I WAS 12 YEARS OLD when my mother told me about her father, my grandfather, who was still alive at the time. The story — filled with politics from post-World War II Communist China — enthralled me, but it felt as foreign and distant to me as the Cold War. I wanted to know more, but my mother shook her head and said that her own father wouldn’t talk about it. “Let’s live in the present,” my grandfather told her, and so we did, never speaking about it again. Even my parents rarely spoke of their early days as immigrants to the United States. There was nothing to expand on, they said.
We’re left to shoulder the burdens of our ancestors in a new country without knowing or understanding their experiences. We share our lives with family having never learned about the most crucial parts of them. For years I didn’t realize how little I knew about the experiences that influenced my parents’ decision-making.
I was reminded of that dilemma — of knowing someone but not truly understanding them — while reading Vu Tran’s Dragonfish. The novel centers on the story of Bob Ruen and his search for answers in Las Vegas after his ex-wife disappears. Dragonfish is partly mystery, partly an immigrant story, and partly about loss and heartbreak. An Oakland cop, Bob was married for eight years to Suzy, a Vietnamese immigrant. Two years after the divorce, Bob still can’t stop thinking about her. She had remarried an angry, violent Vietnamese smuggler and gambler named Sonny. Now, as she often did during her marriage to Bob and even throughout her marriage to Sonny, Suzy has vanished. But this time she doesn’t come back and leaves everything she owns except her car and her purse behind. Bob’s investigation into this disappearance forces him to realize how little he knew about her in the first place.
Suzy — whom the readers never directly meet — is elusive, characterized only in the descriptions made of her by others: by Bob, by Sonny, by her best friend Happy, and in letters that Suzy writes to someone she knew in the past. Neither is Suzy a likeable character by any means. She’s flighty, hard to get to know, and has a difficult personality. She’s walked out on almost everyone she loves, including the various families that she’s formed over the years — on her daughter, Bob, and Sonny. Yet through Suzy’s letters, which are interspersed throughout the novel, her reasoning and kindness, however misplaced, are revealed. All Suzy wanted to do was survive, from living in war-torn Vietnam to the Malaysian refugee camp where “rats the size of cats squeaked along the empty pathways” and beds were cardboard pallets — to finally settling in the United States.
In the pilot episode of The Good Wife, a show about a former housewife’s return to her law career after her governor husband’s sex and corruption scandal, one character says to Alicia, the protagonist, “You know what I don't get? Why you stood by him. I would've stuck a knife in his heart.” Alicia replies, “I always thought I would, too. When I heard about those other scandals, the other wives … I thought: how can you allow yourself to be used like that? And then it happened and I was … unprepared.” It’s the same with Dragonfish. None of the characters in the novel are particularly likeable, and neither are their actions. It’s even sometimes hard to root for the characters, but Tran’s ability to humanize them, even the most dislikeable ones, is one of his strengths.
At times, Bob is the stereotypical white savior: he is actively trying to find out the truth about Suzy; he’s the hero swooping in, hotheaded and with a tendency toward violence during conflicts. When he reflects on Suzy early in the book he says, “Suzy had always been rash like this, blindfolded half the time — a hungry infant one day, a sullen child the next.” He never really saw Suzy, the one who could survive, during their marriage. Instead saw her as a child. Bob falsely assumed that because she lashed out and was prone to leaving that she also needed saving.
Bob is also the outsider in this novel of Vietnamese characters who all have a silent understanding of the culture. He’s gone so far as to rename Suzy, whose real name was Hong, in a strange way of trying to make Suzy fit in during their marriage. He says early in the book, “Her real name was Hong, which meant ‘pink’ or ‘rose’ in Vietnamese. But it sounded a bit piggish the way Americans pronounced it, so I suggested the name of my first girlfriend in high school.” He mistakenly feels that she needs to assimilate and cares for her enough to think that people wouldn’t understand the delicate meaning behind her name. Bob is selfish, but his adoration of Suzy/Hong is almost tragic. He only truly learns about her life — and the consequences of her decisions, both in Vietnam and in the United States — years after their divorce.
It’s hard to find the physical Suzy in the book. Suzy’s stepson Junior says early on, “Do you know why fish swim in schools? To protect themselves. To move more easily.” The metaphorical fish swim around Suzy, maybe not simply to protect her, but to redeem themselves of past sins. Many of the characters have emotional ties to Suzy, whether she guilt-tripped them into helping her disappear or because of a shared past. Due to these connections, the characters — whether it’s Bob, Suzy’s daughter, or someone who mostly watched Suzy from afar — will go to lengths to aid Suzy, attempting to ease their own minds. Some search for a sense of family, others for redemption. However, whether they’re participating in Suzy’s disappearance or aiding in finding her, each character’s actions only serve to obscure Suzy even further.
In a 2011 interview with the Las Vegas Review of Books blog, Vu Tran says of Vegas: “[It] is always making itself over. It’s always renewing itself. It’s a place of endless optimism.” Yet the Vegas in Dragonfish is cutthroat and pitiless. It matters not where you come from, nor where you’re going. All that matters is who you are now. It is against this backdrop that the Vietnamese characters of the novel must survive their new lives, painted starker by their pasts. They’ve survived refugee camps and war, but there is a mental challenge that they haven’t overcome — coming to terms with the memories. The characters cannot erase their past, of the aftermath of war, so they cope by burying it, by “living in the present.” This is only a temporary fix, of course, and eventually their pasts unravel before their eyes again. And despite their collective experience, it is a single woman’s disappearance which breaks down everything.
Tran cites F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby as an influence while writing Dragonfish, and certainly the themes of social reinvention are present in Tran’s novel. A constructed life — whether it’s true or false, Hong or Suzy — falls apart via the narration of another character. But so is Gatsby’s wistful yet tragic longing for love and acceptance present in Dragonfish, and in hyper drive, painted more vibrant with the clash of cultures and experiences — Vietnamese and American. Like Gatsby, the characters in Tran’s novel yearn for something unattainable. Sonny and Bob yearn after Suzy, and one of Sonny’s workers, who plays a part in the search for Suzy, yearns for the semblance of a family. This and the feeling that there will only be a tragic end are what elevate Dragonfish beyond its bookstore genre.
The dragonfish, also known as the Asian arowana, is listed as an endangered species. They’re strikingly beautiful, with large metallic scales of delicate netting. They are also carnivorous, with sharp teeth distributed throughout their mouths, and when raised in captivity, dragonfish can sometimes escape aquariums without sturdy covering due to their ability to leap. This duality of the dragonfish — beautiful yet with a bite — extends also to Suzy. She’s somehow created a dangerous web of intrigue around her, despite her tendency to escape. Even at the end of the novel, Suzy remains as elusive a character as the dragonfish. She’s a ghost, both everywhere and nowhere, her true intentions and feelings only guessed. Her choices and the consequences still ring loud days, weeks, and years later. Perhaps that’s the point, to remind us that we’re all shaped by our experiences, whether we want to be or not — that immigrants, as well as their children, are surrounded by their past, even when unspoken. That the aftermath of their choices is always present.