By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
One sweltering afternoon in Ho Chi Minh City, known to the kids there as HCMC, I was heading up Dong Khoi, the legendary downtown street that, like a happy love affair, begins at a hotel and ends at a church. A 6-year-old boy in a faded Adidas T-shirt followed me shrieking, “You wan‘ grangree? Kwai mari can! Kwai mari can!”
Puzzled, I was about to walk on when he forced a shrink-wrapped book into my hands. It was a smeary bootleg paperback of The Quiet American, the 1955 novel that became famous for predicting the United States’ debacle in Vietnam before it had properly begun: The title character, Pyle, is an idealistic do-gooder whose naivete leads to disaster. “Grangree” -- Graham Greene.
It struck me as fitting that Saigon‘s hawkers should tout this book, for in a city constantly re-defined by different rulers, The Quiet American has remained an enduring touchstone, Greene’s ideas about Vietnam recycled by a thousand foreign correspondents during the war, and in the form of Philip Noyce‘s current screen adaptation, shaping our image of that country to this day. Still, thumbing through this faux Penguin back in my hotel, I found myself wondering why the landmark English-language book on Vietnam wasn’t written by one of the hundreds of thousands of Americans who once occupied that country.
Of course, it‘s hardly surprising that such a book would’ve been written by an Englishman, for Britain‘s major export seems to be writers who travel the world and write damnably well about every single place. Over the last century or so, they’ve set the standard for recording the tricky truths of empire. Be it Kipling and Forster in India, Conrad in the Congo (and the Far East and Latin America), Orwell in Burma, Cary in Nigeria, Lowry in Mexico, Burgess in Malaya or Greene all over the map -- not to mention such relative newcomers as John le Carre, William Boyd and Giles Foden -- these storytellers chart the realities of imperial life. They capture the clash of cultures, the g-and-t-fueled realities of everyday living, the blinkered values of the rulers and rebelliousness of the ruled.
In contrast, American writers have barely acknowledged that for decades we have been the world‘s dominant empire -- its tendrils (to be benign) or tentacles (sinister) extend everywhere. War novels aside, our imperialism has inspired shockingly little memorable fiction. There are no great American novels about the U.S. in the Philippines (which we took over in 1898), the postwar reconstruction of Japan and Germany, our military presence in South Korea (where we’ve stationed hundreds of thousands of soldiers for 50 years); no memorable novels about Iran, Saudi Arabia, Russia or China; closer to home, no defining tales of Panama, Mexico, Brazil, Chile or the Dominican Republic (Vargas Llosa wrote the showstopper there). When I think of Cuba, I instantly think not of literature but of Michael Corleone giving Fredo that killer‘s kiss.
There are, of course, exceptions -- Herman Melville on the South Seas, Joan Didion on Central America, Robert Stone on Israel, Norman Rush on Africa, Toni Morrison on the Caribbean, Paul Theroux on Southeast Asia (though he’s something of an honorary Brit) and William T. Vollmann on hookers worldwide. (It‘s striking how many Western novels about Asia, including The Quiet American, center on women paid for sex.) But what a meager crop for such a vast, fertile field. Few stories could be more compelling than that of Americans building an empire in the name of freedom, yet for every novel that tackles this subject -- for instance, Henry Bromell’s fine, undervalued Little America, about a CIA brat‘s inquest into his father’s role in the Middle East -- we have hundreds of tired literary novels about suburban adultery, dysfunctional families or growing up zany in the South. And it‘s too early to tell if this will change now that today’s globetrotting young writers have discovered what media-savvy Dave Eggers dubs the “fourth world,” the voluntarily free-floating souls who spend their time flitting around our lonely planet -- like the Lost Generation wannabes in Arthur Phillips‘ Prague or the goofy do-gooders Will and Hand in Eggers’ own You Shall Know Our Velocity, unquiet Americans who zoot blankly from land to land trying to hand out moola and win good karma.
If our fiction has largely ignored the daily business of the American Empire -- especially from a woman‘s point of view -- this may be because we’re essentially a big, inward-looking country whose citizens don‘t quite believe we have an empire. Just a few weeks ago on Charlie Rose, Chris Matthews was going on about how the U.S. has only rarely been colonialist. While this may be true technically, it doesn’t feel that way to other nations familiar with U.S. soldiers walking their soil (nearly 100 countries at the moment), their leaders being deposed when they challenge U.S. interests (thanks, Dr. Kissinger) and American logos covering their buildings much like imperial graffiti.
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