Waiting for King Lear

Consider the following passage as representative of the entire narrative of Linda L?’s disquieting novel, The Three Fates:

“The wedding photos had arrived in a large envelope, dropped by one of those airborne lice that furrowed the blue vellum above Saigon. King Lear was watering his garden, under the watchful eye of the Wheezer, who had been kept in bed all week by a bout of malaria and had arrived at the gate of the blue house early that morning for his little pick-me-up, craving those lousy eels that had appeared to him in slimy parades, mocking him for seven feverish days and nights. They stretched out before him, long, dark, roly-poly, and slippery. Enough to drive a sleeper who was already going stir-crazy off the deep end. Barely recovered, his body still shaking, the Wheezer had slammed his door behind him and hoofed it to his friend’s: he needed a good double portion to put him right. So imagine his sentiments toward the large envelope that, no doubt about it, would scramble King Lear’s brains, make his hands shake and his eyes tear up. And the eels would be ruined. There was no room in cooking for emotion. You needed a steady hand, a clear eye, a precise chop, an expert slice. At the first sight of the large envelope, the bugger had already spilled half his water and trod on a clump of perky little flowers, which had bedded out during the Wheezer’s eclipse. In the time it took to bring the envelope inside, King Lear had mastered his pounding ticker. He righted the trampled flowers and the two friends went off together to market. The envelope remained on the table.”

King Lear?or more accurately the aged parent?remained in Saigon, twenty years earlier, when his two young daughters and their female cousin were whisked out of Vietnam, just as the Americans departed and the Communists arrived. The three girls were brought by their grandmother, a.k.a. Lady Jackal, while Lear was all but abandoned in Saigon. Now it’s years later, and the three women are in their twenties, fully matured harpies, self-centered and concerned with no one else?especially the fate of the old man who remained in Vietnam.

Lear has a retainer, Wheezer (the Fool), and as he approaches old age his daughters (nick-named Southpaw and Long Legs) have decided to invite him to France to visit them?or, more accurately, to taunt him. Their cousin, more rational that the other two women, urges them to leave him alone in Vietnam. The envelope with Long Legs’ wedding photos presumably will act as a teaser so the old man will also want to visit his daughters–in part because Saigon has changed so dramatically that it is almost unrecognizable: “Its fluorescent neons that winked at the modern age, its air conditioners that hummed like fighter planes about to drop their payload, its stucco pilings supporting businesses mounted in a snap, with a rustle of greenbacks that tickled the sharpened hearing of the porters newly sprouting up on the sidewalks, sneezing at the drafts of air, flicking away the last scruples of socialism like dust that blended with the exhaust from vrooming scooters and the thick black smoke from factories growing under the capitalist sun at its zenith.”

The reference to red capitalism in Vietnam dovetails with the obsession that Southpaw and Long Legs have with money, opulence and decadence. The grotesque description of Long Legs’ wedding reads like something out of Edgar Allen Poe. The story gets nasty, emotions turn ugly, the prose?too often?purple, though obviously appropriate one-upping Lear’s maligned daughters in this modern version of Shakespeare’s masterpiece.

Linda L?’s idea for a contemporary rendering of King Lear is commendable?but better suited for a short story than a novel. Mark Polizzotti’s job as translator must have been a challenge.

The Three Fates
By Linda L?
Trans. by Mark Polizzotti
New Directions, 170 pp., $15.95

CHARLES R. LARSON is Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C.




Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email = clarson@american.edu. Twitter @LarsonChuck.