The overwriting in this novel only rarely bothered me. More often I was reminded of George Balanchine’s comment that if his dancers didn’t occasionally fall onstage, they weren’t really going for it, and of John Coltrane’s emotionally overblown notes in “A Love Supreme.”
The second half of this book is shaggy, shaggy, shaggy. If it’s not a total breakdown, it’s something close. The man of two minds becomes a drug dealer. Thanks to the French Vietnamese woman he calls his aunt, who works in publishing, he has access to left-wing French intellectuals, who have a strong taste for his products. Infecting France with Eastern drugs is his own tidy form of payback.
This is a bookish novel. It’s the kind in which a bouncer at a brothel reads Voltaire. The introduction of these French intellectuals, as well as the narrator’s own reading, allows him to brood over the revolutionary ideas of Frantz Fanon, Aimé Césaire, Marx, Sartre and others. In these writings, the running dogs of capitalism are walked on long intellectual leashes.
Tragedy and comedy blend awkwardly in this novel’s second half. Nguyen can be very funny. Overhearing his “aunt” have sex, for example, he’s pretty sure she cries out “GOOAAAAALLLLLL!”
The narrator becomes involved in gangland violence. Gangster films, Morris Dickstein reminded us, are immigrant fables. Nguyen appears to take to heart Robert Warshow’s comment that if the gangster film tells us anything, it is that it’s dangerous to be alone.
Nguyen consigns his characters to a series of frazzled, far-fetched scenarios. Mayhem feeds mayhem. There are several extended torture scenes in the back half of this book that don’t work at all. (“You can’t torture me,” the narrator says, in error. “I’ve lived through a re-education camp.”)
Nguyen doesn’t find a tone for these scenes. They’re awful in their way — there are rubber hoses and electrodes clamped onto nipples — but they’re hard to take seriously. There’s a daft James Bond quality to them. The torturers fritter their time away, long enough for the tortured to be rescued. Doors are kicked open with a bang; guns blaze. You sense the author trying to keep the plot frantically spinning, rather than elegantly extending his themes.