le does not want him there (Le 20). It’s interesting because Linda, a Caucasian girl, does not have the same allegiances to her parents as an Asian or even African American would. Another heart-wrenching story that brings to light the relationship between parent and child is “Halflead Bay” (a close second favorite of mine). It’s the classic look at a teenager in high school who is struggling to overcome his own shyness while in the midst of having being thrown into the limelight. Now Jamie is experiencing the attention almost all high school student wants, the most popular girl wants him and everyone knows his name. On a deeper level, when the story brings you home to Jamie’s family, you see that he and his younger brother are struggling with their mother’s illness and impending death (Le 140). This story pushes the concept of losing your parent, especially in the rough teenage years where, most of the time, the parent is the enemy. “Halflead Bay” also introducing another form of language use that Le is incorporating. The whole story is written in Australian dialect, which adds another notch is Le’s language and style arsenal.  

I cannot say that I can relate to the stories in The Boat nor can I say that it is a book that will stick with me. What I can say is that I can admire all these stories in how they connect to form a broader literary experience. The themes of family and strife run through each story which unites them together as a whole, but each story is also so different when it comes to tone or feeling and language that it can make you sit back and think about how life is a lot like that. Everything’s different but everything’s connected. Nam Le writes each story in its own voice, making it hard for the reader to believe that each story was written by the same author. It is also interesting to see that this book, an “ethnic story,” encompasses cultures and ethnicities apart from being Vietnamese. I had that that this would be a whole book based on Vietnamese culture and tradition, and I was pleasantly surprised to experience such diversity. Nam Le’s writing is both instinctive and beautiful at the same time, while also being completely different whenever it needs to be. It makes me wonder: is this the characteristic of a good writer or is this something that comes with this particular writer? I hope to continue reading novels like this because experiencing so many different emotions and thoughts from one writer is exhilarating and it really makes you re-think. It’s a harrowing experience but seems to be well worth the ride.

Works Cited

Goelinicht, Donald C.. “Ethnic Literature’s Hot: Asian American Literature, Refugee Cosmopolitanism, and Nam Le’s The Boat.” Journal of Asian American Studies 15.2 (2012): 197-224. Web.

Joosten, Melanie. "The Boat." CAE Book Groups (N/A): 1-14. Web. 06 Dec. 2012.

Le, Nam. The Boat. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2008. Print.

Roy, Arundhati. The God of Small Things. New York: Random House, 1997. Print.