The Deep Green Sea

David L. Ulin reviews 'The Deep Green Sea' by Robert Olen Butler

Published January 16, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

What's the role of fate in our lives? Is it an illusion, or something substantial, a force whose influence we truly can't escape? Living, as we do, in a rational universe, it's reassuring to believe the former, but, really, there's no way to be sure. As Robert Olen Butler writes in his eighth novel, "The Deep Green Sea," "For a year, here in Vietnam, I woke up every day and I was scared and I could see people dying, or walking around and about to die, not even realizing what was next, though it was like it was all arranged somehow, because tomorrow's death roster was going to be whatever it was going to be, and it could be me who was chosen, and I never lost a sense of that."

In "The Deep Green Sea" the weight of destiny has a nearly physical pull. Moving fluidly between Benjamin Cole, a Vietnam vet who returns to Ho Chi Minh City after nearly 30 years to recapture a part of himself that "got stuck over here, [that] failed to make it onto the plane back home in 1967," and Tien, a Saigon tourist guide in her 20s who was abandoned by her prostitute mother on the eve of Saigon's liberation in 1975, the book traces a relationship that seems ordained by history itself. For Ben and Tien, this unexpected bond is a revelation, a promise that they still might be made complete, in spite of all they've lost. Yet as "The Deep Green Sea" progresses, their happiness is complicated by Ben's suspicion that the bar girl with whom he had an affair during the war might have been Tien's mother.

This, of course, is the stuff of classical tragedy, and Butler plays it up by peppering his narrative with references to Vietnamese mythology, most tellingly a legend about a dragon who came from the South China Sea and married a princess, with whom he populated the nation of Vietnam. Unfortunately, though tragedy should feel inevitable and universal, "The Deep Green Sea" mostly seems contrived. The novel's claustrophobic construction limits Butler's palette, and Ben and Tien are not only its narrators but, essentially, its only characters. His prose veers from starkly lucid to stereotypically sentimental, as if he were writing "The Bridges of Vietnam." Even more problematic, Butler telegraphs his intentions from the first page. That may be how fate works, but it doesn't make for compelling drama, and you can't help wishing he'd throw a curveball, if only to keep his readers on their toes.

Butler should know better -- he has won a Pulitzer Prize, after all. Certainly, Butler's effort to merge myth and history is a significant one, an attempt to frame a literature that has to do with more than telling stories, but speaks to the deepest core of who we are. That he falls short may be the true tragedy of this novel, and only makes its failure more profound.

By David L. Ulin

David L. Ulin is the author of "The Myth of Solid Ground: Earthquakes, Prediction, and the Fault Line Between Reason and Faith," just out in paperback from Penguin Books.

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