Emily's Reviews > The Gangster We Are All Looking For

The Gangster We Are All Looking For by Lê Thi Diem Thúy
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Nov 10, 09

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bookshelves: 2003
Read in April, 2003

Today--speedily even by my standards--I read thuy lê's new book The Gangster We Are All Looking For. It is one of those new novels-in-stories, or stories-as-a-novel pieces that are so popular now. It reminded me primarily of two other books about the Asian-American experience: When the Emperor Was Divine and The Woman Warrior.

lê, who isn't into capitalization, has written a quasi-autobiographical series of vignettes about a young Vietnamese girl in California. It includes scenes from when she and her father first arrived on our shores, when her mother finally joins them, and a flashback to the death of her older brother in Vietnam. The best parts of the writing aren't specific to the immigrant experience, but rather descriptions of how children think and play.
When the Jehovah's Witnesses weren't there, we chased each other up and down the stairs and around the towers of their castle. That summer, we made up a game called Kingdom. At first, Kingdom was about pretending we were in Heaven [about which they'd learned from the Witnesses:]. We tried to be the people in the little books. We swept the stairs and kept the castle clean. We walked around smiling, waving to invisible people in our heavenly community. We put our hands on each other's shoulders and said things like "My son," "My friend," "God knows." When we got bored, Kingdom became about having fights and waging war. (49)
The vignette format reminded me of Julie Otsuka's book about the internment of Japanese-Americans, but it's less abstract here for the simple reason that lê uses the first-person. Otsuka uses "the girl," "the woman," etc. to describe her characters, and this serves only to reinforce the impression that the characters are diaphanous and distant. lê, on the other hand, is just "I," and the reader succeeds in understanding her outlook, if not all the facts surrounding her immigration experience.

This book also provokes the question of how to write a work of this type in the wake of Maxine Hong Kingston's seminal "Memoir of a Girlhood Among the Ghosts." I certainly found resonances of Kingston's writing in Gangster, such as when lê writes "There is not a trace of blood anywhere except here, in my throat, where I am telling you this." (99) The elemental, intentionally brutal, mythic aspects are quite similar. Perhaps the comparison is to Kingston is unfair, since I first read her book as a teenager, and it made a searing impression on me--but I think that's a reading experience I share with many others.

Gangster is a success, as far as it goes. Like so many novels-in-stories/stories-as-a-novel, it felt to me unformed, embryonic, a sketch for a great novel that could have been. I wonder if the current atmosphere of bright young writers expecting publishing contracts on the basis of mere stories isn't at fault. But that is a separate question, and the thought of what might have been shouldn't be allowed to prevent anyone from tackling this densely impressionistic, but brief book.
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