In trying to express how I felt about Viet Thanh Nguyen's exquisite new story collection, The Refugees, I decided to turn to one of the foremost philosophers of our age, Keanu Reeves.
The issue of immigration is definitely a hot button here in the United States right now, with intense emotional fervor expressed by individuals on both sides. Luckily, Nguyen doesn't stake out a political position in his collection. Instead, these beautifully written stories look at issues that affect nearly every family, no matter the culturegrief, regret, coping with crisis, longing, loneliness, secrets, and the ties of family. At the same time, some of the stories deal with the often-difficult tug of war immigrants feel between their birth country and their new home.
Every one of Nguyen's eight stories has moments of absolute poetry and emotion. While I enjoyed all of them, some of my favorites included: "Black-Eyed Women," which told of a woman suddenly haunted by the ghost of her older brother, who saved her during the family's emigration from Vietnam; "The Other Man," about the cultural and emotional adjustment a young immigrant must make when he is sent to San Francisco, to live with a gay couple; "Fatherland," in which a young woman living in Vietnam finally meets her older half-sister, who appears to have everything anyone could ever want; "War Years," which tells of a family whose placid existence is turned upside down by a woman demanding money to fight the Communists back home in Vietnam; and probably my favorite story, "I'd Love You to Want Me," about a woman who begins calling her relationship with her husband into question when he is suffering from Alzheimer's disease.
Nguyen doesn't paint all of his characters with an idealistic brush; his characters are flawed, complex, even unsympathetic at times. Some of his characters are completely assimilated into American culture, while some don't feel (or act) as if they fit in. Nearly every story has elements of Vietnamese culture woven into their fibers, yet each story is utterly approachable, especially given their near-universal themes.
Nguyen's first novel, The Sympathizer, won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction last year, among other accolades, but interestingly enough, the subject matter of that book doesn't appeal to me. (For some reasonand one I believe is completely baseless at thatit makes me think of Adam Johnson's The Orphan Master's Son, which I never could get into.) However, I was so blown away by a few friends' reactions to this story collection, that I felt compelled to read it, and I absolutely devoured it. (P.S.: I'm not interested in getting into a debate on the Johnson book here.)
I've always said that the mark of a great short story for me is when I feel like I could read a novel featuring its characters. Every story in The Refugees felt that way to me, but none in their current form felt unfinished or incomplete, just emotionally rich and terrifically told. Seriously, Keanu was right: whoa.