When I was younger, I’d get this recurring nightmare of finding myself in the middle of the ocean with no one in sight. And although I don’t remember those nightmares lasting very long, they were always quite terrifying nonetheless; The feeling of helplessness and vulnerability stuck with me for several years, leaving me afraid of the ocean until my early teens.
This fear from a hostile environment is something that Le Thi Diem Thuy very clearly understands, as her use of a ‘drifting’ image in the second paragraph of her novel The Gangsters We Are All Looking For very clearly establishes the same feeling of danger that I’d felt in my young nightmares. Thuy uses this image while describing the movements of the narrator and her family across a wide ocean expanse, as they “floated across the sea, first in the hold of the fishing boat, and then in the hold of a U.S. Navy Ship” (Thuy 3). While this fear of watery depths would translate quite cleanly to many uncertain ocean journeys, Thuy’s word choice accentuates the fear factor: The group has “floated” across the sea adds an element of survival and randomness to the trip, where describing it more directly as a ‘trip’ or ‘travel’ would have diminished that aspect.
Furthermore, the same paragraph sees Thuy extending the theme of motion through hostile environments from the sea to the skies, as the narrator describes the family’s travels through airports as well: “We were lifted high over the Pacific Ocean. Holding onto one another, we moved through clouds, ghost vapors, time zomes” (Thuy 4). The theme of motion without direction appears again, this time acting in the opposite way it did during the previous quote. The family’s motion through “clouds, ghost vapors, [and] time zones”, all of which are quite expansive and difficult to move through quickly, creates a sense of blurred motion too quick and too rapid to be safe or controlled. Rather than focus on the movement through a single time zone or cloud, the quote includes all three with little consequence, giving readers a sense of the family’s rapid speed through these sequences.
In both situations, however, the family is being protected by a fairly appropriate form of transport: A boat through the water, and a plane through the skies. But while this is true in the physical action of these situations, Thuy takes great care to attempt to remove that safety barrier from the image that readers will create in their own minds. This is accomplished in similar ways during both images: Although Thuy acknowledges the boats later in the line for the sake of clarity, the floating scene mentions “we”, or the family, as the ones who are floating. Note the effect this has: Editing this quote as to say ‘the boat floated across the sea’ does not carry nearly the same level of weight and desperation as ‘we floated across the sea’. The same effect shines through during the image of air travel, but even more strongly so. Thuy writes, “we were lifted high over the Pacific ocean. Holding on to one another…” (Thuy 4). The careful removal of the airplane in these lines loosens the barrier between the narrator’s family and a very, very long fall. Without the plane to protect them, Thuy implies the family is forced to hold onto one another in order to keep from dropping off one by one, and that they are being “lifted high over the Pacific ocean” once again by a force not entirely within their control (Thuy 4). Using these images to disrupt the barriers to safety for travel across long and hostile environments, Thuy makes these travel far more terrifying than modern modes of transportation normally allow them to be.
Lê, Thi Diem Thúy. The Gangster We Are All Looking For. Anchor Books, 2004.