Posts

noir mystery

Dragonfish – mystery without solution

Vu Tran’s novel Dragonfish combines a noir mystery with a family saga and adds a dash of ambiguity of the kind usually associated with literary fiction. Written in elegant prose, it begins as a familiar kind of detective story, the search for a missing person, but Tran seems more concerned with the mystery than its solution, with what cannot be known rather than what can.

Two husbands—or rather, three

Robert, an Oakland cop, and his ex-wife Hong a.k.a. Suzy are the story’s two first-person narrators. Hong abandons Robert for a man she met during her journey to America. Sonny has become a gambler and smuggler in Las Vegas. He’s a brutal villain but also a victim of his past. When Hong runs away from him too, he blackmails Robert into looking for her. The search leads Robert into a violent world that he doesn’t understand. The more he learns about his ex-wife, the more he realizes how little he knows her.

Not that he tries hard to know her during their marriage. He accepts her strange behavior without much caring what causes it. He calls her Suzy rather than her true name, creating a superficial American identity for her.

Her real name was Hong, which meant “pink” or “rose” in Vietnamese. But it sounded a bit piggish the way Americans pronounced it, so I suggested the name of my first girlfriend in high school . . .

It seems that Robert prefers his wife without the baggage of her past. Now, searching for her, he is forced to confront it.

Bad mother?

Hong is as much a mystery to herself as to Robert. In flashbacks she recounts her immigration to America and her deep ambivalence about motherhood. She gives birth in Vietnam while her first husband is imprisoned at a re-education camp. Although she loves her daughter, she feels alone and unable to be a good mother.

There are things that people do poorly for lack of talent, and things they do poorly for lack of desire. Then there are those things that all the desire and talent in the world cannot make fit, no matter how often you pray and how hard you pretend.

After the government releases her dying husband, he urges Hong to leave the country. She’s cast adrift on a crowded, barely seaworthy boat carrying her and her young daughter away from Vietnam. Two things that happen on the journey dramatize Hong’s ambivalence about motherhood. A woman thinks her son has fallen overboard. In a paroxysm of despair, she jumps in the ocean to drown with him. The boy is found soon afterward sleeping below deck. The woman’s devotion to her child backfires. It is extreme—and inept.

If the other mother loves her son too much, Hong fears that she may love her daughter too little.

The second incident occurs on an island where the refugees await sponsorship in America. Hong watches her daughter going into deep water, where she would likely drown, and does nothing to stop her. Hong cannot understand her own failure to act. It troubles her. These two incidents do not explain her ambivalence, but they suggest a disquieting answer—that Hong is incapable of the steadfastness and self-sacrifice that motherhood requires. She loves her daughter, yet leaves her to be raised by a relative.

Mysteries with no solution

Robert’s search for Hong brings him into conflict with Sonny and his clan, a conflict that ends in a violent resolution. But Hong remains in the shadows. She asks an ancient question—Who am I?—and cannot find an answer. Nor can the reader who wants to know how her story ends.

While the mystery of Hong’s character serves the plot and theme, the blurred edges of Robert’s character detract from the story. He’s not altogether believable as an Oakland cop, appearing remarkably untouched by a career full of stress and danger. Almost nothing is shown of his life apart from his marriage to Hong. True, the story isn’t about him, but as a major point-of-view character, he should be more fully developed.

Dragonfish does not deserve its low ratings on Amazon. Its combination of genres and ambiguous ending may explain the mixed reviews. Some readers apparently expected a more pedestrian novel. They complain that the plot moves too slowly and seem to resent the lack of resolution to Hong’s story. In another post I write about some readers’ dislike of ambiguity, a preference to which they are entitled. But plenty of other readers love Dragonfish and you can count me among them. I will not soon forget Vu Tran’s powerful novel.

,

Return to Tanglewood

I found the paperbacks in a used bookstore. Their pages were yellowed and they had the distinctive smell of old books. New, they cost $0.60 and $1.25. They were A Wonder Book and Tanglewood Tales, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s adaptations of classical myths for children, and when I was nine years old they were my favorite books. Or actually book. The book I read long ago was a hardback that contained both volumes.

So I bought the old yellowed paperbacks.

I remember reading them in the living room of my neighborhood friend ‘Alicia’. I was lying on the carpet, which had a swirly pattern that reminded me of waves. Alicia was a grave little girl. I liked her because we did things like read quietly together. It may be I borrowed the book from her rather than from the library. She had quite a few books.

At the time my brother and I and our mother lived with Nana, our grandmother and Mom’s ex-mother-in-law, in Ocean Beach, California. The two women had a complicated and sometimes tense relationship.

Nana ended my friendship with Alicia. Alicia’s mother didn’t invite me to Alicia’s birthday party because she couldn’t invite me without also inviting the other neighbor kids, including two sisters she disliked intensely. I understood. The sisters were nasty bullies and I didn’t like them either. But Nana didn’t understand. She took my not being invited as an insult. So when my birthday party rolled around, Nana allowed me to invite all the neighborhood kids except Alicia.

During the party Alicia came to the door. I still remember Nana’s hard voice as she spoke to Alicia through the screen, telling her she couldn’t come in and have cake with the rest of us.

Reading A Wonder Book again, I understand why I loved those stories so much. They must have been a challenge. I doubt my nine-year-old self knew words like erudition, vagrant, and audacity (and those are all in one sentence). But the truth is you don’t have to understand every single word when you read. Seeing a word like dominions the first time, you kind of guess the meaning from the context and can be pretty sure it meaning something like kingdom.

MinotaurHawthorne’s tales lifted me from everyday life into a world of magic adventures where the mysterious Quicksilver comes to the aid of Perseus as he sets out to slay the Gorgon, where greedy King Midas is cursed with a golden touch, and where Theseus  braves the labyrinth and battles the Minotaur. I got lost in those stories. As Hawthorne says in the preface (which I doubt I read back then), “No epoch of time can claim a copyright in these immortal tales. They seem never to have been made; and certainly, so long as man exists, they can never perish.” They awakened my love of fantasy.

But Hawthorne also gives the stories a frame. A group of children, brothers and sisters and cousins, are staying together at a beautiful estate called Tanglewood. They sit together on a spacious porch overlooking a misty valley, or beside a shady brook, while their college-age cousin Eustace Bright tells the stories.

Tanglewood seemed like paradise to me. It was a world without divorced parents or kids who were nasty bullies. The children in the book might tease one another gently, but they’re never mean. If one of them had a birthday party, all of the others would be invited. And if one of them showed up at the door, wanting to be let in, she wouldn’t be turned away.

My Reading Hangups

I start every book meaning to finish. But sometimes I put the book down and never pick it up again. Here are a few of the reasons why . . .

I love to read fiction. That’s one reason I became a writer — to create those magical portals called books. I begin each story hoping to be swept away, so caught up that nothing else exists, but sometimes it fails to happen. After a few pages or a few chapters I lose interest and abandon the book, never to return. Here are a few reasons why:

The dreaded info dump

Exposition is necessary at the beginning of a story. Accent on necessary. Writers can overestimate how much readers need to know. Suppose you’re reading a story that opens with a family in a car bringing their daughter to college. You’re getting to know the family from the daughter’s point of view — their conversation, her thoughts and reactions. Then you come to two lengthy paragraphs of background info — how she feels about her stepdad, the financial struggles of her family over the past year, her hopes and dreams. Nothing in the paragraphs is needed to understand the present scene. All of it could have surfaced gradually.

Those paragraphs are like lumps of flour in stew that hasn’t been stirred enough. They distract from the flavor. They may even spoil your appetite.

Read the rest at Novel Publicity. While you’re there, enter the drawing for a $50 gift card.

Ambiguity

You could write a book on why readers dislike ambiguity in fiction. Someone probably has. It might seem arrogant (or at least reductive) to address the question in 500 words or less, but I’m going to try.

The answer comes down to what a reader wants — challenge or comfort.

Ambiguity is a lack of clarity or certainty in a situation. In fiction, it’s found in open endings, unsolved disappearances, characters whose nature remains mysterious, events that may or may not be real. For me, ambiguity enriches a story and keeps me thinking long after I put the book aside. It makes the story more real. More like life.

We live with ambiguity every day. Someone texts a friend several times and gets no reply. An insecure person thinks, “I did something to make her hate me.” A fearful person thinks, “Maybe she’s in trouble.” An optimistic person thinks, “She’s having too much fun to check her messages.” The point is, people feel the need to come up with an explanation.

Oftentimes more is at stake. You interview for a job. The interviewer promises to get back to you, but doesn’t. Maybe you should call and ask whether you’re still in the running. But what if your call annoys the interviewer?

You meet someone and want to start dating. But maybe he’s a con artist with a string of ex-wives. You run an online search and hope it uncovers the truth. Some of the truth anyway.

The uncertainty of life can be exhausting and anxiety provoking. What a comfort to escape into a story where the mystery is solved, the lovers are united, and both characters and reader stand on solid fictional ground.

The trouble is, the real complexity of experience is missing from those stories.

Margaret Atwood’s “Death By Landscape” is a short story built on ambiguity. The protagonist, Lois, goes to summer camp and meets Lucy. The two girls become friends over several summers together at camp. One day while they’re alone on a hike, Lucy goes off to pee and never comes back. A search of the surrounding countryside turns up nothing. The owner of the summer camp blames Lois.

For the rest of her life, Lois carries the guilt and perplexity of not knowing what happened to her friend. She collects paintings of wilderness landscapes but otherwise pushes the experience to the back of her mind — until she gets old. With her husband dead and her children gone, the mystery of Lucy’s disappearance reemerges. Lois spends her days gazing at the landscape paintings in search of Lucy.

“Death By Landscape” illustrates how devastating lack of closure can be. Lois seeks closure in her collection of landscapes. They are attempts to recapture Lucy by placing borders around the uncharted territory that swallowed her up.

Many readers seek closure in fiction and abhor the holes where certainty and clarity disappear. I can’t really blame them.