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Saturday, August 13, 2016

The Sympathizer

"I am a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces. Perhaps not surprisingly, I am also a man of two minds. I am not some misunderstood mutant from a comic book or a horror movie, although some have treated me as such. I am simply able to see any issue from both sides." This is the beginning of Viet Thanh Nguyen's novel, The Sympathizer, which recently won the Pulitzer Prize. I am of two minds about this book. I loved the prose, which is soaring and witty, and at times reminded me of my favorite all-time book, Catch-22. But at the same time, Nguyen tends to let his story get away from him, and there were times I found myself lost in the plot.

The narrator is an unnamed aide-de-camp to a General in the South Vietnamese army. He is referred to only as the Captain, and his narration takes the form of a very long confession he is writing to someone called the "Commandant." The opening chapters of the book refer to the fall of Saigon, when the Captain gets out with the General, and they all end up in California, where the General opens a liquor store and the Captain works for a professor in Oriental Studies; "He had hung an elaborate Oriental rug on his wall, in lieu, I suppose, of an actual Oriental."

The Captain is a bastard, born of a Vietnamese mother and a French priest. He has studied in the U.S., and speaks perfect English: "Some of my countrymen spoke English as well as I, although most had a tinge of an accent. But almost none could discuss, like I, baseball standings, the awfulness of Jane Fonda, or the merits of the Rolling Stones versus the Beatles."

But he had a love/hate relationship with America:  "America, land of supermarkets and superhighways, of supersonic jets and Superman, of supercarriers and the Super Bowl! America, a country not content simply to give itself a name on its bloody birth, but one that insisted for the first time in history on a mysterious acronym, USA, a trifecta of letters outdone later only by the quartet of the USSR."

But the Captain is, all the while, working for the exiled government. He even performs a couple of hits, killing someone who is always referred to as the "crapulent major" (shades of Joseph Heller). He even gets a job consulting on a movie about the war, in what is obviously about Francis Coppola and Apocalypse Now. This section, over much too quickly, provides some of the angriest bits of humor in the book (Nguyen, in an interview, has professed his obsession with this film). "A golden Oscar statuette exhibited itself to the side of his telephone, serving as either a kingly scepter or a mace for braining impertinent screenwriters. A hirsute show of manliness ruffled along his forearms and from the collar of his shirt, reminding me of my own relative hairlessness, my chest (and stomach and buttocks) as streamlined and glabrous as a Ken doll." "He" is only referred to as the "Auteur," but the aim is clear. In a very funny pun, the Captain tells us that the last line of the film is "The whore! The whore!" a riff on Apocalypse Now's quotation of Eliot, "The horror! The horror!"

The Captain goes back to Vietnam to enlist in some sort of foolish plot to overthrow the government (I think) and is captured and what we read is his confession. But the Commandant doesn't like it, as he has not renounced America enough. In fact, the Captain does miss America: "My chances of returning to America were small, and I thought with regret about all the things I would miss about America: the TV dinner; air-conditioning; a well-regulated traffic system that people actually followed; a relatively low rate of death by gunfire, at least compared with our homeland; the modernist novel; freedom of speech, which, if not as absolute as Americans liked to believe, was still greater in degree than in our homeland; sexual liberation; and, perhaps most of all, that omnipresent American narcotic, optimism, the unending flow of which poured through the American mind continuously, whitewashing the graffiti of despair, rage, hatred, and nihilism scrawled there nightly by the black hoodlums of the unconscious."

Now that's good stuff. But as much as I enjoy these quotes, I found myself adrift in the story many times. There is a huge twist at the end, when a person is revealed to be someone from earlier in the story, but I couldn't remember who that person was. That's probably my fault, but it points to a problem in the narrative--Nguyen does not clearly tell us where we are or who everyone is.

The book, as funny as it is (a woman's legs are described as longer than the Bible but much more fun) is angry. Nguyen was born in Vietnam during the war and came to the United States when he was three, but is perturbed by everyone on all sides, not just the Americans. Like Catch-22, toward the end of the book the kidding is put aside for a scene of horror: a female agent is tied naked to a table and sexually degraded, while the Captain watches. It is told in a way that is about as terrible as one could imagine.

The Sympathizer is a book about war, but also about the process of assimilation, about a person who seems to be out of step with whatever society he is living, and a cry of anguish at the evils of humanity. Clearly those who thought it prize-worthy didn't have as much problem with the plot as I did, so perhaps a closer reading would have been in order.


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