[The first Pulitzer Prizes were given out 100 years ago, on June 5, 1917. So to celebrate that centennial, this week I’ll be AmericanStudying five Pulitzer-winning works of fiction, leading up to a special weekend post on the most recent winner!]
On how last year’s winner complements but also complicates a prior winner.
Robert Olen Butler’s Pulitzer-winning short story cycle A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain (1992) was far from the first American literary text about the Vietnam War, of course; Tim O’Brien’s magisterial The Things They Carried (1990) had come out two years earlier, to cite just one example. Nor was Butler’s the first book to present a Vietnamese American perspective on the conflict; memoirs like Le Ly Haslip’s When Heaven and Earth Changed Places (1989) had already tread that path. But Butler’s book might well have been the first American work of fiction to focus on portraying such Vietnamese and Vietnamese American perspectives on the war and its aftermaths. And in any case the book, based in part on Butler’s experiences as a counter-intelligence officer and translator in the war (during which, he would later note, the Vietnamese people “just invited me into their homes and into their culture and into their lives”), comprises an impressive and important attempt to create a community of Vietnamese American voices and tell their stories of war and loss, exile and flight, resettlement and home, multi-generational family and love, and more. A Good Scent is a ground-breaking and significant book, and certainly deserving of its Pulitzer.
Last year’s Pulitzer-winning novel, Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizer (2015), wasn’t the first book by an Asian American author to win the Pulitzer for fiction; that would be Jhumpa Lahiri’s stunning debut short story collection Interpreter of Maladies (1999). And of course Nguyen’s was far from the first Vietnamese American novel about the war—prior examples would include Lan Cao’s Monkey Bridge (1997) and Lê Thi Diem Thúy’s The Gangster We Are All Looking For (2003), to name just two. But in his creation of a multi-layered, mixed-race, anonymous narrator who has been, often at one and the same time, a North Vietnamese spy and mole, a South Vietnamese officer, a CIA agent, a Vietnamese American immigrant, and a consultant on a Hollywood film about the Vietnam War—and who writes and rewrites, narrates and revises, remembers and alters the novel’s stories as part of a conflicted confession to Communist captors about those experiences—Nguyen brings something entirely distinct and new to that tradition. The Sympathizer doesn’t quite reach the same level of meta-fictional complexity and boundary-blurring as The Things They Carried, but it’s in the conversation; and while O’Brien’s meta-narrator fades in and out of the text (due in large part to some of the book’s stories having been initially published separately), Nguyen’s is at the core of every page and moment, lending his novel a potent and vital unity.
As any reader of this blog already knows, I’m all about additive rather than competitive ways of reading and remembering, and I believe that Butler’s and Nguyen’s books do indeed work well in tandem, presenting distinct but complementary narratives of the Vietnam war, Vietnamese American immigrant and community, and many other related questions. But at the same time, the nuances and ambiguities of Nguyen’s narrator, and especially his national and cultural identities and affiliations, do complicate any simplistic description of Butler’s project in Good Scent. That is, Butler’s stories and book present a somewhat traditional narrative of the immigrant experience, of individuals and communities torn between an old and a new world, between a past in Vietnam and a present in the United States, and with the war and its effects as the pivot between those stages and worlds. That all makes sense and is shared by many works (Vietnamese American and otherwise)—but it’s difficult to read Nguyen’s novel without recognizing that such categories are far from stable, and that the worlds, times, roles, and identities of any individual life tend much more to blend together than to occupy distinct spots or stages. Very few Vietnamese American immigrants can or should be seen as spies or moles, of course—that way lies the logic of internment—but, like all immigrants and really like every one of us, they are connected to multiple, often contradictory identities and legacies. Nguyen’s brilliant novel forces us to confront that challenging but crucial truth.
Special post this weekend,
PS. What do you think? Thoughts on other prize-winning (or –worthy) books?
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