Arthur Arellano’s garage has recently been transformed into a warehouse, inside which are stacked boxes of counterfeit products with brands like Chanel, Versace, and Givenchy. The products have made Arthur uneasy from the second that Louis Vu delivered them, and Arthur often finds himself slipping out of his rented house and into his garage to ponder the goods.
The Transplant is the first story that does not center on a refugee, and instead touches on refugees whose past lives are far behind them. This decentering demonstrates that anyone’s life can be affected by war and the refugee experience, even if indirectly.
Every week, Louis tries to quell Arthur’s fears about housing the fake goods over lunch at Brodard’s, where Arthur has acquired a taste for Vietnamese food. On this occasion, Louis explains why his business does more harm than good. He says that the more fake products there are, the more people who can’t buy the real things want them. And the more people buy the fakes, the more the real things are worth.
Louis’s life also defies the expectation that the lives of refugees have to conform to one idea or identity. As Louis later reveals, he is Chinese, but he has spent all of his life in Vietnam, and so his cultural affinity for Vietnamese food stems not from his family but from the new cultural into which he was placed—much like many of the refugees who come to America.
Arthur thinks that Louis is simply telling himself what he wants to hear, but he does wonder about some of Louis’s reasoning. After all, he asks himself, shouldn’t those with limited income also have the right to own something stylish? Ultimately, Arthur knows he agrees at least somewhat with Louis, or he wouldn’t let him store the goods in his garage. Yet he and his wife Norma have refused the ten percent commission Louis offered.
Arthur’s agreeing with Louis may not simply stem from philosophical reasoning, but also from the fact that Louis has become by this point one of Arthur’s only friends, and he wishes to maintain that intimacy and connection by doing Louis the favor of storing his goods.
Arthur sees his actions as a gift—a way of paying back Louis’s father, who had inadvertently saved Arthur’s life the previous year. Arthur’s cell phone buzzes: Norma telling him to pick up dry cleaning. Louis suggests that Arthur pick up some flowers for her as well.
Believing that Louis’s father saved his life, Arthur forms an intimate bond with Louis that he seems unable to form with many other people, including his own brother. In this instance, Louis also helps counsel Arthur to have a better relationship with his wife.
Eighteen months prior, Arthur’s liver had begun to fail—a shock that he was completely unprepared for. When he visited the doctor, he told Arthur that his body was rejecting his liver and he needed an organ donation in order to live. Arthur left the doctor’s office convinced he was going to die.
Arthur’s diagnosis makes him feel isolated from the world, as he believes that he no longer has a place in it. But it is the connection with his wife that helps him to stay hopeful, and to stay alive.
Arthur has never been lucky, and is a chronic loser of bets. His career as a gambler had culminated in the loss of his home after seventeen years of mortgage payments. Norma had left Arthur to live with one of their daughters, and Arthur had moved into his younger brother Martín’s house. Shortly after this separation, he learned of his diagnosis.
Arthur and Norma’s relationship is a constant push and pull between wanting intimacy and also needing some amount of separation, as Arthur’s gambling causes Norma a great deal of harm.
When Arthur tells Norma of his diagnosis, he bursts into tears, confessing that he has cashed out his life insurance policy. Norma does not ask how he spent the money, and Arthur could not confess his antics at the casino in Temecula where he had lost it. Instead, Norma sits next to him and puts her hands on his knee and his cheek. He realizes that she is going to see him through his illness, and that this is God’s sly way of keeping them together.
Norma’s decision to take care of Arthur demonstrates her understanding of the fact that Arthur needs intimacy and human connection to literally survive. He could not live, or recover, without her physical and emotional support.
Arthur’s one chance is a transplant. He fantasizes about getting a new liver and becoming a new man: kinder, more reliable, and hard-working. He receives a new organ (choosing to keep the donor anonymous) and returns to work as an accountant for Martín at the landscaping service founded by Arthur’s father.
Arthur’s story does have parallels with the stories of the refugees in the book: being granted a new chance at life and a means of starting over. Whereas for some refugees this chance is borne of tragedy, Arthur’s opportunity to turn around is borne of the good fortune of receiving an organ.
One day, however, a letter arrives at the home Arthur and Norma are renting from Martín. In it, a computer error at the hospital reveals the name of Arthur’s donor: Men Vu. They wonder if the name is Korean, or Japanese, or Chinese. Norma searches for the name and discovers that Men Vu was from Vietnam and had been killed in a hit-and-run. Arthur sets out to try to find someone related to Men Vu, whom he could thank for saving his life. He calls every Vu in the phone book until he finds Louis Vu, who listens to Arthur’s story and says that he’s the one that Arthur is looking for.
Arthur is never able to get to know Men, nor to understand what his story might have been. In this way, Men represents another ghost—a piece of a person left behind in the world of the living. Men does not necessarily haunt Arthur, however; he instead reminds Arthur that he owes his new life to someone else. He uses this someone—Louis—to kindle a new friendship and gain another kind of intimate relationship.
The evening of Arthur and Louis’s lunch, Arthur is back in his living room watching the World Series of Poker. When Norma walks through the door, he realizes that he forgot to pick up her dry cleaning. When he tells her this, he discerns her unhappiness in her response of “hmmm.” She gives the same response when he asks what she’s cooking for dinner, and the same response when he asks what’s for dinner the next day as she washes the dishes.
While Norma has clearly devoted her time and energy to taking care of Arthur, Arthur’s attempt to become a new man has clearly faltered, as represented by his return to his gambling addiction and his ignorance of what Norma needs. Arthur once again takes for granted the new lease he has on life, and the donation that Men gave him.
In bed, Norma tells Arthur not to touch her. She asks him if it would kill him to think about her for once in his life. He says that he’s still recovering from the liver, but they both know that this is a lie. She tells him that either he has to sleep in the living room, or she will. Arthur spends the night on the couch.
Although Norma has tried to give Arthur a deeper sense of emotional connection as she tries to rekindle their marriage, it is clear that she is the one who feels isolated because Arthur is not reciprocating her intimacy.
The next day, Arthur calls Martín, hoping to ask for refuge. But when he hears his brother’s disapproving tone, Arthur says that he only wants to say good morning, and Martín hangs up. Arthur pretends to carry on a conversation as Norma pretends that he isn’t there. She only acknowledges him as she walks out the door, reminding him to take his pills.
Again, even though Norma is trying to pull away from Arthur, she can’t help but offer him some sense of support. Reminding him of his pills is a gesture that shows she still deeply cares about him—it is Arthur who lacks the ability to provide emotional support for Norma.
That morning, at the office, Arthur realizes that he was correct in not asking Martín for help. Arthur has barely started his morning game of blackjack on the computer when Martín enters, describing his family’s luxurious vacation that weekend. Arthur can’t help but think of the difference between their lives and their fortunes, as their father had bequeathed Arellano & Sons only to Martín when he realized Arthur’s bad habits.
Arthur’s story adds another dimension to the interplay between identity and family. Unlike some of the other characters, Arthur’s family rebels against him (instead of the other way around). Realizing that he doesn’t have the same work ethic, his father bequeaths the family legacy to his brother alone.
Martín asks how Arthur and Norma are doing, explaining that he had heard through the grapevine that they were having issues. Arthur, who is focused on his computer game, says he appreciates the concern, but that Martín probably got an account that is pretty different from the truth. Martín glances at his watch, and simply says, “We’re brothers, Artie,” before heading out the door.
Martín’s treatment of Arthur also adds to his feelings of isolation. As he points out, they should be close because they are brothers. Yet they somehow lack the connection that allows them to rely on one another.
Before meeting Louis, Arthur thought that his organ donor might have been like him and Martín: middle aged and of Mexican ancestry. Arthur wonders if Martín would have given Arthur an organ if he could have. And he wonders whether Arthur would have done the same for Martín. Later that evening in Louis’s apartment, he says he thinks he would have—that even though he can’t stand Martín, he’s still his brother. Louis says it’s easy for Arthur to say that, as he would never be able to donate because of the drugs he was taking.
Arthur’s imagining that the organ donor might be like him speaks to his isolation, as he hoped that the donor would be someone to whom he could relate, because he feels unable to connect with his brother. This realization is what leads him to rely not on his brother for help, but from his newfound friend.
Louis has recently been buying real estate to add to his income. Arthur asks why he doesn’t live in one of those houses, as his apartment is pretty bleak. Louis says that the renters pay the mortgage and he’ll profit from those houses in a few years. Arthur tells him that not everything is about money, but Louis says that he’s tried love, but that it’s in the past. He never thinks about the past: every morning he wakes up and he’s a new man. Arthur thanks Louis for letting him sleep over, and Louis says simply, “You’re my friend.”
Louis’s own attempt to become a new man, unlike Arthur’s, stems from his status as a refugee, which he eventually divulges. Yet even though he writes that love is in the past and he wants to move forward from it, it is clear that, like Arthur, Louis feels the need to have a human relationship on which he can depend, and is happy to reciprocate that support.
The next day gets off to a rough start. The office computer crashes and Arthur’s car won’t start, leaving him to ask for a jump from Rubén, one of the landscapers at Arellano and Sons who had confessed to Arthur that he was indocumentado. Arthur returns home to pick up clothes and a razor, and Norma says that someone called for him.
Nguyen does not comment much at this moment about the undocumented workers at Arellano and Sons, but one can draw a connection between the immigrants and the refugees of this story. Each comes to the United States out of the necessity to make a better life.
Arthur phones the person who called, Minh Vu, and he wonders if this is one of the Vus that he had called months earlier. Minh says that Men Vu was his father. Arthur says that Louis never mentioned that he had a brother, and Minh asks who Louis is. Arthur quickly realizes that Louis has been lying to him and hangs up.
Minh’s reveal shatters the friendship that Arthur thought he had with Louis. This deceit makes Arthur feel completely disconnected from Louis.
Arthur tells Norma what has happened as he reaches for his first drink since the diagnosis, saying that he’s got to go over to Louis’s apartment. Arthur takes three shots of whiskey as Norma tries to convince him not to go alone, to no avail. Arthur tries to get into his car, but pain tears into his side. His vision blurs, and the moon starts to become a hazy whiteness, reminding him of waking up on the operating table, when Norma had called him back to consciousness.
The connection between Arthur’s loneliness and his actual ability to live is highlighted here when his liver starts to flare up and he is reminded of waking up on the operating table. Feeling betrayed and alone leads to acute physical pain.
Arthur arrives at Louis’s apartment and breathlessly tells him about his conversation with Minh. Louis admits that he deceived Arthur, but says that he never meant to hurt Arthur. Louis explains that his name is Louis Vu, and that he is Chinese but lived his whole life in Vietnam. When he got Arthur’s phone call, he wanted to see what it might lead to, and so he played along.
Louis’s intentions in playing along with Arthur’s story also reveal his own need for friendship and intimacy, because he would not have been able to start a relationship with Arthur (or perhaps with anyone) without going along with Arthur’s story.
Arthur demands that Louis remove his things from his garage. Louis refuses, saying that they’re friends. Arthur responds that they are not friends, and again reiterates that he wants Louis’s things out of his garage. Louis tells him that they’ll have to stay, arguing that if he calls the cops, he will have to explain why his garage is full of fake merchandise.
Arthur’s anger is caused by the fact that he thought they shared a connection: a true physical connectivity in sharing some of Men’s DNA. Subsequently, a friendship had been borne of this connectivity, but when the root of that friendship is taken away, Arthur feels even more isolated.
Arthur says that he will take the things out of his garage himself, but Louis says that if Arthur does that, Louis will report the undocumented workers at Martín’s business. It would lead to arrests and deportations, and their father’s business would be disgraced. Louis tells Arthur to go home. Arthur drives to his house, opening the garage door and looking at the boxes of fake goods—a garage crammed with “things fashioned by people whom he would never know but to whom Arthur felt bound in some way.”
Arthur’s statement here reveals one of Nguyen’s intentions with this story: to show that refugees are woven inextricably into the fabric of American society. Arthur is not a refugee himself, but his life is affected in many ways by refugees: in the goods that they make, in the friendship that he might have had with Louis, and in the liver that has been donated to him.
Norma calls Arthur’s name, waiting for an explanation. He turns to her, extending his hands. But when Norma folds her arms and raises an eyebrow, he realizes what he must look like to her, offering “nothing but empty hands.”
In the final image, Arthur is at the pinnacle of isolation. He has lost a friend, he has lost everything he owns, and he is now on the brink of losing his wife, due to his inability to be generous and connect with them in the way that they are generous towards him.