A Nice Debut

Vincent Lam's 'The Headmaster's Wager'

by Zachary Houle

24 July 2012

This is a novel with a grand sweep and panoramic themes of love, family, duty, politics and even betrayal. And fitting for a person who works as a doctor, it has a scalpel-like precision in its use of language.
cover art

The Headmaster’s Wager

Vincent Lam

(Doubleday Canada)
US: Apr 2012

I’ve developed a bit of a theory when it comes to the literary fiction of my home country, Canada. You may agree or disagree with me, but it seems to me that recent novels published here tend to fall into one of three or four different “buckets”.

The first one is what I like to call the Great Canadian Nature Book. These are books either about the pristine beauty of the rugged awesomeness of the Canadian wilderness, or about surviving against the harsh elements and great odds. Put anything Farley Mowat ever wrote into here. Secondly, there’s the Great Canadian Novel of Urban Fiction, or grimy love letters to the urban consciousness, usually written by writers under 40 or thereabouts living in one of Canada’s three metropolitan centres with populations over one million. Much of Hal Niedzviecki’s catalogue can go over here. Thirdly, there’s a genre of Canadian fiction called the Great Canadian Novel of the Immigrant Experience. This may or not be fair, but I would debate that you can also throw into this bucket any books that deal with not only visible minorities, but are about those who are disabled (such as Frances Itani’s Deafening) or are about the Aboriginal experience (pretty much anything Joseph Boyden has written). Books in this third bucket tend to get a lot of love in Canadian letters, because Canada has become a rather multi-cultural society that is welcoming of immigrants and refugees, among other minority groups.

Now, as a bit of an aside, there can be some merging that goes on between buckets: Dionne Brand’s pretty good and well worth reading What We All Long For is a bit of bucket No. 2 and a bit of bucket No. 3. But, essentially, it seems to me that virtually all of Canadian fiction can be slotted into one of these pails – it would be rare that a book would come along that didn’t conform to this little theory I have. There might be an argument as well that there’s a fourth bucket for books that deal in some way about Canada’s relationship with the United States, such as Johanna Skibsrud’s The Sentimentalists or Patrick deWitt’s The Sisters Brothers, but I’m kind of digressing, now.

So along comes the debut novel from Toronto author Vincent Lam, The Headmaster’s Wager, which would seemingly fit quite comfortably into bucket No. 3 (and maybe sits halfway into bucket No. 4) as it is about immigrants and the fallout of the Vietnam War. It’s just that there’s a bit of a twist. Though the novel, by its conclusion, makes a case for the importance of accepting war-scarred refugees into one’s much better off first-world homeland, the novel is actually about the immigrant experience in another country other than Canada, and in another time. Namely, The Headmaster’s Wager is a book set from the mid-‘60s to mid-‘70s in Vietnam, and deals with the expatriate Chinese community living there (a culture which Lam hails from, as his parents were of Chinese origin and lived in Vietnam before immigrating to Canada).

Before we dive into this novel, a word or two about Lam. He has become one of Canada’s A-list of writers because he essentially did the impossible: not only was his first work of fiction a short story collection, which was a rarity in itself – most publishers want a novel first, and publish story collections as a stop-gap measure afterwards – the book, Bloodletting & Miraculous Cures, went on to win the 2006 Scotiabank Giller Prize, which has the richest purse in Canadian writing.

What’s more, Lam actually has quite the interesting and time consuming day job or two: he works as an emergency physician and also lectures at the University of Toronto. Where the guy finds the time to write, and do more than a competent job at it, I don’t know. Lam may have to make a career decision soon: already, in interviews associated with the April 2012 release of this book in Canada, the word “masterpiece” was bandied about. It may just be that The Headmaster’s Wager may be Lam’s ultimate meal ticket to writing full time. I predict it’ll probably make the Giller shortlist this year, moreso for the popularity of its theme than its actual contents, alas.

If you want to talk about the plot of the novel, well, we’d be here all day. There’s a lot of plot, and a lot of story (sometimes even told using that well honoured literary device known as “the flashback”). But just to scratch the surface of the particulars, the headmaster in question here is one Percival Chen, a Chinese businessman who owns and runs an English language school in Cholon, a suburb of what was then known as Saigon.

At the outset of the novel, Percival is in a bit of a bind. On one hand, his teenaged son, Dai Jai, has been caught in a romantic relationship with one of the school’s young students. The problem? She is of Annamese descent, which is a no-no for Percival, seeing that his father married an Annamese woman as a second wife who turned out to be a bit of a shrew. Then, scant pages later, Dai Jai is off making waves against the South Vietnamese authorities for resisting an order at the school he attends (not his father’s) to learn Vietnamese, and leading his class of Chinese students in protest. This, naturally, gets him into trouble with the police.

Ordinarily, this would not be a huge problem for Percival, for he has found that giving little red envelopes filled with cash to certain authorities tends to clear up misunderstandings such as this, and is actually something of the cost of generally doing business in Vietnam. It’s practically a day-to-day occurrence, and is presented as something of an extra unofficial tax that Chinese-run businesses must shell out for simply existing in Vietnam. However, this is 1966, and Vietnam is slowly changing, and officials are not quite so easily bribed as they used to be. Thus, in order to rescue his son from being tortured in jail, Percival is forced to turn to a source outside of the system who commands an exorbitant fee, a price that goes well and above the bribes Percival is used to paying. And this is pretty much the first 100 pages or so of this nearly 400 page work.

The Headmaster’s Wager is thus a novel with a grand sweep and panoramic themes of love, family, duty, politics and even betrayal. And fitting for a person who works as a doctor, the novel has a scalpel-like precision in its use of language, such as in the following passage between Percival and a lover he’s taken on:

“In the quiet of Percival’s room, Jacqueline stood beneath the spinning fan. The fan traced its quiet circles of breeze. Her shoulders rose slightly as she inhaled. She closed her eyes and exhaled. That was her only invitation. They kissed, the intimate shock of tongues.”

What’s more, the novel is a bit thrilling, given the backdrop of war and its secret polices and chess game-like theatre of politics. One thing that may impact one’s enjoyment of the book, though, is how much you know about the Vietnam War and the colonial history of the country. Lam doesn’t do away with a lot of “info dumps” – in other words, provide any sort of historical information that would deepen your appreciation of the book. Thus, if you’re a bit in the dark as to things such as the Tet Offensive, you might be well advised to bone up on some history. (Or at least read a few Wikipedia entries on the subject.) However, on that note, I suspect Lam may have taken a few liberties with some of the facts, as well: as soon as the communist North is victorious over the South in this book, Saigon immediately becomes Ho Chi Minh City. A quick look at, yes, Wikipedia suggests this didn’t actually happen, at least officially, for a few months after Saigon fell.

More seriously, however, is a fundamental flaw with The Headmaster’s Wager, so named after a bet Percival makes in a Mahjong game in order to obtain the funds to win back his son’s freedom: Percival is a protagonist who doesn’t really protag very much; in fact, he’s something of a milquetoast. He simply lets things happen to him, and when things don’t go his way, he chalks it up to bad luck or angry ancestral spirits than anything he’s personally done. He doesn’t control his own destiny, and even more or less lets one of his school’s teachers run the business. This makes The Headmaster’s Wager a bit of a tough slog. I’ll level with you: about halfway through reading this novel, I honestly no longer cared what happened to Percival and his family because he was such a pushover. Only because I’m committed to finishing books for review did I bother to carry on.

I’m glad I did, because two-thirds of the way through the novel there’s a bit of a shocking plot “reveal” that I didn’t see coming, and it was so audacious I almost applauded it – except I was already weeping because it was so far-fetched, you could see the strings in which Lam was manipulating his characters with. And then there’s this: for all of Percival’s wailing to his son for hooking up with a local girl from Vietnam who is not of Chinese origin at the novel’s beginning, he actually goes out about a third of the way through the book and does exactly that himself! We never really know why he takes on an Annamese lover, especially for feeling so strongly against marrying such women early on. That, as much as anything else, is a real failing of the story.

Overall, I wouldn’t call The Headmaster’s Wager a masterpiece, unless you put the word “flawed” in front of it. The novel is certainly well written and there’s enough political intrigue to hold one’s interest. If you can get past the fact that the main character’s solution to every problem is to throw money at it, and not get too weary from a protagonist who essentially makes the same mistake over and over again, The Headmaster’s Wager is a passable read, and not bad for a young first-time novelist. (Lam is only 37-years-old.)

While Lam is doing a great job at sort of scrambling my notion of what makes a Canadian novel a Canadian novel in that it doesn’t quite sit so well in that third bucket I talked about earlier, he really needs to spend some time considering things like plot and character development. He’s got the poetic nature of prose down pat. Now he just needs to get the fundamentals – the tools used to construct a novel – in much better order. The Headmaster’s Wager is a simply nice debut. With more focus on his craft, I’m sure Lam might be able to achieve greater heights.

All in all, this novel proves that a writer can have it all: an absorbing day job and a fulfilling career as a writer by candlelight. Now, in order to become a true master of either artform, it seems that Lam has to make a choice: is he a doctor, or is he an author?

The Headmaster’s Wager


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