Lisa Locascio of Bookforum reviews Viet Thanh Nguyen’s debut novel The Sympathizer.
From the grand ’Nam narratives of ’70s cinema to the works of creative-writing-syllabus mainstays like Tim O’Brien and Robert Olen Butler, representations of Vietnam and the war we staged there are some of our most indelible and critically renowned cultural products. The subgenre’s Frankenstein face—equal parts sentimental fetish, idealistic fantasy, and violent reportage, a mixture as dissonant and complex as the War itself—crystallizes in Butler’s story “Mid-Autumn,” from the 1992 collection A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain, in which a Vietnamese GI bride offers a blend of schmaltz, Orientalism, and pathos in a doomed love story that celebrates the hallowed American right to project personal angst into the dream lives of the other. “A marriage in Vietnam is a strange and wonderful thing,” this Manic Pixie Vietnamese Girl whispers to her unborn child in a line so simultaneously exotic and soothingly domesticated that his nostalgic fantasia on colonial themes won Butler the Pulitzer.
Viet Thanh Nguyen’s debut novel, The Sympathizer, sets out not to deconstruct but to explode these neatly plotted categories. A self-reflexive confession addressed to “my dear Commandant,” The Sympathizer is narrated by a nameless imprisoned Vietnamese spy. His life story is an indictment of the Gaze delivered by a subject who has been shaped by the experience of being seen. And as the narrator describes the circumstances and decisions that led to his matryoshka formation of successive identities—a double agent, an American university graduate, captain in the South Vietnamese Army, embedded North Vietnamese spy, able murderer, film-production consultant, and casual Me Generation lover—he proves himself to be a dazzling prose stylist. In words, the protagonist accomplishes the death-defying feats of intellectual flexibility, critical discernment, and ideological clarity he aspires to achieve through espionage. His is a geopolitical awareness cut with equal parts blunt historical assessment, humor, and affecting pathos. Watching a woman sing in a Saigon bar, “her slim figure outlined by a silk ao dai the same shade as a virgin’s blush,” he delivers one of the most elegiac national descriptions of recent literature: “We fought to the tunes of love songs, for we were the Italians of Asia.” Elsewhere, our protagonist evinces a winking Steinian flair for detail: “His name was Harry. He was hairy.” Other speakers are sometimes portrayed here—the speech a congressman delivers at a Vietnamese wedding in Westminster, California, is a thrilling display of character voice calisthenics, and the protagonist’s exchanges with the insistently categorical chair of an American “Oriental Studies” department offer some of the novel’s sharpest jokes. But the narrator’s voice alone is the novel’s universe, its whole self, always displaying a leaping, dangerous intelligence that makes the book nearly impossible to close.
Born of the union between a French priest and a village girl barely out of childhood, our hero is a model of control and discretion, a surface beneath surfaces, provoked only by the epithet invited by his ethnically mixed features, “bastard.” As succor he finds first his impoverished mother, who always grants him the greater share of their meager meals (a maternal kindness that takes on a madcap Oedipal twist in the delightful section devoted to a “squid odalisque”), and then, at the lycée, with his friends Man and Bon, to whom he swears an adolescent blood oath. He is sent to a university in Southern California on a scholarship, courtesy of the CIA—shown here as the terrifyingly mild-mannered Claude, a paternal handler—and then back to Saigon, where we meet him in 1975, preparing the exodus logistics for the SVA general he serves.
The protagonist’s dualistic persona, as both SVA officer and communist spy, mirrors his relationships with Man and Bon, whose respective ideological divide deepens and troubles his goal of neat bifurcation. With the latter, he evacuates to unglamorous East Hollywood, where their General, loss, and refugee pathos assign the men new deep-cover identities and duties. They are tasked with furthering the cause through murder and information gathering. Southern California becomes the stage for a picaresque of post-Vietnam types—Sonny the Marxist newspaperman, Bon the nihilist assassin, the General-cum-liquor store proprietor and his elegant wife turned noodle chef, an army of officers recast as deliverymen, waiters, janitors, and mechanics—who shape and demarcate the protagonist’s narrowing sphere of possibility. At the close of a stirring passage that functions as a cento obituary for those lost in the crossing, he summarizes the fatigued hope of life in exile: “We soaped ourselves in sadness and we rinsed ourselves with hope, and for all that we believed almost every rumor we heard, almost all of us refused to believe that our nation was dead.” Despite the further adventures that await him as captive witness to the production of a film very much like Apocalypse Now and as a returned militiaman intent on reclaiming Vietnam from the Communists, it is in East Hollywood that our willing chameleon becomes uncomfortably aware of his desire to live—a realization that sustains him through the extended interrogation by torture that comprises the book’s final section.
This historically informed novel is animated by a fictional text, one Richard Hedd’s Asian Communism and the Oriental Mode of Destruction, an essentialist treatise that the narrator uses as both cipher and key to encode his communications with fellow spy Man and decode the narratives with which he has been programmed and the categories in which he has been placed. “Dr. Hedd was not speaking of me, exactly, as I was not the average Viet Cong fighter, and yet he was speaking of me, in the sense that he was dealing in types,” he writes upon meeting the author, in a description that doubles as the book’s modus operandi.
The Sympathizer exceeds its two nearest relations in concept and form, Chang-Rae Lee’s Native Speaker and Hari Kunzru’s The Impressionist, through Nguyen’s confrontation with these layered types, which comprise his protagonist’s fraught persona. In creating a character for whom individuality from cause is both unimaginable and inevitable, Nguyen deftly dodges the lazy, familiar ’Nam tropes to answer the unanswerable question of the decimated, resilient self in a story that’s biting, funny, and painful. As for the sympathizer himself, as Nguyen ably shows, he never had a choice in the first place. When words fail, his continued existence asserts itself, continuing the story.
Lisa Locascio is the editor of Joyland Los Angeles and teaches writing and literature at the University of Southern California and Mount Saint Mary’s University.