Nam Le’s debut collection of short stories, The Boat, was awarded the Dylan Thomas Prize and the National Book Foundation’s “5 Under 35” Award. It was also chosen as a New York Times Notable Book. Le is currently the fiction editor of the Harvard Review.
It might seem unadventurous to nominate a book recently proclaimed by the New York Times as the best work of American fiction of the last 25 years, but in fact, when the list came out, some people may remember that an immediate, insidious backlash began against the winner, Toni Morrison’s Beloved (accusing it, among other things, of being the obvious and politically correct choice), and I’ll confess that I, too, found it all too easy to get swept along – especially given my one-eyed barracking for two of the runners-up, Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian and Don DeLillo’s Underworld. Due to no fault of its own, the book – which I’d last read in high school – sank in my sheeplike (and sheepish) estimation. Then, this year, more than two years later, I finally returned to it. What I rediscovered stunned me: Beloved was a work of incomparable moral and aesthetic focus, in which structure, the actualised “intricate patterning” toward which Fitzgerald strove all his life, had elevated itself into ethical argument; in which memory-play, slippage and narrative deferral guided the reader – as all great books do – to a new mode of reading. It was a book planted deep in dirt and human muck, in a history where nothing – not feeling, nor language – remained uncompromised. And yet – and yet – it contained the sternness of heart and steadiness of will and stoutness of authority to claim this piece of history and completely possess it – to render it into testimony and prophecy both. Truly, I realised, Beloved was one of those rare works that remakes the whole enterprise; that marks, with one cruel stroke, beginning and epitome.