Thursday, January 21, 2016

Notes on Dragonfish

Dragonfish is a novel written by Vu Tran. The book opens with a powerful female protagonist’s voice.  At first, I didn’t know who she was, and I didn’t care. The writing is so succinct, so poignant that I wanted to keep reading her forever and ever. Then the text switches to the true protagonist’s point of view (Robert, a.k.a. Bob), and it’s like a beautiful, gargantuan, iridescent balloon deflates.  About two-thirds into the book, I learned that the powerful female protagonist is Phạm Thị Hồng, or, as Robert calls her, Suzy. Hồng/Suzy is a Vietnamese immigrant who was once married to Bob, but left him after he beat her. She moves to Las Vegas, remarries then disappears after her second husband pushed her down a flight of stairs.  Yeah, poor Hồng/Suzy done had a tough life.

Tran switches between Hồng/Suzy’s perspective and Bob’s perspective throughout the novel. From what I can tell, Bob is white. Just about every other character, save a cop friend of Bob’s, a Latino bouncer and some passers-by, is Vietnamese/Vietnamese American. I am inclined to think that Tran was trying to “write for a broader audience.” This is one of the bullshit phrases that people in the literary world (e.g., MFA professors, agents, editors) use to get people of color to write for white people in the hopes that their books will sell better. If this is the case, it hurts Tran’s novel.

The chapters that are written in Hồng/Suzy’s voice are beautiful, damn-near flawless as a matter of fact. Sonny’s character is fascinating. Tran also does a good job of capturing Mai’s feeling of being untethered in the world. In fact, all the Vietnamese/Vietnamese characters are conceptually well-written. The only problem is they are filtered through the perspective of a white protagonist who isn’t believable.

The Bob chapters are, for the most part, awkwardly written. Tran attempts to incorporate flashbacks and a first-person omniscient point-of-view with Bob’s character, but he does not succeed consistently, and sometimes he doesn’t succeed at all. For example, when the hitmen/brothers come to Bob’s home to bring him to Las Vegas to meet with Junior, there is a flashback to when Bob went to Vegas looking for Suzy a few months prior. At several points, I wasn’t sure if Bob was in Oakland (his home) or in Vegas. Was he talking to the hitmen/brothers or a bouncer in Junior’s restaurant?  I know Tran studied at the best MFA program in America. I think these choppy transitions may be the result of having a limited amount of time to workshop a piece in class, so workshoppers often have to break a novel into “short-story” segments to get feedback. Later there is a scene when Bob is in a Casino and talking to the hitman/oldest brother and Mai. Bob is giving the reader all this insight into the brother’s life. It’s not written as an assumption or as acquired insight on Bob’s part; it’s written as omniscient fact even though there’s no way a white man who doesn’t usually hang with immigrants, even if he is a cop, could understand those intimate details of an immigrant’s experience. Conversely, there’s one part of the book where Tran pulls off Bob’s first-person omniscience.  It occurs after Tran reveals that Hồng/Suzy left her letters with Happy. Tran does a good job of developing Happy as a character who would never snitch, so when Bob realizes that Hồng/Suzy left the letters with Happy as a means of revenge, the reader realizes it as well. It’s subtle, and perfect.

Perhaps if part of the book had been written in third person or if Bob had simply been written as a white-identified Vietnamese-American, his character would have had a bit more believable in his extrapolation. Instead, Bob reads as a two-dimensional character.

My 3C’s rating for Dragonfish is:

Competent Writing: 3
The Hồng/Suzy chapters alone make Dragonfish a well-written book. I can’t emphasize enough how much I love the way Hồng/Suzy is written. Tran unfolds Hồng/Suzy masterfully in her chapters and, to some degree, in the Bob chapters as well

Character Development: 2
Hồng/Suzy, Sonny, Mai and Junior are powerful as hell. They’re all so flawed and beautiful! I know Hồng/Suzy got issues. I know she’s irrational. I know she needs medication and some therapy, but I love her so fucking much! I love crazy-ass Sonny too. He’s such a scrapper, and he’s so charming even though he beats women. Junior is one of the best-written villains I’ve read in a while. At first, I thought he was too soft to be a villain, but once I realized that he was trying to make his father happy, I understood why he kept letting Bob get away with all the shit he was pulling. Bob was the only weak link on the character development front. He was written like a typical mystery-novel cop. Nothing new there. More importantly, he was poorly written. If he wasn’t the main protagonist, this wouldn’t have affected the overall character development score so much.

Content: 2
Overall, the plot was blah then at times, it was riveting. Much of the plot was too formulaic—the typical things one would expect from a mystery. I was riveted by Hồng/Suzy’s psychological developments, but again, I like psych-drama. People who like action and mystery wouldn’t be as excited about it. The only thing that made me uncomfortable was that Tran never explains the psychological mechanics of the rape scene between Sonny and Hồng/Suzy. It’s just written as Hồng/Suzy being crazy, and there’s a lot more to it than that.

Total 3C’s Score: 7/12
I read Dragonfish because 1) I want to read more texts by marginalized (ethnic) authors; 2) the title, the cover and the concept of the book are compelling; and 3) I want to explore mysteries since I usually read literary and adult mainstream fiction or non-fiction. Even with its flaws, Dragonfish is well worth the read. I would definitely read more of Tran’s work. I try to keep in mind that this is Tran’s first published book, which is pretty damn impressive, and that ethnic writers are functioning in a white-centric publishing world (and larger world). This has a huge effect on the choices they make when writing a book, sometimes to the detriment of the text.

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