Linh Dinh’s long awaited first novel is perfectly titled. Love like Hate refers, on the one hand, to the name of a band that a character in the novel idolizes due to her involvement with the lead singer. On the other, “love like hate,” also invokes the many paradoxes that the narrative engages. For instance, Dinh is clearly interested in problematizing the supposed communist status of Vietnam, showing how the country has been infiltrated by global capitalism. Kim Lan, one of the main characters, is sure that the key to changing her life is making sure her daughter, Hoa, marries a Viet Kieu, otherwise known as ethnic Vietnamese whose primary residence is outside of Vietnam. Kim Lan makes sure that Hoa wears the most fashionable and westernized clothing, only eats at the most westernized restaurants, all in the hope of marrying her off to a Viet Kieu. Kim Lan’s tactic is obviously much too simplistic and she fails to understand how tragically limited her vision might be in circumscribing her daughter within an economically-motivated paradigm. Her single-minded focus in getting Hoa to marry a Viet Kieu is just a figurative rendering of Dinh’s major critique of contemporary Vietnamese society. But, Kim Lan is only one of many flawed and dynamic characters that Dinh chooses to create. Others include: Hoang Long, Kim Lan’s first husband, a career military man, who later languishes in a re-education camp following the fall of Saigon; Sen, an ethnic Chinese living in Vietnam and ostensibly Kim Lan’s second husband that she takes up with only after she believes Hoang Long is either killed in action while serving in the military or has fled Vietnam; Cun, Kim Lan’s son from her marriage with Hoang Long.
The other huge character in Dinh’s novel is clearly the third person narrator, who has an extremely caustic tone and is not afraid of off-color, politically “incorrect” humor. Take this excerpt for example, which comes up early on in the novel and is used to describe a minor Viet Kieu character not coincidentally named Jaded Nguyen: “Jaded was also Asian, which meant that he was smaller. If he were Yao Ming or Dat Nguyen, it wouldn’t have mattered, but he wasn’t even Ichiro size, more like Apolo Ohno, except not that good-looking, and he didn’t have Michael Chang’s born-again faith to rock himself to sleep at night. (If there was one guy who annoyed Jaded more than Michael Chang, it was Jackie Chan and his stunted sexuality. The guy clowned and kicked ass, but never got laid. About the only Asian guys to get laid in Western movies were the ones conjured up by the feverish mind of Marguerite Duras.)” (14). This passage is fairly representative of other such tracts in the novel, where the narrator often generates a perspective willing to plumb the depths of a character’s many intricacies and idiosyncrasies. As the passage later continues: “He also subscribed to nastycheerleaders.com, republicanbabeswithguns.com, sexykitchens.com, innermostdreams.com, and even youngpee.com. Upskirt, downskirt, dominatrix, hog-tied, slaves, elderly nuns in combat boos, elementary schoolteachers made to kneel naked then spanked, infants, corpses—he sampled them all with his eyes” (15). If we would want to characterize the narrator, it is to think of his as being perhaps a tad hyperbolic. But this passage also serves to demonstrate the limits of Kim Lan’s own fetishization of the Viet Kieu, who the narrator reveals to be, at least in this case, a kind of Vietnamese American loser, without many prospects.
The novel is particularly distinct in the growing body of Vietnamese American literature specifically for the narrator’s satirical wit and unflinching voice. It is a ferocious work, one that ultimately showcases the fallout generated by global capitalism.
Photos courtesy of Isabelle Thuy Pelaud.
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