Is it any wonder that the main sensory experience of reading Chinatown is a sort of claustrophobic discomfort?...I would sit down with the novel and, after an hour or so, find myself yawning furiously or falling into a trance indistinguishable from the half-sleep one enters on an extremely long bus ride...But that feels like the point: the narrator’s life is about as confined and isolated and marginal as you can get...She’s sardonic about the racism of her fellow teachers, whose distaste for her 'stress-inducing face' keeps her out of sight when she’s at work...I mentioned above that the narrator is unnamed, but in fact everyone she knows in France calls her Madame Âu — Thụy’s last name, and an ethnically Chinese one...Yet she doesn’t have any real connection to the Chinese French community in the thirteenth arrondissement: 'I can hardly run to them, grasp their hands and say, my husband is also ethnically Chinese'...She can’t afford to live in the neighborhood, anyway — instead, she commutes there by bus from Belleville to buy roast pigeon for Vĩnh...In one of her dreams she yells, “bù shì yuènán rén” ('I’m not Vietnamese' in Mandarin); in another, “bù shì zhōngguó rén” ('I’m not Chinese')...The narrator is doubly marginal, disconnected from any kind of community, having rejected her own nationality for her husband, only for him to reject her...Then, of course, there’s the fact that during the course of the book itself she’s immobile, literally trapped in a train car that’s neither departed nor arrived...Chinatown’s first and last sentences are rigid bookends that state the time on the narrator’s watch: the novel takes place over precisely two hours...Chinatown is sad, yes, but it’s also a delightfully prickly and defiantly inscrutable act of resistance: against simple narratives, against our aversion to what we don’t understand, and against anything soullessly practical...It insists that we make space for the things that don’t make sense, most of all our absurd dreams and longings.
Thuận is an intensely poetic writer. She relies so heavily on repetition that Chinatown's text often seems to have refrains, like a ghazal or villanelle would. In many writers' hands, this strategy could be deadening, but Thuận excels at creating momentum through language, and Nguyen An Lý translates that momentum beautifully. Chinatown exerts a near-tidal pull on the reader. I swallowed it down in one gulp.
Thuận deftly balances her complex content with a wryly confiding style. Making its English debut via Nguyễn An Lý’s incantatory translation, Chinatown’s generic title is deceptive, its compact length trapping layers of tensions to illustrate how political struggles in the public realm mirror emotional struggles in personal relationships. Subversive yet casually framed like a run-on conversation between friends, Thuận’s novel explores various iterations of Chinatown to convey exile, alienation, oppression, and artistic freedom ... This novel-within-a-novel structure embodies the ambiguous push-pull between oppression and freedom: Thuận’s protagonist roams ceaselessly yet neurotically in her imagination even as the main action is confined in both time and space.