A Review of Elevator in Sài Gòn

Jasmine Liu
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How to make sense of your mother’s life when she dies after falling several flights from the top floor of her son’s, your brother’s, defective home elevator? This absurd incident, which opens Thuận’s Elevator in Sài Gòn, occasions the narrator’s return from Paris, where she has lived in exile for fifteen years. At the funeral in Sài Gòn, her brother has arranged for their mother’s portrait to be placed side by side with their father’s, but she finds the suggestion of them reuniting in death implausible, and fails to recall any “family scene” from her past. Instead of summoning fuzzy memories from her childhood, she spends the funeral musing on how her mother has managed to keep her face intact while her body has become unrecognizable. She calls her brother the “producer-cum-director” of their mother’s funeral-cum-movie, and credits their mother for her excellence in playing the part.

Back in France, she embarks on a quest to track down a certain Paul Polotsky, who appears with her mother in a mysterious old photograph, and might have been her mother’s
lover. She deduces that her mother, a loyal Việt Minh apparatchik, would have met him while under interrogation in a Hà Nội prison. The narrator is dogged about following Polotsky, and meets a bizarre cast of characters along the way.

She seems comfortable being a voyeur. Much like the narrator of Thuận’s Anglophone debut, Chinatown (2022), she often finds herself carried away by flights of fancy, so much so that it can be hard to tell what information she’s gleaning from her interlocutors and what she’s making up. On matters of love, she has a penchant for imagining melodramatic, grandiloquent narrative arcs. Watching Polotsky shop with his wife from afar, she imagines “a romance à la Stendhal,” though nothing about the scene invites the comparison. Some of her fantasies are still more hyperactive. She teaches a Vietnamese class, and imagines the circumstances behind one student’s prickliness: He must be getting a divorce. A divorce, specifically, from a wife wearing a light gray dress that shows off a “fleshy pair of thighs.” He was at court just this morning, she surmises, where he would have exclaimed to the judge: “I’m so done with that rule of yours, that once a man and a woman get married, they have to spend a lifetime together!” There is a vertiginous, far-sighted quality to the prose, owing to the shaky line between empirical observation and creative invention, and also to the fact that we learn more about errant strangers than we do about her son and his father.

Her basic paranoia is that everything in life is staged. In a ten-minute meeting with a prostitute whom Polotsky regularly visits, she draws the conclusion that the stray cat in the apartment is a prop. Soon she’s asking herself why this woman feels “the need to display her capability and desire to caress in front of me.” Her theories solidify into facts so quickly that it’s hard to keep track of reality. If appearances are unreliable, anything can be true.

Perhaps her distrust of the phenomenal world comes from her childhood, when she had to watch her mother perform the part of “Mrs. Socialist New Wife” day in and day out—which would explain her fixation on Polotsky, who symbolizes unruly desire, something her mother was never allowed to express in the role society assigned to her. Perhaps she also feels betrayed by the rapid, radical changes all around her. A communist country turned capitalist; loyalists turned opportunists. Polotsky eventually triggers a memory of the narrator’s ex, who was terse in daily life but affectionate while making love. As she dwells on these thoughts, her most unguarded voice emerges: “My own desire to make love to him stemmed from my wish to discover the human he aspired to be, the dream he hid deep inside himself, a dream known only to the two of us.” In Elevator in Sài Gòn, there are no resolutions, only points of departure; her investigation into her mother’s past life turns up only cryptic clues and red herrings. Love is an escape from the phoniness she is mired in, the stage play she has been cast in against her will, but it is spare. 

Publisher: New Directions Page count: 192 Price: $16.95 Key quote: “Deep in my heart, I felt that I, like all the others, was there only in order to act.” Shelve next to: Jhumpa Lahiri, Catherine Lacey Unscientifically calculated reading time: A distracted evening observing neighbors’ lives from a rear window

Jasmine Liu
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