Robert Olen Butler Long Fiction Analysis
Robert Olen Butler’s novels are notable for their depth of psychological insight. All his works depend heavily on presenting the perspectives and shifting emotions of characters, particularly characters caught in crises. His writing attempts to enter and follow the private thoughts of troubled people. Tensions and unresolved conflicts, especially sexual and romantic tensions between men and women, are central to his fiction. These men and women are usually placed in stormy social and historical situations, such as the Vietnam War and its aftermath or the class struggles of the Great Depression, but Butler is always interested more in how events in the world complicate the private relationships of individuals than he is in social problems or questions of ideology.
Butler’s characters tend to be lonely people struggling to make contact with one another. Differences in culture complicate these efforts at contact. Many of Butler’s Vietnam novels examine emotional and sexual involvements between an American soldier or veteran and a Vietnamese woman. In interviews, Butler has maintained that although the novels are set in Vietnam, the country itself is not the theme of his work, and the romantic entanglements of war are not his main concern. Instead, he sees Vietnam as a metaphor for the human condition, and he sees its tragedy as a specific instance of continual human tragedy. The cultural gaps between Western men and Asian women, similarly, are concrete examples of the distances that exist between all persons and of the often unbridgeable gaps between men and women.
Butler’s novels are frequently connected to one another in characters and in themes. His first three novels form a loose trilogy, as they deal with the postwar experiences of three men who served in the same intelligence unit in Vietnam. A central character in one of Butler’s books will often appear as a minor character in another, so that each narrative seems to be part of a single larger fictional world.
The style of Butler’s writing is usually spare and stark, relying on unadorned, simple sentences. He often employs a traditional, invisible, omniscient narrator who relates the thoughts and feelings of the characters as well as the settings of the story; this time-honored fictional strategy may seem a bit old-fashioned and artificial to some readers. Butler also uses the first-person interior monologue, as in The Deep Green Sea, in which the entire story unravels through the thoughts of the twoprotagonists. In Mr. Spaceman, the interior monologue of an extraterrestrial alien becomes the monologues of different human beings as the alien explores the life of each.
Critics have generally identified a tendency to lapse into melodrama as the greatest weakness in Butler’s fiction. His works strive to achieve a high seriousness and a moral and emotional intensity that is sometimes difficult to sustain. Butler’s background in theater may be the reason his work seems sometimes excessively staged and self-consciously tragic.
The Alleys of Eden
The Alleys of Eden, Butler’s first novel, treats the conflict between Vietnamese and American cultures and contemplates the destructiveness of the Vietnam War for both of these. Its two main characters are Cliff Wilkes, a deserter from the U.S. Army in Vietnam, and Lanh, a Vietnamese bar girl and Cliff’s lover. The novel is, appropriately, divided into two parts. The first part is set in Saigon in the last few days before the city’s fall to the Communist forces of the North Vietnamese. The second part takes place in the United States, after Cliff and Lanh manage to flee.
Cliff had been with the Army intelligence unit, but he deserted after the torture and killing of a Viet Cong captive. Fluent in Vietnamese, he has come to feel himself more Vietnamese than American, but barriers continue to exist between him and his adopted country. He awaits the arrival of the North Vietnamese in a room that he has shared with Lanh for five years, since his desertion. As Cliff’s memories move through his past, the scene shifts from images of his time with military intelligence to his failed marriage to his family in Illinois. At the last minute, Cliff decides to flee, and he convinces Lanh to join him. They make it onto one of the last helicopters out of the city.
On a ship heading back to the United States, the deserter passes himself off as a journalist and then runs away before being fingerprinted in California. Reunited with Lanh, he returns to Illinois. There, the two find that Lanh’s struggles to adapt to an unfamiliar world and Cliff’s uncertainties about his past and his future place too much strain on their love for each other, and Cliff ultimately leaves alone for Canada.
Told primarily from Cliff’s perspective, The Alleys of Eden is impressive for its evocation of his collage of memories. The strategy of dividing the novel into a Vietnamese half and an American half is in some respects an effective way of structuring the plot to highlight the troubled love of Cliff and Lanh. However, the second half of the novel is also anticlimactic, after the review of Cliff’s troubled past and the sudden flight through the alleys of Saigon, and the...
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