Wednesday, May 11, 2016

The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen

Hardcover, 371 pages Published April 7th 2015 by Grove Press (first published April 2nd 2015) ISBN13: 9780802123459

“War, what is it good for? Absolutely nothin’!”
—from “War” by Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong, Motown, 1969

Nguyen uses the trope of a spy to articulate the experience of “the immigrant” or “the other” in American society. But that’s not all. Nguyen wades into the nature of rebellion, revolt, war, governance, literature, novel-writing, self-examination and -actualization, the duality of human nature, and our essential aloneness. Despite the anguished cry of our unnamed narrator, our “Captain”, at the end of the novel, what Nguyen has given us is not nothing. As the novel draws to a close we in fact wonder if the narrator isn’t talking about the author himself in the process of “writing what he knows” in a novel: the “confession” our Captain gives to his interrogators is the long, discursive narrative this author has crafted from imagination and experience straddling two countries with [sometimes violent] overlapping histories, forcing upon him some truths which cumulatively might seem like 295 pages of “nothing.” The hilarity of his despair might have seemed the author’s alone, but his skill is such that we readers know exactly what he means.
”The absurd often has its seed in a truth.”
Nguyen is uniquely positioned to see into the essential differences and similarities in the Vietnamese and American experience, and as a writer he cannot not write about it. Our boon is that the author is so exquisitely talented in uncovering and expressing our essential humanity, something which should give us all pause. Humanness is an imperfect, often anguished state, Nguyen seems to be saying, but it can also be very funny. In order to appreciate the joke, however, we have some self-examination to do.
”Life’s a suicide mission.”
Captain is writing his “confession” to Man, his lifelong friend and now a commissar in the Viet government after the “fall” of Saigon—a loss of innocence in every regard. Captain lives in the United States, and has returned to Vietnam to make sure his other lifelong friend, Bon, doesn’t die in an ill-conceived attempt to destabilize the new Vietnamese government. Bon is a former Phoenix operative with endless Vietcong kills to his name. The Captain’s boyhood friendship with Man and Bon was sealed when the boys cut their palms and shook hands, mixing blood. Thereafter, the gesture for hello or goodbye revealed the stigmata of their friendship. What are they fighting for again?
”Not to own the means of production can lead to a premature death, but not to own the means of representation is also a kind of death.”
Don’t worry: this novel is not heavy on political theory. You will just want to move slowly through Nguyen’s world. He is telling us something that we need to hear, like why film roles for Vietnamese actors are filled by Filipinos, Koreans, or Japanese actors. The Captain became involved in the making of a film about the Vietnam war in order to give strength and credibility to the portrayal of the Vietnamese people but he was disrespected, uncredited—literally blown off the set—and he never did manage the optics on perceptions of Vietnamese. Nyugen's recounting of the shooting of The Hamlet in the Philippines was such a magisterial set piece (and yet its visualizations link everything in the novel) that it will be resurrected endlessly whenever mention of this book comes up.

A debut novel so packed with insights into the human experience—how we justify our choices and how we try to spin outcomes—doesn’t lead us to expect that Nguyen would write with such verve, perspicacity and humor. Everything is illuminated in this novel, down to the very nub of the author’s own perceptions about women. It was perhaps too long a book (not every word counted), but because the book is a debut, the author had no reason to expect he’d get another chance to write all he has learned. This novel is a spectacular overload filled with all kind of fancy pyrotechnics that recall America's most revered writers.

In an interview with Angela Chen, writing for The Guardian, Nguyen tells us he did not pander in this novel to Western ideas of immigrants. This is true, but he did use a Western instrument—the novel—to illuminate for Westerners the Eastern, the immigrant experience. And he wields it better than most Westerners. What sweet success it must have seemed when he was acknowledged with the Pulitzer Prize, awarded April 2016.

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  1. I can't help but ask: why are film roles for Vietnamese actors filled by Filipinos, Koreans, or Japanese actors? Brilliant review. I've read many hundreds of books involving human migration and immigration, but I do see how fiction fills out the gaps.

    1. Good question. In this case, they were using actors well-skilled in portraying any kind of Asian...and it was assumed no one could tell the difference.