Unfortunately, the stories in The Boat serve as a reminder of the importance of writing about what you know, and of the dangers of a formal writing education.
In the first story, Love and Honor and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice, we meet Nam Le’s stand-in, Nam, a young writer with the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, who is railing against his apparent destiny as an ethnic writer. He is, after all, Vietnamese, and “ethnic literature’s hot”. But Nam would rather write about “lesbian vampires and Colombian assassins and Hiroshima orphans—and New York painters with hemorrhoids.”
Several reviewers have commented that this first story, in which the character of Nam struggles to accept or reject this role of the “ethnic writer”, is the strongest story in the book. It may actually be the only one that’s really any good.
Having used the first story to set out his shingle as an ethnic writer who won’t draw on his personal background and experience for his writing, Nam uses the later stories to visit the Colombian assassins, Hiroshima orphans, etc. But there’s a reason why background and personal experience are important, and it’s not just that “ethnic literature’s hot”. It’s because, when we write, we need to have something to say, something that comes from who we are, what we’ve experienced, and how we see the world. Nam’s stories, however, come across as a combination of Wikipedia research and leaden writing-course prose.
Every line is momentous in Le’s stories; every phrase tuned and pruned, not until it sings but until every word falls with equal dead weight, like a blow upon a bruise (to borrow a phrase from Evelyn Waugh). The words gather thickly, weighed down with their own sense of self-importance; this prose isn’t meant to be read at home by a reader, but rather aloud by the author, standing at the front of the class, intoning in an unnaturally deep voice, one sentence at a time, while the rest of the class wonder what they’re having for lunch. Conjunctions and nouns are frequently dropped as though Le is afraid to let the writing begin to flow by itself, as though he’s afraid there’s no credit for an author whose text doesn’t constantly remind us that it. Has. Been. Written.
There’s a moment early in the first story in The Boat when one character comments on the importance of having “an interesting image or metaphor once in every this much text”. (He indicates about half a page between finger and thumb.) This is the kind of nonsense that Nam Le himself seems to take too seriously; it negates the importance of story and character in favour of arbitrary technical rules.
The same overloading takes place within the stories themselves; every character is tortured, every relationship strained to breaking point. Every story labours under that old misapprehension that only unhappiness is profound.
Of course writers shouldn’t only write directly from personal experience—fiction as thinly-disguised autobiography is frequently awful—but they do need to stick to themes and ideas that are relevant to their experience and the way they view the world. It’s this personal connection to the subject that gives the prose its life. Call it the Promethean spark—without it, even the best writer can only build a lifeless Terracotta Army.
Le is a young man, and from his biography, he seems to have spent much of his life in writing workshops and fellowships. If he wants to produce work that’s really worthwhile, he needs to step outside of that, and work out what it is he cares about and really wants to write about. From The Boat, it seems that his only angle at the moment is the difficulty facing a writer from an ethnic minority who doesn’t want to be pigeon-holed. That’s an interesting idea for a short story, but it can’t carry a collection, and it certainly won’t carry a career.