Vincent Lam's first novel, about Vietnam, has makings of a masterpiece

John Barber, The Globe and Mail
April 22, 2012

W hatever happened to Vincent Lam – that nice young doctor who, after winning the Giller Prize oh-so-many years ago for his debut collection of short stories, once seemed certain to become the next big thing in Canadian literature?

The last we heard he had written a book about influenza prevention, falling far off the trajectory plotted for him by literary expectations. Some who remembered the great promise began to mutter the usual clichés.

But what if your sophomore effort is a masterpiece? Lam's hugely impressive first novel, The Headmaster's Wager, has all the markings. It is a project he has nurtured since his teens – the epic story of his own people, ground almost to oblivion on the bloody geopolitical fulcrum of the Vietnam War – and the result is as good a novel as anyone has ever written about those times.

Such things, Lam notes, do not "come on a platter." Especially if you wrote your masterpiece while working at least two shifts a week in the emergency room and helping to raise three children, all of whom arrived in quick succession following the 2006 Giller win for Bloodletting and Miraculous Cures.

It is a sunny spring day in the Toronto park that borders the Lam family's new home as the paterfamilias, still boyish at 37, describes his struggle. "For the first four years I felt as if I was dragging the book around," he says. "I felt as if the book was a big muddy rock that I was dragging around a wet field using my bare hands while naked."

And the only reason he didn't just give up, according to Lam, is that would have made him feel even worse than continuing to slog onward, "which still felt terrible."

He rewrote the entire book in the first person ("a terrible idea") and did it again in the voices of four different people ("just a complete disaster"). Words failed him. "I knew exactly how the book should feel," he says, "I just could not figure out how to make it feel that way."

But writers as studious and determined as Lam are never blocked. He pushed on until "something happened," he says, "and the book started to carry me."

Little of the early struggle shows in the pages of the published novel, which flow fast and smooth along an artfully twisting arc full of drama, intrigue and no small amount of horrifying violence. Lam distilled his immense research into a near-native feel for the sights, smells and personalities of his chosen milieu, mid-century Saigon – especially its Chinatown, the once-separate city of Cholon – and renders its tragedy with deep sympathy for badly flawed characters who are, in essence, his family.

It was hearing the real-life stories of his parents and grandparents as a child growing up in Nepean, Ont., – and simultaneously knowing that the community they described had vanished forever – that first inspired Lam to render them in fiction. He felt the need even more strongly as he read through all the standard English-language novels of the war.

"In a sense they added to the allure of the subject because I knew there was a whole other perspective," Lam says, ticking off the usual suspects – Graham Greene, Tim O'Brien, Marguerite Duras. "I knew that in the midst of their conversation was another voice."

In The Headmaster's Wager, Lam puts that voice in the mouth of Percival Chen, a wealthy, somewhat dissolute Chinese immigrant whose ambition to remain distant from the turmoil of his adopted country is rewarded by total immersion in its ultimate apocalypse. It departs from the norm not only in its fully realized Asian perspective, but also in its steady focus on the personal lies of ordinary people caught in the war.

But family stories and communal memory took him only so far, according to Lam. "There was a certain point where it was necessary for me to abandon them in order to get to the true emotional core as expressed in fiction," he says.

Although Lam was determined to write a novel that would seem wholly plausible to anyone who had lived in wartime Saigon, the fidelities he sought were above all emotional. "There can be an emotional truth to actual events, but it may be very hard to depict that truth by attempting to transcribe them," he says. "It may be that those emotional truths are much better expressed in a work of fiction."

Ultimately, it is those emotional truths that make The Headmaster's Wager such a powerful and engrossing work. It took some time for the author to locate them – they didn't come on a platter – but no one will second-guess the polite young doctor from Nepean once his long-awaited first novel arrives in bookstores this week.

© The Globe and Mail 2012