Reviewed by Julie Misso
After reading Linh Dinh’s latest collection of stories, Blood and Soap, one will note that Dinh wavers between instances of abstraction (at times painterly in descriptiveness) and instances of “easiness” (perhaps unsuccessful experimental writing). Throughout the book, Dinh seems to emphasize characters who are in continuous struggles to find concrete representative-ness, only to be faced with the blurred abstractions of new worlds into which they are thrown. There are also instances where Dinh offers characters so uncomplicated that one is often left wondering if the pages from somebody’s diary or journal were simply inserted. Thus, in Blood and Soap one must evaluate Dinh’s capability to find a clear identity and voice through which he may give depth and substance to these characters, and (a second overarching task, alluded to throughout by Dinh himself) find the presence or absence of a “literature,” which one may find hard to classify, especially when dealing with experimental prose such as Dinh’s.
Dinh’s presentation of diverse worlds for his characters is consistent in each of his stories. These worlds, which range from a prison cell in “Prisoner with a Dictionary” to a ghost town on the Red River Delta in “The Town of the Hidden Coffin,” often seem to challenge pieces of the main characters’ core representations and identities. Instances of abstractions allude to a want of something more in each of the characters. These abstractions, though often engulfed in themes of beautiful colorful/painterly representations, at times leave us with only surface descriptions of the characters and their journeys. In the story “!,” protagonist Ho Muoi, a man accused of being a fake English teacher, contemplates the seemingly underlying abstract journey that is consistent with the book as a whole:
A man may fancy he’s making an abstract painting, but there is no such thing as an abstract painting, only abstracted ones. Every horizontal surface is a landscape because it features a horizon (thus implying a journey, escape from the self, and the unreachable). Every vertical surface is either a door or a portrait (thus implying a house, another being, yourself as another being, and the unreachable).
Dinh’s writing itself is abstracted in the sense that each story offers a character which is lost in thought, deeply engrossed, or preoccupied with an objectively simple, yet subjectively complex, aspect of their world. In search of their lost identities, Dinh’s characters attempt to find tangible representation of themselves in the new countries, cultures, or situations in which they are immersed. For example, in “Prisoner with a Dictionary,” the foreign prisoner seems to lose a piece of his core self in his search for a new identity while attempting to understand an English dictionary left in his cell. Dinh shows this loss of self in the prisoner’s contemplations:
But if the prisoner was convinced he was gaining a new language he was also surely losing one because he had, by this time, forgotten nearly all the words of his native language. By this time he could no longer name any part of the anatomy, even the most basic, hand, nose, face, mouth, etc., and so his own body was becoming vague, impersonal, unreal.
As the prisoner is reading this English dictionary and “... purging himself of his native language,” he is attempting to “get rid of his horrible past ...” He assimilates forgetting his native tongue with forgetting bad experiences or humiliation from his past. The culmination of this story is that, “Perhaps he [can] sense that his native tongue [is] the very author of his horrible life. But these are only conjectures, we do not know for sure.” These “conjectures” seem to be an easy way out for Dinh. With such an inventive idea for the character in general, one hopes for deeper travels into the character’s experience. But perhaps Dinh’s prose style of short bursts cannot allow us this depth. Some may enjoy these short blurbs or quick glances into sometimes simple and absurd characters, but one could assert they border on “easy” rather than experimental.
For instance, in “Losers,” Dinh offers quick character sketches ranging from Jack, who is viewed as “promiscuous” when his leather shoe obsession leads him to curling up on his bed with a dozen pairs of shoes, to Jim, who is turned on by envisioning his plastic dinosaur collection strutting around in high heels. The tendency Dinh has toward being “easy” is in his merely glancing against such outlandish habits, rather than exploring them beneath their surfaces.
There also seems something less-than-rigorous about Dinh’s conceit of the “one-sentence story.” In totality, one such piece reads “Resigned, the single woman begins each conversation with a male stranger: ‘We’re only talking because you want to fuck me’.” And that is it--the “whole story.” These read more like creative writing workshop prompts or exercises in that they are presented as a mere idea, leaving any level of development to the reader’s imagination.
Dinh’s lax approach endures even in his last story, “My Grandfather the Exceptional,” in which the protagonist grandfather comes to a final realization after traveling through many villages:
Finally, at his last village, he looked around and was relieved to find out he was no longer exceptional. Because all old men look alike, disgusted and disgusting, he was finally welcomed into the fraternity of those waiting to die.
The aged man at the end of his journey resembles too much a cookie-cut ending for any book. Left with a somewhat cliched epiphany to ponder, perhaps this conclusion also gives too much “closure” for a book that seems to otherwise defy conventions both formal and thematic.
Dinh offers characters, offers stories, but does he offer a literature? Dinh alludes to this idea of creating a literature in the aforementioned “!,” in which Ho Muoi attempts to learn English through a notebook of phonetic notations he has made from the ramblings of an ill American soldier. Ho Muoi reflects, “If one can break apart a clock and reassemble it, one can scramble up phonetic notations and rearrange them in newer combinations, thus ending up with not just a language, but a literature.” This does seem to be an appropriate means to making a literature, but does Dinh meet the very challenge he proposes? One can only abstractly allude to the want of making a literature so much before a reader expects a concrete product of what has been alluded to.
Overall, the “stories” in Blood and Soap are somewhat satisfying in that the majority of the characters seem to be in search of something more in themselves, in others, or in their worlds. The main dilemma for those who read this book is that they may end up feeling a bit like the characters in Dinh’s stories--in search of something more in their reading of them.