May 4, 2011
Linh Dinh paints a picture of a country that is awkwardly and chaotically sprinting towards happiness.
Dinh, who was born in Vietnam and moved to the United States at the age of 12 in 1975, has already made a career for himself as a poet. He has published five books of poems and two books of short stories, and is already considered a master in his field, having been anthologized in three Best American Poetry editions in the last decade. One of his short story collections, Blood and Soap, was picked by The Village Voice as the best book of 2004. Love Like Hate is his first novel, and a pleasure to read – the voice, words, and characters are as carefully crafted as a work poem or a short story.
The overall structure of the novel reads like a closely intertwined story cycle. Each chapter has a title, and they often feel as if they could stand on their own. The chapters, like short stories, often close with a tight allegory or whimsically drawn-out metaphor. The allegories are especially interesting – one female character’s meditation on the necessity of beauty blossoms into a tale of two women who didn’t develop, and the consequences of one’s acceptance of that fact and the other’s quest for exquisiteness that grew into an addiction.
He opens with a short history of Vietnam since the late 1970’s, but swiftly drops us into the plot shortly thereafter. Though most of the action takes place in and around Saigon, the reader sometimes travels with the characters back in time to their hometowns or forward to the U.S. Gratefully, Dinh is our ambassador who guides us through the character’s lives as well as the customs, histories and locations. This result is the effect of learning while reading, though not in a pedantic way. Dinh add rich details about things which would be mundane to the Vietnamese, but absolutely fascinating to an outsider. For example:
He also noticed something he hadn’t asked for: a jar of fermented shrimp paste. Fermented shrimp paste is used as a dip for boiled pork. Purplish gray, it tastes great – once you get the hang of it – but it smells like garbage. Fermented seafood is inevitable in a tropical country with a long coastline. The ability to eat fermented seafood separates the real Vietnamese from the fake Vietnamese.
The main character, Kim Lan, is a women who survives the Vietnam war and then opens up a sidewalk cafe that flourishes into the late ‘90’s. It would be a mistake to say that she dominates the book. Dinh shows his characters through their relationships to each other, which makes the title of the book feel appropriate long before the reason is revealed.
It’s not always easy to relate the characters: sometimes their goals seem a little shallow. Kim Lan’s dream is to get her daughter married to a Vietnamese ex-pat, and she spends a considerable amount of effort to make her as desirable and American as possible. She’s cruel to her servants, and can’t trust them, a fact that allows her lazy, whoring son to steal money from her and blame it on the help.
Yet Dinh makes all his characters shine. As the opening story unfolds, a Vietnamese transplant to Philadelphia offers a seemingly absurd (and naively hilarious) suggestion regarding her husband’s career, and then an incredible insight into the inherent despair of American culture. The honesty regarding these characters makes them far more realistic, and ultimately more likeable. At points the plot twists are, quite literally, jaw-dropping, and healthy sense of hope for the characters is thoroughly engaged, as well as a greater sense of respect for the day-to-day life struggles of Vietnam.
If I were teaching high school, this is a book I’d assign to my students.
From the Vapor Trail Gallery.