Linh Dinh, Blood and Soap
Review by Tony Pennay

Language is a game poets play better than the rest of us.

After reading Blood and Soap I have a picture in my mind of a straight-faced Linh Dinh, seated at the other end of a poker table. His lips are so tight and his brows are so furrowed I am not sure they are lips or brows at all. They might be tiny fissures in my sanity, and I have a feeling this is the way Dinh would want it. I picture him staring intently at my meager horde of chips, daring me to call his bluff. Then, just as I believe I have figured him out, just as I convince myself that I know what to expect from him, just as I push the rest of my chips to the center of the table, he smirks at me and turns away.

Blood and Soap is a colorful mosaic of sublime and disturbing vignettes in which Dinh takes great delight in the annihilation of expectation. It is a world where violent death is linked to beautiful cheese. A world where men are elated at the vinyl of an airplane cabin. A world where people of indeterminate origins anticipate the beauty and freedom of an indeterminate future. Where the vagaries of past and future combine to form a delightfully painful present. In Blood and Soap common sense and practical wisdom are destroyed by the slings and arrows of absurdity, and a new paradigm of senseless meaning exists.

As an English teacher, I have heard many times of the importance of vocabulary. Words, it is said, are the building blocks of language. Mastery of language leads to excellent communication skills. And powerful communication skills lead, inevitably, to immeasurable success, vast fortunes, and the admiration of humans everywhere. For Dinh, though, there is more to language than simply acquiring words. In “Prisoner with a Dictionary,” Dinh introduces us to a prisoner who finds “in his otherwise empty cell a foreign dictionary.” At first he uses the dictionary to wipe himself. Then, because he is bored, the prisoner decides to memorize the dictionary from front to back. “His main virtue and the main curse of his life, was the ability to follow through on any course of action once he had set his mind to it.” Here, determination is neither a quality to be lauded or laughed at; rather, it is a gray and nebulous character trait that is both virtue and curse. Dinh’s prisoner with a dictionary is not the determined Malcolm X who stumbles across “aardvark” and becomes a powerful national figure. Instead, these meaningless foreign words fill this prisoner with expectation.

Like many people, he equated the acquisition of a vast vocabulary with knowledge, even with wisdom, and so he could feel his stature growing by the day, if not by the second. Although he did not know what the words meant, what they referred to in real life, he reasoned that he understood these words because he knew their definitions.

Not only does the prisoner not understand the words, but he has no clue what the definitions mean either. “He guessed that ‘homicide’ was a flower. He thought ‘July’ meant ‘August.’” For each word he learns, he has to look up each word in the definition, which only leads to further search, and eventually he loses himself deep in the labyrinth of language acquisition. There is no center to this labyrinth, there is no way out because he will always be short the pages he has lost to wiping. In this way, language itself and the expectation of language becomes a prison, and the warden is a harsh one.

There is a cost for learning a new language, “if the prisoner was convinced he was gaining a new language he was also surely losing one because he had, by this time, forgotten nearly all the words of his native language… The only word that came readily to his tongue, automatically, unbidden, was ‘prison.’” Language for the prisoner is an alluring siren. With new language comes the expectation of a new beginning, a fresh start. He sees himself as being reborn, as a phoenix who sheds the darkness of his terrible past in the light of unfamiliar words.

In this new language, words are without connotation, and for the prisoner, for whom “there was not a single word of his native tongue that did not evoke… some horrible experience or humiliation,” these words represent freedom. Words themselves are cathartic, liberating, and new. But the damnable irony of it all, the rub that fascinates Dinh throughout Blood and Soap, is the emptiness of this mere promise of freedom, the meaninglessness of this hope for escape. The prisoner expects that learning this new language will free him of the pains of his past. He feels liberated. He feels his stature and his intelligence growing. All the while he remains in his cell, has forgotten his language, and does not have an intelligent grasp of his new one. In the world of Blood and Soap, expectation does little more than dull and blind us to the pains of reality.

Dinh further explores characters who are misled and seduced by language in “!” and “Murder or Suicide.” In “!,” a young man named Ho Muoi learns an expletive in a foreign language. He becomes frustrated when westerners visit his village and shouts “!” when they laugh at him. The westerners look shocked when he yells this word, and Ho Muoi “repeated ‘!’ several times and felt its power each time.” Similar to “Prisoner with a Dictionary” the protagonist becomes obsessed with the invigorating power of foreign words. He even becomes a celebrity around town, and is assumed intelligent by his village because of his knowledge of the foreign word. He soon becomes convinced that, “given the opportunity, he could quickly learn any foreign language.” This becomes his destiny.

Ho Muoi goes to war and becomes warden to a dying American. He takes phonetic notation of the dying man’s ramblings and uses these as the basis for his own acquisition of the English language, which he then teaches to scores of followers, who continue to study his teachings even after he is arrested for fraud. For these students, “To cling even to a false English is to insist on another reality… A bogus English is better than no English, is better, in fact, than actual English, since it corresponds to no English or American reality.” Like the prisoner, these men are dissatisfied with their past, with all the humiliations and shortcomings of their individual and national past, and would rather lose themselves in a nether language than deal with reality.

In “Murder or Suicide” a man attempts to learn English from the New York tabloids. He reads the words and then looks up the definitions that mean nearly as little to him as the original words themselves. He too is a prisoner with a dictionary. Dictionaries are useless objects in Blood and Soap, and serve to confuse rather than to clarify meaning for their readers. The mere denotation of words brings no one closer to an actual understanding of the words themselves. The people who use these dictionaries are brought no closer to effective communication. In all three stories the user of the dictionary only becomes more and more delusional. Apart from the word “prison,” the prisoner loses an entire language. Ho Muoi creates a language that no one understands. The man who learns from tabloids is able only to nod his head, mutter “Yes,” and shout his disturbing headlines into the night. If the primary purpose of language is to allow one human to communicate effectively with another, then language fails its purpose in Blood and Soap. If the expectation is that a new language will be liberating and cathartic, then this hope is never actualized, it never becomes more than sadness and waiting. Instead, language becomes to the biggest barrier to communication, it becomes a prison, or a small isolated colony of language learners, or a lonely apartment filled with tabloids and dictionaries.

Dinh’s pen is razor sharp throughout Blood and Soap. His eye for nuance and detail, combined with a great talent for revealing both the beautiful and grotesque in his subject matter makes this a book worth reading several times.


Linh Dinh’s Blood and Soap is available at Seven Stories Press ($12.80).


Tony Pennay is a father, husband, and writer of mildly amusing and nearly poignant short stories. He currently lives in Sherman Oaks, CA and teaches 6th and 7th grade students at Sinai Akiba Academy in Los Angeles. He has had stories published in Dead Mule: School of Southern Literature, Bad Golfer Monthly, SF Dugout, and was the recipient of the Stryker Award for Fiction at UH-Manoa. He is working on his first novel, "The Girl With Pomegranate Cheeks," and hopes to complete it by the end of 2004.