diaCRITIC Eric Nguyen reviews Marian Palaia’s debut novel, The Given World. Palaia tells the story of Riley, an American expat in Vietnam searching for her older brother who went missing in action there when she was a young girl.
There is a generation of Americans who grew up through the Vietnam War and those who view it from a distance through history books. And there are those who were too young to be in the War but not young enough to not be broken by it. It is a generation that came too late to be part of a national narrative, but too early to be excluded from being collateral damage. Marian Palaia’s protagonist in her debut novel, The Given World, belongs in this last group.
When readers first meet Riley, she lives in Saigon as a teacher. It is before the normalization of relations between the communist nation and the United States and she is one of the few Americans in the country where the most expats are Canadians and Australians. Her relationships—platonic and romantic—are as tenuous as she is guarded, made more opaque by her tough, hard-drinking demeanor. Given this, it is no surprise that she is by herself when she confesses to readers, her invisible audience, the reason for her visit: to locate her brother Mick, who went missing in action during the war decades earlier.
We then flashback to Riley age nine, in her family home in Montana. Lyndon B. Johnson is president and while the war in Vietnam is intensifying, it is something faraway on TV and in the papers, at least for Riley. As smart as she is, her understanding of the war and history is childish: “I knew who Johnson was,” she recalls, “He was president. He was tall and talked funny, and his nose took up half his face.” It is Mick who she looks up to for information and guidance, though he himself is going through life changes that Riley is yet to understand, including going off to college and eventually to war.
And Mick isn’t the only one she loses, though in different ways. There’s Darrell, a Native American teen, who is drafted. There’s Slim, the baby she leaves behind with her mother for San Francisco. There she meets Primo, a newspaper delivery man, who’s addicted to heroin, and Lu, a homeless lesbian who is always in trouble and disappears (and reappears) without notice. During these next years, we see Riley spiral out of control with drugs, alcohol, abusive relationships, and her wanderlust, which takes her to the Củ Chi tunnels in Vietnam where her brother went missing. To her disappointment, “there was nothing. It didn’t feel like a war zone. It felt like a museum, or a theme park.” It’s a critical moment in the book that speaks to and heightens the alienation Riley feels: the closest she can get to the war is novelty objects and tourist products. It’s an injustice that the war that changed her life has become sterile and sellable and packaged. With her own myth of Mick lost, she returns to the States and eventually to Montana, where her father is dying and her mother has partially lost her mind.
What Palaia does best is creating a cast of aching, wayward characters who speak to and for the post-Vietnam War generation, those who came up of age in the seventies and eighties. Riley sees her generation as one that is unique in its place in history—exposed to war but never seeing the battlefield first hand. At one point, Riley argues that today’s military is dramatically different from that of the 1970s: “It’s not like he’s join up. Not like he has to go fight real enemies. It’s not like we have those anymore.” Palaia’s cast of characters are melancholy but tough “unraveled souls,” to use the author’s words. They blow in the wind and are hollowed out.
This cast of characters, however, can be detrimental to the storytelling. Readers rarely stick with a character, besides Riley, who is the filter of these chapters. As interesting as they are—the gay couple who falls apart during the AIDS crisis, a girl traveling alone with her grandmother’s ashes, and more—the characters are accessories to Riley’s story as they try to figure who exactly she is or act as gateways for the readers to better understand Riley. Pair this with the fact that Riley is innately a withholding narrator with a spare and dry voice, and the result is a novel that is at times unfocused and opaque.
Despite this, The Given World is at its best when it finds its focus on Riley and her quest to come to terms with her grief. When she returns to Montana, for instance, she finds Mick’s jacket where she left it: “I pick it up and press my face to it,” Riley says, “It smells old. It smells like Mick. It smells like when I was a little kid, just learning how to cuss, and everything, everything, was right with the world.” The sparseness of the words lays her soul bare, the repetition makes the pain ache; together, it makes for a particular type of hard-hitting poetry.
At its worst, The Given World is a whirlwind of multiple voices and stories that doesn’t stay still. At its best, however, when it finds points of cohesion, it is a story of the different ways one can become broken. It’s a portrait of fragility, but by the end, it’s also one of hope and survival.
Buy the book here.
Eric Nguyen has a MFA in creative writing from McNeese State University and BA in sociology from the University of Maryland. He has been awarded writing fellowships from the Lambda Literary Foundation and Voices of Our Nation Arts (VONA).
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