“You can feel them poking at you, trying to draw the pain out of your body with a syringe…You think how painful it would be if your pain were taken from you.”

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Vi Khi Nao’s stunning new novel Fish in Exile both play with the importance of memory and connection by showing what it looks like when they are gone. Each scene is built with such a strikingly crisp poignancy that you don’t mind either one of them extracting all of your emotional energy.

Some features of this pairing include:

  • A strong sense of ontological displacement.
  • An emphasis on the bleak, deserted landscape of the sea in winter.
  • Characters desperately attempting to sublimate their core emotions while those around them express theirs too freely, almost indecently.
  • Medical procedures as coping mechanisms. Going to great lengths to remove pain when its removal may be a worse outcome.
  • A relationship working through conflict using strange self-soothing behaviors. (For example, making costumes for fish.)
  • Memory as a location, a place to return to in a physical space. But also memory as both friend and enemy, an excuse for childish actions, a scapegoat of sorts.
  • The tide an almost mocking reminder of oceanic loss. Characters faced with an inability to recover from its depths. Its depths so deep that they overpower any sense of discovery or finding solutions.
  • Standard pursue-withdraw dyad where the fleeing of connection is depressing at first glance, but ultimately gives the reader/viewer hope because it means that connection is important enough to make a significant impact. That connection is crucial for life.

This pairing can’t be taken lightly but it can be taken with profound awe. This is not the last we will read from Nao, or at least it better not be.