Monday, March 12, 2012

"Tall Tales from the Mekong Delta:" An Analysis

This story is, to say the least, off-putting to a casual reader. I know I was thrown by the seemingly inexplicable behavior of Lenny and the nameless female protagonist. To focus specifically on the narratological aspects of this work, it is a highly frenetic and multi-faceted piece, where Lenny's crisp, staccato conversation only occurs in short bursts, rapid-fire like one of the guns he used in the Mekong Delta; by comparison, the narrator has long, flowery, vivid descriptive passages that abound with references to color and flowers. They are opposite in their analysis of the world around them, with the woman playing the role of the cautious, careful recovering addict and Lenny playing the chaotic force of addiction attempting to enter her life. In the end, of course, he succeeds on a literal and symbolic level. Literally, she allows him into her life and gets caught up in what he calls "the other side" (91), and symbolically he is ultimately the demon of addiction who sends the narrator back to the bottle. As they drink just before he disappears (because his work is done and manifesting itself independently within the protagonist) she thinks to herself "when this glass was finished she would pour another. When the bottle was empty she would buy another" (107).
The story is heterodiegetic, in that the narrator is not directly involved in the story, which allows for an impartial view of the two characters, though it is also limited in only being able to follow the female protagonist's thoughts. This works well with the idea of Lenny as an avatar for addiction; his behavior is erratic and unpredictable, which would not be possible if the narrator were able to describe what he was thinking or feeling at any given moment. From a strictly aesthetic standpoint, the story would not operate as well as a homodiegetic piece, from the point of view of the woman or Lenny, because it would detract from their relationship and from the powerful descriptions given throughout. Were the female protagonist the narrator, the reader would have a hard time believing she were actively thinking and describing everything with the same intensity that we see here; even a creative writing teacher wouldn't go around describing the afternoon as "absinthe yellow and almond, burnt orange and chrysanthemum," with the sky filled by "a litany of kites" (93). Similarly, Lenny's narration of the story would become grating and hard-boiled, like a James Cain novel, very pulpy and not attractive to the same audiences that "Tall Tales" is.

Ultimately, "Tall Tales from the Mekong Delta" is, to me, a parable about the perils of addiction and its inexplicable power over an individual. The protagonist gives no real reason for following Lenny as she does, and every time she stops to think about her actions he tells her "You want to." He coerces her into doing these things, just as a formerly addictive habit still lurks in the back of one's mind. The unfortunate thing for the protagonist is she is unable to get away. She can't fight back the encroaching addiction, and at the story's end it finally overwhelms her as an "infected blue enormity [...] that knows you and where you live and [is] never going to forget" (107).

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