peteg's blog - noise - books - 2014 09 21 Kupersmith TheFrangipaniHotel

Violet Kupersmith: The Frangipani Hotel

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I heard about this book from a generous review in the New York Times. I had hoped to borrow it from the Chicago Public Library but the queue was out the door for the single print and single ebook they have. Oh well, I thought, I'll just wait. Well, someone sold their copy to glenthebookseller who's out in Aurora, Illinois. Aurora is famous for hosting the datacentre for a very large derivatives market. For that reason it has many microwave towers, mostly pointing east towards New Jersey, and probably Chicago. Glen's automaton happily charged me a total of $4.45 to ship this data the old fashioned way.

The short story is that I've read too many Vietnamese folk stories to get too excited about these. (I'm not going to enumerate them; those salad days were back in 2011 and 2012 and thereabouts; oh, start in 2008 then.) Moreover this is not a memoir of her time there on her Fulbright; contrast it, for instance, with Balaban's magisterial effort. Like Frank Black, I've been tired, so pardon my continued kvetching.

The voice Violet adopts here is young, brash, confident; she knows who she is, and these are not stories of becoming (see Andrew X. Pham for that) nor reflections on genre ethnic lit (see Nam Le for that). Perhaps because she is so late to the party, with Vietnam now a middle-income country and Orange County well-integrated, we get some often-decent writing dressing up very slight insights in obsolescent magical realism. Is this a peace offering to the mother country from a youngster of the diaspora? Or some aspect of the American Generation Y, a reticence, an unwillingness to offend, an homage to blancmange that I don't understand? Perhaps Charles Yu's humorous science fiction is the more expressive style, and he definitely felt less need for a thesaurus.

It is also clear that she hasn't done her homework. Like Peter Lloyd and his male ants, Violet appears to think that beer is distilled and not brewed (p36). Personally, I think of bia hoi as something of an opposite to Tactical Nuclear Penguin, and whatever it is that Norwegians do to theirs. By Vietnamese vodka, does she mean rice wine (p208)? That stuff sends you blind, as Dương Thu Hương was telling us back in the days of đổi mới. I found Tết a lonely time as everyone decamps for their home villages; in my case I was heading back to Melbourne for Peodair's wedding and struggled to find somewhere to leave my bag; traditionally Vietnamese do not engage with strangers on the first day of the new year. I will stop with the false notes here.

As is necessary these days, some of these stories traffic in the transgressive. In Guests, we're shown an entanglement between a young American embassy worker and a local mechanic. I feel Dana Sachs treated the scene far more humanely a while back. This and most of the other stories exploit Vietnam's eternal, almost definitional, status as the exotic; it seems beyond her to realise that the United States is also totally bizarre, as Oliver Stone demonstrated in the supermarket scene in Heaven and Earth so long ago. Does she realise that many non-Americans may like to stay that way? Her Saigon geography seems a bit off to me; no-one who's been there for more than a month drinks on De Tham, not when there are cheaper, less comfortable places just up the way, or rum hoi down near the statue of Tran Hung Dao — right next to Black Cat! — or myriad nightclubs closer to where she houses her protagonists. There are supermarkets within walking distance of the U.S. Consulate; I wondered where Mai got the meat to go with the vegetables from the market. She's writing for the home crowd, echoing what Burdick said in Rest Camp on Maui (Harper's, July 1946) about marines who go on sexual escapades:

... the correspondent was writing occasionally in a black notebook. Young moved behind him and read what he had written. "Marines like Aussie girls, but first love still clean-cut American girls."

Ah yes, I promised to stop. Allow me instead to ramble on: her story Turning Back features a bloke from Bạc Liêu, which is famously very commie, and hence his village was likely to have escaped the post-1975 purges. Perhaps they did raze the Catholic ones, I don't know. It also echoes Andrew X. Pham's account of his transgender sister. I found it very unclear what the narrator herself wants; we've seen this kind of slacking as a response to outsize tiger-parent ambition in his work too, but there it profitably becomes a search for stories and not just shopkeeping. See also Growing up Asian in Australia. Her One Finger contains her solitary gesture (no, not that one) to the war/agent orange, and came across as a nakedly exploitative freakshow.

I'll close with a quote I liked from the strongest of the stories, the titular The Frangipani Hotel:

"Let me tell you something about women. Translate for me, Phi. Did you know that in Hanoi, they say the most beautiful girls live in Saigon? In Saigon, they say the most beautiful girls live in Hue. In stuck-up Hue, they say that Saigon is right. But everyone is wrong. There are no beautiful girls left. Pretty faces, sure. But then they ring their eyes with all that dark makeup. They wear see-through blouses and run around in packs, shrieking and squealing and always fiddling with their cellphones and their dyed hair." His voice break off, and when he speaks again there is a note in it that I've never heard before. "Whatever happened to the simple girls, the sweet girls, the girls that you could sing about? All my life, I've only ever known one girl like that."

Vietnam waits still for her Midnight's Children and How to get rich in rising Asia; I imagine the time when Bac Ho smiles to himself because someone has equipped his country with a backstory even more fantastical than it is.