June 2008

Arts & Letters

‘The Boat’ by Nam Le

By Martin Shaw

In Fatih Akin's recent film, The Edge of Heaven, two characters meet for the first time in a restaurant. "How did you recognise me?" one asks. "You were the saddest-looking person in the room," the other replies. The scene could be straight from one of the short stories in this outstanding debut collection by Nam Le. Yet The Boat, like Akin's film, leaves you feeling not depressed but instead strangely uplifted by the cataclysms that have befallen, or seem set to befall, its characters.

The narrator of the opening story, Nam, is (as was the author) a student at the famed Iowa Writers' Workshop, and he has a major assignment due. "Just write a story about Vietnam," is the advice of a fellow student, when told of Nam's writer's block: after all, ethnic is hot! Whereupon Nam's father, a survivor of the My Lai massacre and three years of "re-education" by the Vietcong, arrives from Sydney on a visit, and what at first seems wonderful source material becomes a revelation - of the inviolability of family; of the inadequacy of language for a memory stained by violence, death and separation; and of the writer's obligation nevertheless to try and register that sorrow, to show the resilience of the human spirit in the face of vertiginous reality.

If there is such a thing as a literary stress position, then in the stories that follow, Le, who was born in Vietnam and raised in Melbourne, makes his characters adopt it: there is a child assassin in the Colombian drug wars, a terminally ill painter in New York whose only child is lost to him, and a Hiroshima family in the days before 6 August 1945 - all for whom "trying to think and trying to forget amounted to the same thing." Le's limpid prose is perfectly paced; the versatility of voice and point-of-view is masterly. Exhilarating narrative sleights-of-hand regularly propel these fictions in unexpected directions.

Kafka's dictum - alluded to in the closing image of the first story - was that literature should be the axe which breaks open the frozen sea within us. The Boat is an icebreaker, all right: there is nowhere, it seems, that it is not prepared to go.

There is nowhere quite like The Monthly. We are told that we live in a time of diminished attention spans; a time where the 24-hour-news-cycle has produced a collective desire for hot takes and brief summaries of the news and ideas that effect us. But we don’t believe it. The need for considered, reflective, long-form journalism has never been greater, and for almost 20 years, that’s what The Monthly has offered, from some of our finest writers.

That kind of quality writing costs money, and requires the support of our readers. Your subscription to The Monthly allows us to be the home for the best, most considered, most substantial perspectives on the state of the world. It’s Australia’s only current affairs magazine, an indispensable home for cultural commentary, criticism and reviews, and home to personal and reflective essays that celebrate and elevate our humanity.

The Monthly doesn’t just comment on our culture, our society and our politics: it shapes it. And your subscription makes you part of that.

Select your digital subscription

Month selector

From the front page

Osamah Sami with members of his local mosque

In ‘House of Gods’, Sydney’s Muslim community gets to be complicated

Plus, Barnaby Joyce shines in ‘Nemesis’, Emma Seligman and Rachel Sennott deliver ‘Bottoms’, and Chloë Sevigny and Molly Ringwald step up for ‘Feud: Capote vs. The Swans’.

U2 performing in the Las Vegas Sphere

Where the feats have no name: ‘U2:UV’ at Sphere

It’s no surprise it took U2 to launch post-stadium rock via a spectacular immersive show within the technical marvel of Las Vegas’s newest venue

Grace Tame running in the 2023 Bruny Island Ultra Marathon

Running out of trouble

How long-distance running changed the life of the former Australian of the Year (and earnt her a record win in an ultramarathon)

Illustration by Jeff Fisher

Might as well face it

Lively discussions take place around the country every week on ethical non-monogamy, love addiction and how much sex is too much

In This Issue

Keith Windschuttle and Robert Edgerton: a comparison of texts

Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

Franchise nation

Such desirable objects

Frank Hurley: Journeys into Papua
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

Repo man


More in Arts & Letters

Illustration by Jeff Fisher

Pictures of you

The award-winning author kicks off our new fiction series with a story of coming to terms with a troubled father’s obsessions

Jordan Wolfson, ‘Body Sculpture’ (detail), 2023

Call to arms: Jordan Wolfson’s ‘Body Sculpture’

The NGA’s newest acquisition, a controversial American artist’s animatronic steel cube, fuses abstraction with classical figure sculpture

U2 performing in the Las Vegas Sphere

Where the feats have no name: ‘U2:UV’ at Sphere

It’s no surprise it took U2 to launch post-stadium rock via a spectacular immersive show within the technical marvel of Las Vegas’s newest venue

McKenzie Wark

Novel gazing: McKenzie Wark’s ‘Love and Money, Sex and Death’

The expat writer and scholar’s memoir is an inquiry into “what it means to experience the self as both an intimate and a stranger”


More in Noted

Cover of ‘Kids Run the Show’

Delphine de Vigan’s ‘Kids Run the Show’

The French author’s fragmentary novel employs the horror genre to explore anxieties about intimacy, celebrity and our infatuation with life on screens

Still from ‘Boy Swallows Universe’

‘Boy Swallows Universe’

The magical realism in Netflix’s adaptation of Trent Dalton’s bestselling novel derails its tender portrayal of family drama in 1980s Brisbane’s suburban fringe

Cover of ‘Question 7’

Richard Flanagan's ‘Question 7’

A slim volume of big ideas that takes in H.G. Wells, chain reaction, Hiroshima and the author’s near-death experience on the Franklin River

Scene from ‘The Curse’

‘The Curse’

Nathan Fielder directs and co-stars in an erratic comedy about the performative benevolence of a couple creating a social housing reality TV show


Online latest

Osamah Sami with members of his local mosque

In ‘House of Gods’, Sydney’s Muslim community gets to be complicated

Plus, Barnaby Joyce shines in ‘Nemesis’, Emma Seligman and Rachel Sennott deliver ‘Bottoms’, and Chloë Sevigny and Molly Ringwald step up for ‘Feud: Capote vs. The Swans’.

International Film Festival Rotterdam highlights

Films from Iran, Ukraine and Bundaberg were deserving winners at this year’s festival

Two women on a train smile and shake hands

‘Expats’ drills down on Hong Kong’s class divide

Plus, Netflix swallows Trent Dalton, Deborah Mailman remains in ‘Total Control’ and ‘Vanderpump Rules’ returns for another season

Image of a man playing music using electronics and the kora (West African harp)

Three overlooked albums of spiritual jazz from 2023

Recent releases by kora player John Haycock, trumpeter Matthew Halsall and 14-piece jazz ensemble Ancient Infinity Orchestra feel like a refuge from reality