Sunday, March 15, 2009

Novel Excerpt (Lotusland)

Chapter 1

Nathan peered over the third-floor balcony of the house, mystified by what he was seeing. No more than fifty feet from the railing, not far beyond the West Lake shore, peasants – dressed in the long-sleeved shirts and pants one sees farmers wearing on the outskirts of Hanoi – treaded water while holding what looked like butterfly nets.

Late March had in fact brought out butterflies: clouds of them, orange and yellow, fluttering around the weedy border of the lake and blown like confetti by the breeze. None, however, appeared the least bit threatened by these ten (he’d counted them) peasants.

Above the black surface of water, the peasants’ conical hats bobbed up and down. They treaded in formation, fanning out from one in front like migrating birds in a flooded sky. For some reason the sight intensified his unease.

As he watched, voices inside the house grew loud enough to overhear.

“They’re your children, too. Tell them yourself.”

“I can’t.”

“You could if you tried.”

“I do try. Now tell them what I said.”

“No,” came the shrill reply.

Wary of drawing attention to himself, Nathan twisted his neck to look inside.

Anthony and Huong were arguing from across opposite sides of the large, high-ceilinged sunroom, separated by a new set of white furniture. His old friend from Saigon was pointing at their two children, Anh and Hao, who were grabbing Huong’s legs and sniffling. At four and three, the children’s features were a shade between those of their mother and father. Their dark blonde hair and hazel eyes made them look more Western than Vietnamese, but they were too young to suspect they were anything but the latter. As far as Nathan could tell, they didn’t know more than fifty or sixty words in English. They had English names, too, but never responded to them, no matter how often Anthony encouraged them to. Huong pried their hands from her legs and sent them away with the nanny, who hovered in the doorway, quietly observing.

Shortly after arriving at their house last night Nathan learned that Anh and Hao had no set bedtime. They had free rein, it seemed, but could enter the balcony only with Anthony’s permission. Five minutes ago, shouting Nathan’s name excitedly, they’d charged outside without first asking if it was okay, and at a stern word from Anthony they’d crashed into each other and fallen.

Nathan turned back to the lake, trying to push away pangs of envy. Seeing Huong again had brought back old feelings he thought he’d gotten over; and seeing Anthony so careless with the life he’d built with her made him resentful.

Anthony returned with a bottle of Benedictine. He poured an inch into his coffee and stirred it. “French monks came up with this drink five centuries ago,” he said. “Life must have been much simpler back then, don’t you think?”

“I don’t think life’s ever been simple.”

Anthony slid the bottle across the table. “Help yourself.”

“No, thanks. I prefer to start my day sober.”

Anthony leaned back and pushed his hands through his hair. He appeared about to say something but instead turned to the lake. Whitecaps scratched the dark, billowing surface, and the peasants struggled against the new, small waves coming at them. Their conical hats moved quickly up and down.

Nathan fixed his attention on the changes that had etched themselves in Anthony’s person. Physically speaking, the last few years hadn’t been kind. Middle age had crept up, silvering his blond hair at the temples, adding several inches to his waist, and wrinkling his forehead and the corners of his eyes. Over six feet tall, he still carried himself well; not gracefully, but with enough natural authority that few would dare to cross or contradict him.

A profound tiredness seemed to lurk behind his eyes, and the shadowy rings beneath them accentuated this. In the half-day they’d spent together Nathan thought he could count on one hand the number of times Anthony had smiled or laughed.

A door slammed inside the house, and was followed by more crying.

“If we had a dog,” Anthony remarked dryly, “it would rank higher in this family than me.”

“It wasn’t your fault they fell. I’m sure they blame me more than you. After all, I’m the stranger here, not you.”

Anthony added a half-inch of Benedictine to his cup. “They think you’re great because you speak Vietnamese. That puts you above me in their eyes.”

It was true they seemed mesmerized by Nathan’s ability to speak Vietnamese. According to Anthony, they’d never met a foreigner fluent in Vietnamese before.

“Yeah, but you’re their father.”

“If they knew English, maybe it’d be different. My complete lack of Vietnamese only gives Huong more authority over them.”

Anthony tried to steer them back to the conversation they were having before the incident with his children, but Nathan wouldn’t let him. “When are you going to learn Vietnamese?” he asked.

Anthony closed his eyes and rubbed his forehead. “Why waste my energy? It’s only a matter of time before my kids pick up English. In three or four years I won’t need to.”

Nathan stared blankly at him. “That’s a long time from now.”

“Of course, how can anyone predict language development at their ages?” Anthony raised his cup to his lips, then lowered it to add: “Who’s even to say how smart they are? I have to take Huong’s word for it because I can’t understand a thing that comes out of their mouths.”

Nathan didn’t know what to make of this. In Saigon there were plenty of bilingual children, and not just in bicultural families. The Vietnamese placed a primacy on language learning, which made them perhaps the most successful polyglots in Southeast Asia.

“Why don’t you teach them?”

“Huong wouldn’t like it.”

Notwithstanding the notion of fairness, Nathan supposed there was no point asking why Huong didn’t take on the responsibility. It was hard to tell if Anthony wanted someone to open up to about this or if he simply found the whole subject distasteful. Nathan was going to ask why he didn’t hire a teacher when Anthony’s cell phone rang and he stepped inside to take the call.

Anthony wasn’t the only foreigner he knew who couldn’t communicate with his children. At least Huong’s English was good, though it didn’t seem like they spoke much anymore. When Nathan thought about it he could recall several foreigners who’d married Vietnamese women with whom all they shared linguistically were a handful of words.

Nathan was grateful for his language ability, though he didn’t know how it had happened. He’d taken his progress for granted until one morning he woke up and remembered he was dreaming in Vietnamese.

He tried not to use his Vietnamese around Anthony, who bristled at the sound of it – the rising and falling, the glottal stops, the broken tones – not unless the situation demanded it. In Anthony’s own words, the Vietnamese language was like cold rice. “No amount of money,” he liked to say, “could persuade me to eat a stale, hard grain of it.” More recently he started calling it an acquired aversion.

From the side of the house came a sound like ripping cardboard. Huong’s father stood in a window, leaning over a blooming flowerbox: twisting his thin face he hawked and spat, then watched his sputum plummet like a sparrow’s egg into the garden.

To Anthony’s dismay Huong’s parents had moved into their house several weeks ago. Huong had pushed hard for him to accept this arrangement, explaining that it was her duty to support them now that they were old. He’d acquiesced when she went half a month without speaking to him.

When Anthony came back he asked Nathan how they’d gotten on the topic of his family. “Weren’t we talking about something more interesting?”

“I think you’d just offered me a job.”

“Right, and you were about to tell me that the salary exceeded your wildest dreams.”

Anthony’s phone rang again but the call only lasted a few seconds. “That was my driver,” he said, glancing at his watch. “No rush, but we’d better get going.”

“I can take a taxi if it’s a problem dropping me off.”

But he knew Anthony wouldn’t have it any other way. He wanted Nathan to see what his offer of employment amounted to materially. In other people this might have bothered Nathan, but in Anthony, a friend for seven years, it simply came with the package. Anthony was a businessman, and for him money meant success. It was, perhaps, the biggest difference between them.

“What are you talking about? I’ve got a Land Rover and personal driver. Hien goes wherever I say. If I told him to drive me to China he’d get me there in time for dinner. Back in the States I could never live like this.” When Nathan said nothing Anthony softened his tone. “Think hard about my offer. I’d love to have you up here.”

The offer was excellent, and the change long-desired, yet there was something about it that didn’t feel right.

“I’ll think about it. Just give me a few weeks to sort things out.”

“Let’s say the end of the month.”

“That’s only a week from now.”

Anthony clasped Nathan’s shoulder and looked at him in disbelief. “Nate, I’m surprised you even need a day. This is a great chance for you. The best chance you’ve ever had in Vietnam.”

Nathan glanced across the lake where a ballooning mass of rain clouds seemed slowly to be descending. He wondered what made him feel apprehensive about an offer he knew he should jump at.

“Let me ask you something.” The earnestness in Anthony’s tone reclaimed Nathan’s attention. “How long do you plan on being here? Are you still thinking of making a life for yourself here, or entertaining thoughts of cutting out?”

“I don’t know. I’m not stuck here like you are.”

“Thanks a lot. That’s a flattering way to put it.”

Nathan didn’t apologize. Anthony had admitted to being stuck only yesterday, though it was true, perhaps, that it was for good rather than bad.

“I’d say I’ve become one hell of a success here, if I do say so myself. But you’re right. I am stuck. Sometimes, on one of my good days, I think things have turned out pretty good in a place where nothing’s ever all that good.”

Before following Anthony downstairs, Nathan looked once more toward the lake. The peasants were in a slightly different formation. Counting them he saw that now there were only nine. His eyes combed the shore, the road skirting it, and then farther out on the lake, but the tenth peasant was nowhere to be found.

As he shouldered his bags at the front door he called goodbye to Anthony’s family. The house seemed utterly empty, however, and no one answered.

“Just remember,” Anthony said as they pulled away from his house, “I’ve got other people in mind for this job if you balk. They’ll snatch it up in an instant.”

“I’m not balking. It just feels more real since we’ve discussed it. And it’s a little overwhelming since I don’t have experience in real estate.”

“When I started, neither did I. But you’ve lived in Vietnam a long time, and that kind of experience is hard to find. Besides, Huong thinks you’re the best candidate. And since the agency’s registered in her name I have to give her a say once in a while.”

“Huong’s crazy if she thinks I’m the best candidate.”

“She also thinks you’d be a good influence on me.”

“Then she’s definitely crazy.”

“If she’s crazy, then so am I. I’m not offering you a job just because she wants me to.”

“Then why are you, exactly?”

“I’ve got my reasons.” When he saw the strange look Nathan gave him he added, “I’ve got big plans for you. For you and me both.”

Nathan looked away. “Huong’s changed a lot since I last saw her.”

“She looks better than she did in Saigon, doesn’t she? She’s not the same person she was back then – not as vivacious or open-minded, not as hungry to please. As soon as we got married and came here she decided she wanted to take charge of me. I used to think her sudden change defied explanation. But I don’t anymore. She was like that the whole time but never showed it. Even with you she kept that part of herself hidden.”

An awkward moment passed in which Nathan tried, but failed, to keep from thinking of his past with Huong. They’d dated each other for six months, shortly after Nathan first arrived in Saigon. Anthony had spotted her on a beach in Vung Tau, but she’d immediately taken to Nathan when the two of them approached. Nathan had stopped seeing her when his mother got sick and he flew home, the first of three long trips, to visit her in the hospital. When he returned for good to Saigon he was surprised to find that Huong had picked up with Anthony. “I told her about my plan to open a real estate company,” Anthony had said, “and the next thing I knew she was all over me. If you’d been here I would’ve asked for your okay. But I didn’t think you were coming back. Anyway, you told me she wasn’t what you were looking for.” Huong was the last serious relationship Nathan had had, although since then several women, both local and foreign, had filled up a lonely month or season.

Anthony asked Nathan if the job offer wasn’t generous enough.

“It’s plenty generous. I just need a little time.”

“I hate to remind you,” Anthony started, and Nathan knew what was coming; he’d been waiting for it since Anthony began recruiting him a few weeks ago, once he knew Nathan was traveling to Hanoi. “But there’s the little matter of the money you owe me. It’s been almost six years already.”

There was a drawn-out silence, long enough for Nathan to recall the five thousand dollars; the final trip back to Ohio; the solitude he’d needed on returning to Saigon, which, like everything else, didn’t come free.

“I haven’t forgotten.”

“Of course you haven’t.”

“It’s still not an easy decision.”

Anthony frowned and looked out the window. “I love my work, Nate. I love making good money. But it’s hard to meet good people here. You know how the expats are all either on vacation without knowing it or are just wandering through life. They’ve got no stakes in the relationships they make.”

Something made Nathan think of Anthony’s refusal to learn Vietnamese, but Anthony didn’t give him time to develop the thought.

“I’d really like to have you in Hanoi. I don’t need a partner in crime to be happy, but…” To Nathan’s bewilderment Anthony took a moment to compose himself. “Call me selfish, but things would be better with you around. You know what I’m talking about, don’t you?”

Nathan nodded. It was like that for him, too. Still, it wasn’t as easy as Anthony made it sound. Anthony had a particular talent of being persuasive. In others this kind of persuasiveness might verge on bullying – he knew because he’d seen it so many times among people desperate to get something, from more attention at a seedy bar to slow-showing loyalty from friends – but in Anthony it showed his commitment to him and to their friendship.

As the road turned from the lake, Nathan asked Anthony’s driver what the peasants on the water were doing. When he heard the answer, it made perfect sense, and he was surprised he hadn’t figured it out on his own.

“Catching snails. The market for them this time of year is good.”

“I didn’t see anyone out there,” Anthony said.

“With the weather warming up, they’re there every morning, sir.”

“How much do you think they make?”

Hien suggested a figure approximating a dollar per pound.

But the answer didn’t make sense to Nathan. The effort seemed so much greater than the reward.

As they approached Ba Dinh Square, Anthony took another call – the fourth, at least, since seven o’clock. Six years had gone by since he and Anthony lived in the same place, and again Nathan was taken aback by how he handled himself now. Nathan never could have predicted the changes he saw in his old friend. Nor could he have predicted his success as the head of a real estate company. Not so long ago they’d been teachers struggling to get by.

And yet Nathan wasn’t surprised that Anthony had succeeded in business. He was clever without having had a conventional education, and was better read than anyone Nathan knew in Vietnam. He was able to incorporate the most useful aspects of what he’d learned into how he lived, and on several occasions Nathan felt nothing short of enlightened after talking to him.

Nathan had always found him fascinating to listen to, so astute was he capable of being, and also entertaining. Extemporaneous by nature, it was nothing for him to gather together a group and string them along for half an hour. But that was the old Anthony. Though still brilliant in flashes, this Anthony was more subdued. He was part melancholy, part resigned, and part plain angry at the world around him. It was an Anthony he’d never known. And the newness of this man made Nathan shy, as if he were trying to determine how much he could be trusted.

Nathan looked out his window at Ba Dinh Square. Here, he recalled, near the end of World War II, Ho Chi Minh declared Vietnamese independence from French colonial rule.

Anthony elbowed Nathan lightly and pointed to the towering monolith of Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum. A long line of people was waiting to see Ho’s body, embalmed beneath a glass case. Guards in white uniforms stood before the marble building, rifles at their sides, staring straight ahead.

Spread in front of the mausoleum were plots of grass where elderly people performed tai chi, parents played badminton with their children, and vendors sold kites painted like dragons and fish. The open space here and around West Lake was as much of a contrast to Saigon as the cool spring weather he’d enjoyed the last three days. Even the traffic here flowed in currents less swift, less dangerous, less overwhelming than in Saigon. This, he told himself, already feeling the press of overcrowded, over-concretized Saigon, might just be worth changing his life for.

The feeling he’d take away from Hanoi was that this was a manageable city. Maybe the kind of place where he could finally settle down into a dream he had of being happy. What he wanted here was what he might want if he were in America: to be in a place that stimulated him, to do something worthwhile with his life, and to know nothing of regret. The biggest difference was that in America happiness was too tied together with being rich. It was the sort of lie no one liked to admit, for if admitted it would lay open the meaninglessness of people’s lives. In Vietnam, where so many were poor, the equation was different, and happiness jumped out at him in the most unexpected circumstances.

This wasn’t to say that he was as happy as he wanted, or that he was convinced his theory about America was even right. But he knew he couldn’t dress up in the financial rewards of a successful business the way that Anthony was trying to do. Money fit Anthony better. If money were a suit, Nathan would wear it unwillingly, loosening his tie and pulling his shirt from his pants at the first opportunity.

Absorbed in thought, he didn’t hear Anthony speak.

“You with me?” He waved a hand before Nathan’s face. “I asked what that writing job in Saigon pays you.”

“It depends. Usually around one hundred dollars.”

“What are you getting for the article you came here to write?”

“One-fifty.” Nathan had spent the last two days visiting Friendship Village, a care facility and training center for Agent Orange victims. “For a thousand words that’s decent money.”

“They’re taking advantage of you.”

“Money’s not why I do it. Anyway, if they like what I write they’ll want more.”

“You’re worth more than that,” Anthony said, scowling.

They turned on Nguyen Thai Hoc, squeezing into traffic. In many respects Hanoi looked just like Saigon: before dirty, pushed-together buildings, each with a business stamped on its awning, the narrow streets seethed with vehicles. Wherever they passed there was the rubble and dust of construction.

A few minutes later Hien pulled up to the train station, forcing food vendors and cyclo drivers to hasten out of the way. Nathan dragged his suitcase to a spot of unclaimed asphalt.

A crowd of onlookers quickly gathered. Foreigners evoked strong curiosity in Vietnam, and in Hanoi people had the same tendency to stare as the Saigonese, though the latter were more muted about it, more polite. Turning, Nathan found Anthony waiting to shake his hand.

“What’s this?” Bills were folded in Anthony’s palm.

“I can’t let you sit on that train for a day and a half in the cheap seats. At least upgrade to a less crowded room.”

“Thanks. But I don’t–”

“Forget it. Just have a good trip. Take the job and I’ll make sure you always travel first class. Not like your employer now, who obviously thinks you’re Vietnamese.”

Nathan looked into the chaotic intersection of Le Duan and Tran Hung Dao. Nearby, a row of stores sold helmets and other soldierly accouterments, the kind of thing one rarely saw in Saigon. “Coming here would be a big change for me. I’ve wanted to shake things up for a long time…”

“You have to decide what you’re willing to risk. You have to separate the psychology of it from the reality of it.”

Not wanting to hear Anthony expound on the subjects of psychology and reality, Nathan feigned bewilderment. “I’ll try to untangle that statement on the train.”

“What’s to untangle?” A flash of Anthony’s old intensity lit his eyes. “Risk is nothing if you believe in opportunity.” When Nathan hesitated, Anthony went on. “In Hanoi, with a fresh start, things will be different. You’ll have a life you can settle into.”

Someone in the crowd imitated Anthony’s speech, causing titters all around. Anthony had never been good at ignoring this sort of attention, and Nathan saw annoyance creep into his expression.

“What’s keeping you there, anyway? Fear of change?”

“I’m not afraid of that.”

“Then what?”

Nathan paused. With startling suddenness it occurred to him that there’d be no way out if he didn’t soon change his life. After seven years he hadn’t pushed himself in a noticeably forward direction. Rather, he’d pushed himself in no obvious direction at all – and, until now, without a clear sense of time having passed. The fact was that while he’d enjoyed himself in Saigon for more than half a decade, he hadn’t particularly accomplished anything.

For months he’d been looking for ways to better his life. But it was more complicated than he’d imagined. It wasn’t anything material he needed to jettison, but something else, something that oppressed him from within – the notion that his life had indeed hit a dead end.

Anthony’s description of the job echoed in his ears. Finding homes for foreigners sounded simple. His responsibilities would be to help give a public face to the company and to manage the other employees. The Vietnamese staff, and the subagents he had to go through, would take care of the grunt work. Nathan just had to make sure they got it all done.

A surge of conviction washed over him, followed by the clarity that to keep his life as it was would only lead him deeper into unhappiness.

“Just as long as you understand I’m not a businessman, and know that I’d rather write than devote my life to real estate like you’ve done, maybe I can give it a try.”

Anthony’s eyebrows hooked together in a kind of quizzical anger. Not quite smiling, he said: “You’d never get a job anywhere else with a statement like that. But since I trust you more than anyone, I’ll forget you said it. Still, I think you were right in wanting more time to think things over.”

But what would two weeks, or even three or four, do for him? Having too much time to reflect would leave him floundering.

“No. This is what I need and want.”

Anthony stared at him thoughtfully. When he spoke, his tone was admonishing. “I don’t want you saying yes now and then telling me no the day you’re supposed to come up. But if it’s yes, absolutely yes, I’ll tell the other people I’ve been considering for the job. I need you to be certain.”

“I am certain.” The words felt funny leaving his mouth, as if someone else had spoken them.

“Then I’m glad. Really glad.” His face contracted, appearing at odds with what he’d just said.

“When do you need me to start?”

“It’s up to you. The sooner the better, though.” Thinking about it he concluded: “Let’s say a month from now. Six weeks if you absolutely need the time. Just keep me informed of your progress so I can prepare accordingly.”

“I will.”

Anthony smiled unhappily. “I can’t wait to have you up here. Like I said, I’ve got big plans for us.”

Nathan hesitated. “I guess it goes without saying that I owe you.”

“Let’s not talk about that now. You better get moving.”

After shaking hands again, Nathan hurried into the station to upgrade his ticket.

When he got to his compartment he saw that, aside from having four beds rather than six, the room was hardly an upgrade at all. Wondering if he’d have the room for himself for at least part of the journey, he sat on a lower bunk and looked out the window. The drizzle had become a light shower.

The train platform was empty except for a few attendants in plastic raincoats, separated from each other by puddles that jumped and quivered beneath the rain. The vending booths against the wall of the station hadn’t a single passenger before them. Vendors were already pulling tarps over their tables and carts of goods.

Above Hanoi Station were layers of gray clouds and vertical lines of rain coming down. He hoped the shower would continue as long as possible. It had been almost three months since he’d seen rain.

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  1. I took awhile to decide what I thought about these two men. What struck me was the issue of having, as Anthony put it, "no stakes in the relationships they make" - it would appear that Nathan has put more effort into immersing himself in the culture (e.g. learning the language) than his friend. And yet, my impression is that they are both keeping their options open: Anthony may be refusing to learn the language but he has made his home, family and business in Vietnam, whereas Nathan, who seems more at ease with the culture, has yet to establish anything that resembles permanence, from his job to his home. He and Anthony, I think, are two sides of the same coin.

    BTW, I hope you don't mind my ramblings and please tell me if I'm WAY overthinking these excerpts! 8-D

  2. Tangled Noodle: I’m flattered by your “ramblings,” though I wouldn’t characterize them as ramblings myself! To me, your comments were well put and nicely observed!

    It was interesting for me to read your thoughts on this, actually. The idea that they’re both keeping their options open is probably something I need to fix. My feeling is that they both need to want something very badly right from the start – something that puts them in direct conflict with each other – which means giving them only one option and dismissing everything else. I worry that characters with options equates to a lack of focus, which in turn diffuses the immediacy I should be aiming for here. In any event, yes, Nathan has put more effort into immersing himself in the culture, though it could be said that Anthony tried but gave up once his immersion reached a certain level of commitment – marrying into the culture, namely. They may very well be two sides of the same coin, however, though later on they diverge more sharply and to dramatic consequence, I hope.

    It’s surprisingly useful for me to bounce around thoughts with others like this, and as before, TN, I thank you very much for your time and comments!

    How goes your own writing these days?

  3. I'm glad these thought may be useful to you in some way! Right now, my writing is confined to classwork, blogging and a freelance article assignment for a local women's paper. But I have been revisiting my notes for the short story and 'novelette'; perhaps I can find the time (and confidence) to sit down and really work on them. Thank you for asking!

  4. I hope you can find the time, Tangled Noodle. That's the hardest part. And I'm not talking half an hour here and an hour there, but rather a long enough period for you to fully enter that fecund space where creativity has the chance to awaken and emerge. I believe that confidence, too, requires one to devote a certain amount of time to it. After all, the more time you spend thinking about a good idea, the more motivation you gain to carry it out to success. That's my feeling, anyway. Good luck with the various projects you're juggling, but don't forget the fiction if you can help it!