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  • The Migrating Look: Visual Economies of Queer Desire in The Book of Salt
  • Chris Coffman

Monique Truong’s 2003 The Book of Salt crosses the lives of three queer migrants to early twentieth-century Paris: Gertrude Stein, Alice B. Toklas, and their Vietnamese cook, Bình. Highlighting the role of perception in subject-formation, the novel tracks how the play between the look and the gaze registers its characters’ experiences of embodiment. Truong makes imaginative use of details from the biographical and scholarly literature on Stein and Toklas: their fondness for photographers, reporters, and admirers who treat them as celebrities; the pet names and gendered divisions of space and labor that mark their butch/femme relationship. However, the novel also features three fictional characters whose stories reframe received images of Stein and Toklas: Bình, the novel’s first-person narrator and an imaginative composite of two “Indo-Chinese” cooks that worked for them; his first lover, Jean Blériot, a French chef whose appearance in Bình’s Vietnamese workplace prompts his desire and eventual expulsion; and Bình’s lover in Paris, Marcus Lattimore, a mixed-race iridologist who passes as white at Stein’s and Toklas’s salon and who initiates an affair with Bình to gain information about the writer (Toklas 186). Recontextualizing Stein’s salon from within Bình’s backstory, the novel engages “the dominant culture” to “expose and critique” its conventions from the perspective of subjects “whose experience of identity is fractured and split” by colonial rule (Muñoz 31). The result is a narrative fragmented by Bình’s “queer hybridity”—a space “of productivity where identity’s fragmentary nature is accepted and negotiated” (Muñoz 77–79).

Displaying deep knowledge of the material and psychical consequences of French colonial rule in Vietnam and framing its narrative by imagining that a brief affair with Ho Chi Minh convinced Bình to stay in Paris, The Book of Salt enacts what David Eng calls a “historical catachresis” that “shifts our attention from the problem of the real” lives of historical personages (that is, from the question of whether Ho Chi Minh or any of Stein’s and Toklas’s cooks slept with men) “to the politics of our lack of [End Page 148] knowledge” about modernist Paris’s relationship to the colonial subjects and “alternative modernit[ies]” on whom it depended (1484–89).1 Truong marks Bình’s name as fictitious and has him narrate in English despite his incomprehension of the language.2 And by making Lattimore an aspiring writer and obsessive collector of Stein’s work, The Book of Salt implicates its own readers in the act of constructing modernism. Calling the truth-value of its own narration into question and including Lattimore as a figure for readerly obsessions with early twentieth-century Parisian avant-gardes, The Book of Salt asks contemporary readers to reexamine the politics at work in Eurocentric histories of Parisian modernism—and of modernity more generally—in order to envision literary history anew.

As narrator, Bình is the “central consciousness” of the novel (Xu 129). Using his position to reenvision Eurocentric accounts of modernism, he offers an alternate staging of the scene of early twentieth-century Paris that Stein sets in The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. Like that book, The Book of Salt enacts a queer “impersonation” and destabilization of the categories of woman and man, “wife” and “genius,” in its portrayal of Stein and Toklas (Hovey, A Thousand Words 101). Moreover, as Gilmore argues, when The Autobiography uses “Toklas” as a narrator to survey the scene of a predominantly male modernist movement, the text does so from the queer lenses of the two women’s mutually constitutive but split subjectivities.3 Truong also employs this strategy, further tilting the lens by inventing “Bình” to shift readers’ view of the period. And like The Autobiography, her novel surveys the scene of modernist Paris from a feminine subject’s psyche by making Toklas a locus of Bình’s uneasy and necessarily fractured identification. This offers a fresh look at a literary and artistic movement that is most often associated with the European...


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pp. 148-180
Launched on MUSE
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