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Things Left Unspoken Haunt Hard-Hitting 'Dragonfish'

The spoken word doesn't count for much in Vu Tran's hard-hitting debut novel, Dragonfish. The book turns on a few weary confessional speeches, but what people write is usually much more important than what they say. A secret diary, a series of anguished notes, and multiple caches of hidden letters all play significant roles. In Tran's story, it's nearly impossible for people to say what they feel, but tamping down their emotions is endlessly destructive. The only solution is to pour everything onto paper, and hope the results will eventually find the right audience — even if the writers can't bear to deliver their revelations themselves.

Dragonfish's protagonist, Robert Ruen, is an Oakland patrol cop called on to play detective. His wife Suzy, a volatile Vietnamese refugee he married for her spirit, divorced him after eight years of mixed mutual comfort and mutual abuse that finally turned physical. She married another man, a fellow refugee and Las Vegas criminal named Sonny, and stayed with him even when he broke her arm. But when Suzy disappears, Sonny calls on Robert to track her down, trusting in Robert's confused, forlorn love (and a bit of blackmail) to make sure he follows through.

Dragonfish looks like a classic noir, with a tough detective patsy, a femme fatale using him against her rich, dangerous husband, and a suitcase stuffed with stolen cash. But while Tran packs in the familiar conventions, he does more to subvert the genre than to work within it. Robert isn't much of a detective — he spends more time exploring his own memories and lashing out randomly than in thoughtful deduction. Sonny isn't a mastermind or a victim so much as he is a thug, as damaged by the past as Suzy. And Suzy makes it clear in her secret diary that she's as baffling to herself as she is to everyone else. She isn't a manipulator, just a traumatized woman who can't connect with other people, even her own daughter. Her presence sparks needs in other people, but she can barely deal with her own.

That often makes the book's central mystery unsatisfying, since Suzy's past and present never entirely connect. Her depressions, her fury, her strange behavior — like walking into a Catholic church to numbly pop Eucharist wafers into her mouth like potato chips — mystify Robert and her best friend Happy, and Tran never dips into Suzy's present perspective to see what she's thinking. She's a void at the center of the story, revealed only by absence and reportage from the women around her.

All of which speaks to the book's basic divide between the genders, and a feeling of an unbridgeable gulf between them. Suzy, Happy, and Suzy's long-estranged daughter all collude on secrets the book's men can't understand, and don't try to. Sonny and Robert are fixated on turning Suzy into a upbeat, idealized wife, but they're too impatient and uncomprehending to break past her erratic silence. Meanwhile, the men share their own collusion over their shared feelings about Suzy. And Sonny's devoted son and cadre of loyal thugs bring their own separate takes to the situation. At heart, this is a book about people who feel they love each other, but can't extend their affection into empathy or comprehension.

Dragonfish has some of the straightforward bluntness of classic crime fiction, with the genre's devotion to action over lyricism. Robert's classic-P.I. doggedness in pursuing the case through threats and arm-twisting gives the book a plodding, shoe-leather feel, but the emphasis on confrontation keeps the story moving briskly.

Still, Dragonfish is most effective when it moves past the physical world. Suzy is convinced at various points that she's seeing ghosts, and her practical attitude toward these hauntings provides some of the book's most memorable tensions. And throughout the story, she's a ghost herself — a spooky memory for other characters, a hazy reminder of past horrors, and a shadow of who she was in happier times. She's a mystery no one can solve, particularly the people turning all their efforts in the wrong direction. But while their efforts aren't fruitful, they're absorbing. And they speak to the way everyone is a bit of an enigma to other people, no matter how many words they put into the effort to be understood.

Tasha Robinson is a freelance writer and a former Senior Editor at The Dissolve and The A.V. Club.

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Tasha Robinson