Thursday, November 8, 2012

From the Inside

Yasuko Thanh. Photo by Will Johnson
Floating Like the Dead, Yasuko Thanh. McClelland and Stewart, 2012.
People who love to read know what’s in it for them: entry into a word-filled universe that is blissfully empty of self. But what’s in it for the author? The manipulation of words and imagery? Of course, that’s a pleasure an author can also share with the reader. But sometimes I wonder if the primary motivation to write fiction isn’t sheer curiosity. Sometimes the curiosity is of a prurient nature, or invasive, or not far off gossip; it would be tasteless if the people were real. Maybe what fiction does for us, author and reader alike, is to solve the philosophical problem of other minds. We know other people must be out there, when their depiction can be so varied and so convincing.

Floating Like the Dead by Yasuko Thanh is a collection of short stories that exhibits this kind of virtuosic inquisitiveness. What is it like to be a criminal on death row waiting for his execution, what is it like to be in flight from bank robbery, to attempt escape from a leper colony, to keep a suicide pact, to be a nursemaid with a Vietnamese boyfriend in rural post-War Germany, to die of AIDS?
Two stories in this collection really stand out in their complexity and their ambiguity. Both deal with the dissonance of living an expatriate life. In "Hunting in Spanish" the unnamed heroine meets with the reality of the lives of Mexican peasants in the Teotitlan mountains when she goes deer hunting with her opium supplier. On her return, to sell drugs in the tourist town, she picks up a man on the beach and is tied up by h im, beaten, and shat upon. Later, “she imagines herself poised with Dashon’s rifle, her finger curled around the cold trigger with the deer in her sights, and laughs. Who did she think she was?” At the end of the story, she’s going to leave her life of drug-dealing in the resort and move on, but where? “Maybe home is just a word for what you’re looking for,” her rapist had suggested. “Maybe we don’t know what we’re looking for,” she replied.

"Hustler" is about Tiphaine, a Frenchwoman who has bought a beach resort in Honduras and whose life is getting out of control through her use of cocaine, her husband's womanizing, and her own cynicism. She has begun pimping the services of Austin, a young American employee, without his knowledge. Tiphaine instructs the tourist girls on how to make the approach: “Raise your eyes, then lower them again. Coy, but not too coy. Never mention money. Never mention that you are paying for his services.” Even after Austin finds out how she has used him, even after he is called a hustler as the place is torn apart by the police, the boy tries to save Tiphaine and to save the whole situation. “’I’ll do what I can,’ he says, thinking of a loan from his parents, or information he can give the police. ‘No,’ she says. ‘Don’t.’”

Thanh’s stories are full of startling imagery. Here’s a scene that’s pretty unforgettable:
She pulls her hand away from him and begins to wrap in plastic the raw opium she’s cut into grams with the knife on her nail clippers and rolled into balls, tying the packages closed with the strands of sewing thread gripped between her teeth. She has yet to devise a way to divide the black paste without staining her fingers with a sticky residue, defiling her hands. When she is finished she lets Chinchu take her fingers into his mouth again.
And another where I found myself 'right there.' We are in the marketplace and the peach seller has just explained to the Vietnamese heroine how the peach trees of Nhat Tan are grafted:
I was about to thank the man for sharing his wisdom when the girl with the chopsticks in her hair suddenly fainted. There was nothing I could do except watch her hands shoot out like freed birds when her face fell into the vat of hot oil.
The prose is stylish but functional; it isn’t being flaunted. I never got the feeling that the little fictional world, which is without me, nevertheless has someone else in there — the author — pushing buttons.

Is it a criticism of a collection of short stories that some are better than others? Some of these stories touch upon the unexpected and the unknown in a way that leaves you pondering. Others seem to me to be a little too well wrapped up.

At the end of "Spring-Blade Knife," after the condemned man has agreed to donate his eyes, he hopes “that maybe God will let me see the light too, when it’s time to let the breath go.” Perhaps this sums it up a little too neatly, especially when we realize he is just about to be executed by hanging. In "Lula Mae’s Love Stories," after she has killed Clovis because of his infidelity with Miss Sugar, Lula picks up a man in the Transporte del Norte bus station: “Even as she returned his smile, she knew she could never love him, not in all the breaths of a lifetime.” Did she really know this, or was it just a very simple way to end the story?

It's really back to the problem of other minds again. The thing about a real mind — a person’s mind — is how open-ended its choices, how porous its thinking. To explore the experience of another human being is to recognize you can’t get it into a bottle. This is the leper, Ah Sing, in the title story (which won the Journey Prize): “As a boy he would float in the warm waters of Chongwu Bay until he felt his body liquefying, his loose limbs pulled by small currents and pushed by gentle swells. He would float as if he were dead while the sun burned his back.” Here we seem to be right inside his life, his recollections, and we know him, at least briefly and partially, from the inside. All the best stories in this excellent book have something like this in them.


Susan Haley frequently writes reviews for The Fiddlehead. She is the author of seven novels including The Complaints Department and The Murder of Medicine Bear. Her historical novel about the priest-explorer Emile Petitot is forthcoming from Gaspereau in spring 2013.

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