Kirkus Reviews recognizes The Committed as one of the best fiction novels of 2021.
The conflicted spy of Nguyen’s Pulitzer Prize–winning The Sympathizer (2015) returns, embroiled in Paris’ criminal underworld.
Embroiled in a lot of French philosophy too: The novel’s unnamed narrator is motivated as much by the works of Sartre, Fanon, Kristeva, and de Beauvoir as by the drug-dealing crime boss he works for in Paris. In the previous novel, the narrator was a communist spy who’d left his native Vietnam and attempted to infiltrate Hollywood. Here it’s 1981, and he’s made his way to France, his father’s homeland, to restart along with his “best friend and blood brother” (but ideological counterweight), Bon. Through a contact from his days as a spy, he starts selling hashish, taking over for a dealer who seems to have gone missing. But this would-be-quiet sideline gets him roped into working for a crime boss managing a drug and prostitution ring. (It’s run out of “the worst Asian restaurant in Paris,” and he proves his loyalty by cleaning the place’s beyond-disgusting toilet.) The pages are rife with prostitutes, drugs (the narrator partakes often of the “remedy,” i.e., cocaine), and, in the late pages, gunplay. But, as in The Sympathizer, Nguyen keeps the thriller-ish aspects at a low boil, emphasizing a mood of black comedy driven by the narrator’s intellectual crisis. If communists and capitalists alike are responsible for mass cruelty, where should he throw his support? How much does his half-French parentage implicate him in the oppression of his home country? And what’s the value of picking a side anyway? “For most of my life, I had constantly and desperately believed in something, only to discover that at the heart of that something was nothing,” he writes. Though the storytelling around this gets convoluted (and strange, when a set of henchmen called the Seven Dwarfs enters the plot), Nguyen is deft at balancing his hero’s existential despair with the lurid glow of a crime saga.
A quirky intellectual crime story that highlights the Vietnam War’s complex legacy.