Dragonfish by Vu Tran
Publisher: WW Norton & Co
Released: August 2015
Guest review by Melanie Page
Vu Tran’s first novel, Dragonfish, which was just released August 3, 2015, has been in the works for years. Tran came to my alma mater in 2012 and read a chapter of the manuscript before it was even accepted for publication. I enjoyed that excerpt from what has been dubbed “literary noir,” and eagerly awaited the final product.
Dragonfish is the story of a cop, Robert, in the United States, who was married to Suzy for 8 years. Suzy, a refugee from Vietnam, is a strange woman who seems to lose connection with reality, and has done so since the before she met Robert. The novel is broken into italicized and non-italicized sections. Though the italics are never given a named narrator, readers learn the pages come from Suzy’s diary. She wrote while in Vietnam and then some years later looking back on her time in Vietnam, and these passages were the most interesting. They give depth to Suzy and suggest motive for her strange behavior in the U.S., which is totally lacking from the non-italicized sections.
The non-italicized sections are from Robert’s point of view. He confesses Suzy is the name he calls his wife, whose real name is Hong, and that he chose the name because it belonged to an ex-girlfriend. Even when he takes his wife on honeymoon, they end up at a restaurant where he once went on a date. This weird connection of Suzy to ex-girlfriends is never played out, which makes the references seem odd, like they show something about Robert that I was never fully able to puzzle out.
The real action results from Suzy’s absence; she has left her new husband, Sonny, who is also from Vietnam, and Sonny wants her back. Sonny’s son “Junior” employs Robert (okay, “Junior” has his men kidnap Robert for some shenanigans he pulled 5 months before) to help him, and this detective work following a mysterious disappearance is what makes Dragonfish noir.
While the novel was quite a page-turner, I was never certain why Robert loved his ex-wife so much. When he recounts moments from their past, they’re dark, violent, and Suzy’s actions hardly make sense from his point of view. Robert’s obsession, the kind I would expect from a heartbroken ex-husband, didn’t seem to make sense based on his description of his marriage. During his time searching for Suzy, Robert risks his career, and I had a hard time believing he would do that for a woman who was more responsibility than wife.
There is a darkness in Dragonfish that I had not expected, one that revealed itself in flashbacks. Not only were Suzy’s and Sonny’s lives as refugees defined by death and sadness, but Robert’s own childhood added a dark layer to his personality, one that could explain his own tendency toward violence or anger. Tran’s choice to add trauma to the lives of the characters were part of what kept me turning pages:
“When I was six, I watched my father grab my brown terrier by the collar and slam it headfirst against our porch wall. It had pissed on his shoe--this, after a month of him warning me of his messes around the house. It instantly went limp and he held it up and looked at it and walked to our curbside trash can. Hours later we heard scratching at our front door, and there it was, limping sleepily around the welcome mat.”
The narrator of noir is almost always jaded, and Robert’s problems stemming from his childhood family and rematerializing in his adult family made perfect sense. When Robert is kidnapped by Sonny’s men to be taken to Vegas to search for Suzy, one of the hired men astutely points out the emptiness of Robert’s life: “This is a sad place, man. Not even a Christmas tree?”
No one really seems to understand Suzy, though she is the focus of the novel. The book shows the reader a lot about the depression from which she suffers, but never fully analyzes it. Robert thinks about Suzy’s medication: “[Sonny] must have treated those [anxiety] pills like I used to, like they were magic. Take them and voila! you become your old self again, or someone else entirely, someone new and preferable--though the truth is that that broken person inside you still lives and breathes and merely hibernates until reawakened.” Since no one knows much about this woman--it doesn’t seem that anyone’s read her diary other than the reader--it’s hard to fathom what’s at stake. Why do Sonny and Robert care or feel invested in a woman neither truly know?
In the end, Dragonfish has the ability to disappoint readers. Things aren’t wrapped up like the finale of Clue, and we’re all going to be guessing. But the way Tran weaves stories of loss, ghosts, culture shock, and detective work is sure to please readers while they’re on the ride.
Melanie Page has an MFA from the University of Notre Dame and is an adjunct instructor in Indiana. She is the creator of Grab the Lapels, a site that publishes book reviews and interviews of folks who identify as women at grabthelapels.com.