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THE DEEP GREEN SEA. By Robert Olen Butler . Henry Holt: 226 pp., $23

January 25, 1998|SUSIE LINFIELD | Susie Linfield is the acting director of the Cultural Reporting and Criticism Program at New York University. She is a contributing writer to Book Review

"The Deep Green Sea" opens with Le Thi Tien, a 26-year-old Vietnamese girl, in bed with Benjamin Cole, a 48-year-old American vet. They are strangers, and they make love: the passionate, earth-moving, life-shattering kind. Tien has told Ben three things: that she is a virgin; that her mother, who was a prostitute, is dead; and that her father, whom she never met and who was an American GI, is also deceased. The first two statements are lies. The last one, which she fervently believes--it is, in fact, the sun around which her emotional life revolves--will also turn out to be untrue. And it will set the stage for what is meant to be the tragic love story of Tien and Ben.

Like the classical genre to which it aspires, "The Deep Green Sea" raises such fundamental moral questions as: What is the price of knowledge and of truth, and what is the difference between them? Do we commit a sin against others when we deceive ourselves? What happens when we try to protect those we love by lying to them? What is the price of memory, and what happens to those who attempt to extinguish it?

Unfortunately, though, another question, both moral and literary, is raised by Butler's new novel: What happens when a writer begins to cannibalize his own work? Many, if not most, of "The Deep Green Sea's" themes--memory and forgetting, incest, suicide, prostitution, erotic love, the Vietnam War--were mined in his previous novel, "They Whisper," a deeply flawed but nonetheless densely, beautifully evocative book. What we are presented with now, though, is Butler Lite.

Tien and Ben meet one day on a street in present-day Ho Chi Minh City and have a brief conversation about dogs; almost immediately, they are irrevocably in love. They know that they are meant for each other. They know that they are now complete. They know that this is It.

What's wrong with this picture is not exactly that it's unrealistic; no doubt such things do happen and such feelings are felt every day all over the globe. The problem with Butler's scenario is not so much that it's unconvincing as that it's simply so uninteresting. He has dispensed with characterization, with individuality, with the quirky, funny, unexpected, peculiar, tortuous, complicated ways in which people fall in love--dispensed, that is, with everything that might engage us. As readers at the end of the 20th century, we expect more from a love story than the quickie that Butler offers here. What Lionel Trilling wrote of Alexander Portnoy's neuroses applies equally well to Butler's brand of romance: "Whatever considerations of this kind may mean to us within the four walls of our private lives, as the material of art they seem no longer to make their old claim upon the imagination."

In any case, in this instant paradise a very nasty snake soon appears. It turns out that--surprise!--while on his tour of duty in Vietnam, Ben became involved with a Vietnamese prostitute, and he begins to suspect that Tien may be his daughter. Alas, the reader may begin to harbor similar suspicions way before the lovers, since Tien "smell[s] the smoke of my father's soul" the very first time Ben kisses her. Nonetheless, she is sure Ben's fears are baseless.

Both Tien and Ben are in flight from their memories--personal, familial, historical; their love affair is not so much an intricate melding together of two life stories as it is the attempt to simplistically erase any story at all. When Saigon fell (or was liberated, depending on your perspective), Tien was abandoned by her mother on the pretext that prostitutes and their children would be punished. But though the punishments never came to pass, Tien's mother did not return. Now Tien tries to convince herself that her mother is dead, or that her mother's abandonment is a form of love; in any case, she insists, "I am no one's child" (just the sort of claim, the Greeks knew, that it's probably best to avoid). Only at the end of the book does Tien admit that her mother "saved her own life from a threat that never was, and after that, she wanted nothing from the past, including her daughter."

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