Viet Thanh Nguyen - 'A Man of Two Faces: A Memoir. A History. A Memorial'
An author's battle with where he grew up, who he is, and where he's at.
It takes a skilled author to not only write about sex and deficiency in a successful way, but to add and twist those matters into a coherent knot of a story that includes true love is nothing less than worthy of celebration.
Nolan has managed to write a debut novel that is odd. More coherent than Genet, more back-and-forth than Burroughs, less succinct than Garth Greenwell, Nolan may be the modern author we need to write about relationships.
An unnamed first perspective female is the protagonist. We follow her as she meets Cieran, ‘the most beautiful man I’ve ever seen’, and progresses to analyse as much as fall herself in love. Cieran is the subject of her desire and the feeling is mutual, until the protagonist discovers that he’s still in touch with his ex, and things turn two-faced.
A tenth into the book, and it felt simplistic and predictable to me. I felt the tone of the book, it was fair, but I thought I’d get nothing more out of it. I read on, and discovered more layers.
Remember the young days drenched in lust and alcohol? Even if you’ve never been there, Nolan will take you there, in a caleidoscopic way. Nearly like Alice’s initial fall through Wonderland, our protagonist goes through many different emotions and settings, in Dublin and Athens, jumping years at a time, without the story becoming pretentious in a bad way.
The book carries the debutante’s touch: paragraphs are here to impress, but they are deftly arranged so that we overlook the beginner’s wont to be different, to mistake impression for style. Yet, this being Nolan’s first book, it’s an impressive first effort. It takes guts and strength to write paragraphs in this way:
‘These people aren’t my friends. Just because you and I sleep together, it doesn’t make them my friends.’ I didn’t know how to respond to this. ‘Sleeping together’ was the least generous reading of what had been going on between us and could only have been intended to hurt me. I lowered my head and let myself cry, aware of people I knew looking at me from the gallery porch and whispering to each other. ‘What?’ he said. ‘Did you want me to say I’m falling in love with you? Because I’m not.’ ‘No,’ I said, and feeling that I had no more energy to do whatever we were doing, I turned and walked towards home.
When I was a child and my cat was hit by a speeding car that didn’t stop, he lay out in the shed that night waiting to be buried. I crept out into the damp mossy darkness after everyone was asleep and drew back the blanket he was beneath. I put my hand on his familiar ginger stomach but of course it was wrong in every conceivable way: freezing where it should have been warm, stiff as new cardboard where it should have been soft. Feeling this wrongness I knew it was true at last, and couldn’t believe it. I kept on stroking and stroking him, making deals with God. Thinking, If I stand here all night; thinking maybe if I stroked the awful, dead-thing stomach one thousand times exactly, thinking, Please, please, God, send him back to me, give him back to me, I won’t stop asking.
Nolan allows the book to breathe, in a non-obvious way. There are many things that could go wrong, but Nolan graciously avoids most pitfalls; as a result, the love story isn’t really a love story, but an in-depth gaze into part of the human experience, one that’s gripping, lovely, horrendous, cringeworthy, and scary.
Things like alcohol, your lover’s ex, heartache, friendship, lies: get it here.
I look forward to reading Nolan’s next book.