Zachary Gillan on a novella by Nghiem Tran
We’re Safe When We’re Alone (Coffee House Press, 2023), a new novella by Nghiem Tran, inverts the haunted house: instead of people intruding into a house of ghosts, it has the living cowering in a mansion surrounded by a world of the dead. Tran makes the most of the dualisms inherent in this setup: house and countryside, inside and outside, monastic asceticism versus worldly sensualism, us versus them. It’s a fantastic book that marries minimalist prose, simple but wonderfully rhythmic, with a compelling Bildungsroman and an uncanny atmosphere to create a moving tale of grief and assimilation. We Have Always Lived in the Castle, Shirley Jackson’s incredible novel of small-scale xenophobia, is an obvious touchstone, but there’s also something of Jeffrey Ford’s criminally underrated The Well-Built City trilogy in its approach to fantastical allegory.
Father and Son have always lived in the mansion, resisting, at Father’s direction, the pull of the outside world. Son is a monastic, ascetic type, forever on guard against the beauty of the outside world (‘Father has warned me about beauty. That the glorious sky and sweet-smelling flowers are there to lure us. I am a good child. I listen to Father.’). He has never left the mansion, where ‘there is always room for the mind to grow’ with ‘many books to read, songs to practice on the piano, languages to learn.’ As the novella opens, Father’s growing interaction with and acceptance of the ghosts, to the point of building a garden with them just outside the walls, is driving a wedge between the two. Tran was born in Vietnam and raised in Kansas, and the charged fear/thrill of assimilation churns under the surface of Son’s apprehension. There’s even something Gnostic at play in the rejection and mistrust of the external material world – Son declares early on that ‘I despise the world outside the mansion. It is an imitation of nature instead of the truth’ – and also something of purgatory, post-life inertia suffusing the Christian resonances of Father, Son, and (un)holy spirits.
Son is the first-person narrator of the tale, just unreliable enough to lend an unsettled, uncanny feeling to the proceedings – one knows, of course, that he’s being unfair and unjust to the ghosts, even before he grows into that realisation himself. The Bildungsroman is generally not a form that I have much interest in, but the structure snuck up on me in the droney fugue of the narrative. If there’s one way to get my attention with something, even something I’m sick of, it’s to make it weird, and Tran fully succeeds in doing so here. Son’s struggle with his declining faith in Father, and attempts to apply Father’s previous wisdom to a world in which he has vacated his duty and seemingly his place in the family, are gloriously off-kilter. Observing the older man’s glee in playing with the ghost children and growing more comfortable with his place in the world outside the mansion, Son reflects that it ‘seems the goal of all life is to return to the state of the child, when we are most apt for learning, and the world is new and wondrous’ – to be free of responsibilities and worry.
Mirroring Son’s awakening, the ghosts are increasingly humanised, moving from the collective of the early novella to a focus on an individual family, named and personified, as Son learns about the relationship between death and life, inertia and letting go and moving forward.
Son’s childishness is echoed in the simplicity of the prose, whose extreme austerity and careful rhythmic purity lends it an almost storybook feel, which I mean in an extremely complimentary way. ‘Childish’ is usually intended as a pejorative in this regard, but the style can produce something rigorous and beautiful in the right hands. As the parent of a toddler, I have found that there are good books you have to read over and over again, and bad books you have to read over and over again, and it isn’t the complexity of vocabulary that differentiates them. To take an early, striking example of Tran’s, try reading this aloud:
I hear them. Every night I hear them. Come out, come out, they say. The roof rattles. My bed shakes. Wind pushes against the walls. Their voices are gentle and soft. They can give me what I want. Love, companionship. The emptiness in me echoes. Like a bell, I am struck. I do not give in.
Tran makes great use of this tactic of referring to the ghosts in the collective, with some of the novella’s best scenes revolving around a horde of ghost children who speak in first-person plural, a striking example of Tran’s emphasis on stylised evocation rather than realism.
For all of its focus on death, ghosts, and haunting, this is not a particularly horrific work – uncanny allegory might be closer to the mark. On the other hand, if we’re going by my own oft-repeated insistence that weird fiction is horror focused on the dread affect of unsettlement, we have to admit that this is an unsettling book indeed. In this context we have to bring up the miserable worldview of H.P. Lovecraft as well, meaning that xenophobia is unfortunately (and inaccurately) coded into the popular view of weird fiction as a whole. Here it’s internalised in Son’s aversion to the population he’s embedded in, the minority rather than the majority, and driving the idea that we’re safe when we’re alone, one might say.
As the novella moves to its inevitable, truly heartrending finale, Tran increasingly hammers home the idea that perhaps it is our most painful memories that make us human, and, perhaps paradoxically, that letting go of that to which we are ‘deathly attached’ is part of growing up. We’re Safe When We’re Alone is a fascinating tale, compellingly told, Tran brilliantly integrating stylistic and structural elements that could easily have failed to perfectly situate readers within Son’s world. The haunted house of the Bildungsroman still has fascinating stories tucked within its cobwebbed halls and darkened corners. ∎
Zachary Gillan (he/him) is a critic of weird fiction residing in Durham, North Carolina, USA. He’s an editor at Ancillary Review of Books, the book reviewer for Seize the Press, and has criticism in or forthcoming from Strange Horizons, Broken Antler, IZ Digital, and Nightmare Magazine, among others. More of his work can be found at doomsdayer.wordpress.com.
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