Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Send Us Your Coordinates, I'll Send a Saint Bernard

In case you didn't know, Nam Le is currently the new "it" author in the lit world. Two years after his first story debuted in A Public Space, he continued getting published everywhere from One-Story to Zoetrope. Last month marked the publication of his first story collection, The Boat, and the reviews have been pretty damn positive. A lot's been made about the amount of research in the story, the fact that the stories are so strong you'd thinking someone over the age of 29 wrote them. On the other hand, there's been a lot of criticism that the stories are sort of, well, lacking substance and a certain "oomph".

Reading the book, I'd say my opinion is somewhere in the middle. Le's research skills make these stories enthralling. The reason most people seem to think Le is older than he actually is is the fact that most young writers don't bother with copious amount of research. If you're under 40, odds are that you're still writing away your angst with thinly-veiled autobiographies (hey, that's me!) or missing the mark entirely with a poorly-researched story that you think is kind of neat despite its awfulness. We can all learn something from Le, or at least attempt the sort of rigorous seriousness with which he approaches writing a story.

That being said, Nam still has a few kinks to work out when it comes to making us care about his characters or the outcome of his story. Sure, Colombian assassins and Iranian activists make for interesting subjects, but is there anything to take away from either of those stories? As Hari Kunzru said, there are small flourishes that feel like a breath of fresh air throughout. But the thing is, why bother writing a story about something you have no attachment to? It's something I've struggled with over the years: I want to write about what's important to me, and there always needs to be a venue or form that best supports that. If I were to write about Hiroshima, it probably wouldn't be about Hiroshima, etc. Le's biggest emotional impact comes from the already-talked-about-to-death opening story in the collection and "Halflead Bay", which perfectly captures the teenage years in which we are unsure of what we do and why we do it. There's a real connection there: you can tell Le cares about the characters in both of these stories. The others, who knows? He's probably sincere about his intentions, but only gets half of it right.

Frankly, that's OK. No one should be claiming that an author's first seven stories should be incredible, life-changing pieces of work. It's astonishing that he points to the stands like Babe Ruth with every story, and though he may not knock it out of the park each time, he at least hits the literary equivalent of a ground roll double every time. Dear Lord, did I really type that last sentence? Anyway, how many writers under thirty are capable of that? None, probably. "Pride..." and "Halflead Bay", in the end, are a sign of what's to come for Nam Le, the proof that he is going to be a future literary master, and it's necessary that we start paying attention now.

Tonight, Nam Le reads with Leslie Jamison and Keith Lee Morris at Fort Greene Park for APS. Be there or be square!

The Silver Jews - Party Barge