The Refugees | Viet Thanh Nguyen
The Refugees is a difficult book to dislike due to the timeliness of its resistance to the bigotry that surrounds us. It is, however, just as difficult for me to like.
Things wrap up too neatly. The parallel plots and symbolism are far too on-the-nose; characters behave and emotionally progress in precisely the ways expected of literary characters. (Ah, here is the twist, and now he repents. Ah, here the lie is revealed, and her illusions are shattered. Ah, she burns the photographs.)
Likewise, the intention of each sentence and paragraph is too evident for artistic appreciation. I was constantly aware: here Nguyen is making a point of extensively describing Vietnamese cuisine, here he is drawing parallels between WWII Japan and postwar Vietnam, here he is subverting expectations that an Asian-American household must be an Asian-White household, here he is punning "ghostwriter" with "ghost". Take note of this dichotomy HERE. Recognize this fallacy NOW.
There is nothing wrong with any of this: I would like to describe and subvert the same things in my own writing. But something about the overtness of authorial intention strips away the fun. I wonder if I am too influenced by the knowledge of Nguyen's background, but nevertheless his fiction feels academic — thesis statement declares intention of work, topic sentence states intention of paragraph. It all reminds me of what film critic A.O. Scott once said about "The Suffragettes": Is it good? Not really. Would I show it to my kids? Yes.