January 11–18, 2001
By Linh Dinh
Seven Stories Press, 192 p., $23.95
A man amputates his trigger finger with a band saw to avoid being sent to fight in Vietnam. His son castrates himself, and we never learn why. A 19-year-old American woman may or may not be about to chop off her first lover’s penis with a meat cleaver. A Vietnamese man sells his daughter in marriage to a Sri Lankan man, believing Sri Lanka is an industrialized country in Europe.
Through this collection of ugly, tightly-wound stories set in the U.S. and Vietnam, former Philadelphian Linh Dinh forces us to wonder where disgust ends and pity begins, and to examine how racial and national differences figure into the equation. In his terse, unnerving stories, characters are static, trapped in their own circumstances. Over half the stories are shorter than ten pages, some resembling prose poems more than fiction. Violence and destruction run casually through all the tales; brought up in a violent culture, whether America or Vietnam, the characters take violence in stride.
In many stories, it’s the last sentence that devastates the most acutely, dropping a traumatic moment without further comment. Grotesque horrors descend in words as understated and dramatic as a silent, level stare: An American man, scarred by prison rape, bites a random man’s nose at a bus stop. A young Vietnamese schoolboy, who thinks the Americans "have made a special bomb called Palm’" and whose classmates are scarred or missing limbs, kills a boy on the playground and laughs about it. "Val," one of the volume’s longest stories at 18 pages, ends: "One night, as I was squatting over a small mirror to prune the hair from my ass, it happened. I cut my dick off."
It’s clear that Dinh excels at showing us vividly-drawn ugliness. Considerably less clear is whether we are any better off for having seen it.