Priyanka Kumar reviews Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizer. Originally published by Pasatiempo from The New Mexican.
Viet Thanh Nguyen’s Pulitzer Prize-winning debut novel, The Sympathizer (Grove Press, 2015), is notable for the density of its first-person voice. The narrator, a Vietnamese army captain, does not spend much time contextualizing anything for the reader. He simply throws us into the action and lets us fend for ourselves. This is just as well, because the novel’s setting — the Vietnam War and its aftermath — does not lend itself to simple explanations. Instead, Nguyen relies on irony and dark humor to explore the troubling legacy of that war, especially as it relates to the Vietnamese who left for America.
The author and his family came to the U.S. as refugees from Vietnam in 1975. They first settled in Pennsylvania and eventually in California, where Nguyen’s parents opened a Vietnamese grocery store. Nguyen would go on to study at the University of California, Berkeley, and is now professor of English and American Studies and Ethnicity at the University of Southern California. Nguyen reads from his work and is joined in conversation by author Maxine Hong Kingston (The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts) on Wednesday, March 29, at the Lensic Performing Arts Center, presented by the Lannan Foundation.
As Nguyen’s novel opens, evacuation is the main order of business. A variety of Vietnamese people waiting for planes to take them to Guam, and then maybe on to America, are hot, sweaty, and panicked.The on-site toilets are unusable, so a swimming pool is used instead. Nothing can be taken for granted. Violence can, and does, erupt, even on a plane. The narrator’s best friend, Bon, loses his wife and child in the blink of an eye. This is the most poignant event in a series of violent occurrences described by the narrator. He is genuinely moved by the death of Bon’s son, who is also his godson. The reader can’t help but be moved, too, when the next day, Bon tries to throw himself into the open grave.
The characters are sketched just sharply enough that we can see them before the narrator tugs us along onto the next episode. Soon we are in America, and the power dynamic between the characters shifts dramatically. The experience is like that of reading a novelistic comic book peopled with archetypal characters — the General, the spy — rather than feeling deeply invested in the journey of any one character.
In an interview Nguyen gave to Paul Tran for The Margins, the Asian American Writers’ Workshop publication, he addressed Toni Morrison’s comments on how some writers of color write for the dominant gaze. “I was very conscious of what Toni Morrison has said about how she writes,” Nguyen told Tran. “She always writes about black people and says black experiences are already universal. There are no apologies in her work. It was very important to me that there be no apologies, no translations, no explanations in this novel because these are signs of writing towards dominant culture.” Nguyen went on to say that instead he chose “to adopt this critical and satirical approach towards American culture.” These key decisions sharply inform Nguyen’s writing and can be helpful for a reader to understand the disorienting rides he takes us on.
Though Nguyen is satirical about American culture, he does not by any means let the Vietnamese off easy. In The Sympathizer, the narrator writes: “I cashed the check in my pocket, my tax refund from the IRS. It was not a large sum and yet symbolically significant, for never in my country would the midget-minded government give back to its frustrated citizens anything it had seized in the first place. The whole idea was absurd. Our society had been a kleptocracy of the highest order, the government doing its best to steal from the Americans, the average man doing his best to steal from the government, the worst of us doing our best to steal from each other.”
Nguyen’s work is busier and less emotional than that of Graham Greene, whose Vietnam novel, The Quiet American, was recently characterized by H.D.S. Greenway in The New York Times as “a book we reporters all had in our back pockets.” Greenway goes on to quote Greene’s writing in that novel: “They want enough rice. They don’t want to be shot at. They want one day to be much the same as another. They don’t want our white skins around telling them what they want.” Greene had a way of streamlining even his most complex narratives so that we care about his characters, even though they themselves might seem disengaged or disaffected. Nguyen’s focus is less on our engagement with his story or his characters and more on plunging us into a certain mindset. When the narrator and his friends are sitting in the General’s office in a Los Angeles liquor store, the scene is set up as though this were a Mafia story; but the monologue can be relentless in a way that might have you yearning for a good Graham Greene novel.
In Los Angeles, the narrator’s now-roommate, Bon, works as a part-time janitor for a church and as a sales clerk for the General’s liquor store. The narrator works as the face of the Oriental Studies program at a university. He is biracial, half Vietnamese and half French, and the chair of the department patronizingly lets him know that he is no longer a monstrosity — and that like the chair’s own biracial son, he too has a place in society.
Early on, the narrator fares better than many of his fellow immigrants from Vietnam. At the university, he gets into a relationship with a Japanese co-worker. He gleefully cites Benjamin Franklin’s familiar advice on the benefits of having a relationship with an older woman. There are others for whom the shock of transplantation is more than they can bear. The narrator tells us of a stray suicide, and how in many immigrant families, the gender dynamics are changing.
Nguyen’s insider perspective is a refreshing flip to the Apocalypse Now-style narratives we have gotten in the past about the Vietnam War. To see the war from the point of view of those who are normally treated like extras in Hollywood movies ( just another warm body) is an essential exercise for anyone who views herself as a global citizen. Even for our most current wars, in Afghanistan and Iraq, the fiction we read is often written by former U.S. soldiers. It is rare to get war fiction from the perspective of, say, an Afghan interpreter or an Iraqi doctor. In this framework, Nguyen’s unique voice explores the horrific consequences of war while also keeping a focus on the friendships and loves that persist through it all.