June 28, 2011
Linh Dinh’s Love Like Hate is listed by the Library of Congress under the subject headings Vietnamese-Americans, Vietnam, and Losers. These terms offer an insightful micro-synopsis of Linh Dinh’s novel, the first by the Vietnamese-American writer known for his paranoiac stories and poems. In Love Like Hate, Dinh presents us with a brutal, unsentimental portrait of modern Vietnam, with all its disillusionment and degradation.
David Mamet has said that there is no such thing as character in drama—only action. Who wants what and how will they get it? In Love Like Hate, Mamet’s thesis becomes the unavoidable question of post-colonial Vietnam, as filtered through the tragicomic ambitions of café owner Kim Lan, her two husbands Sen and Hoang Long, her son Cun, and her designer-branded daughter Hoa. Kim Lan wants Hoa to marry a well-to-do Viêt Kiếu (a Vietnamese living abroad), and decides that Hoa will do this by learning the imperial tongue: English. Through the intrusion of an opinionated narrator, we are led to believe that Kim Lan’s situation is a kind of synecdoche of the Vietnamese obsession with occupying foreign cultures—first France (Kim Lan’s café, after all, is called Paris by Night), then the mega-culture itself, America. “Vietnam is a disaster, agreed,” Dinh writes, “but it is a socialized disaster, whereas America is—for many people, natives or not—a solitary nightmare.”
When the promise of American wealth creeps into his characters’ motivations, Dinh quickly points to the system’s moral bankruptcy and corrosive touch. After all: “America was a country of straight lines and geometric exactness where everything must be quantified: your breasts, your income, your batting average. Life must be constantly measured to show that profits and progress were being made.” And when Kim Lan and Cun (who “resembled a naked mole rat at birth and would go on to resemble a naked mole rat for the rest of his life”) visit a three-star hotel for the first time, they both think, “We’re inching up to international standards.” The modern Vietnam of Love Like Hate assumes that if their country had butter, cheese, and brand names, everything would be all right. Culture becomes a warp and woof of power relationships, in which no one can measure up to globalized ideas of success. “The humiliation of a minor country,” Dinh writes, “is that it is always at the mercy of a major one.”
This observation trickles down to the very relationships between parents and offspring. Kim Lan has grand hopes for her daughter: “She’ll buy and sell and make lots of money . . . she’ll take good care of me in my old age.” Hoa’s subsequent refusal of her mother’s Americanized life, however, leads to a tragic culmination of hate and revenge, whose only solution seems to be escape. But escape where? There is, in the end, “a deep yearning in the Vietnamese psyche to leave Vietnam at the first opportunity. Birds, bees, and salmon do it, but the average Vietnamese can only dream of crossing a border.”
Read this article at Rain Taxi’s website.