Bookreporter | The Committed

Jana Siciliano reviews The Committed for the Bookreporter.

How does a writer follow up a debut novel that drew comparisons to Toni Morrison and Graham Greene, won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, and became a massive bestseller? If the author is Viet Thanh Nguyen and the book is THE SYMPATHIZER, you write about the new adventures of “the man of two minds” as he sails off to France as a refugee with his blood brother, Bon, and maneuvers around the drug-fueled 1980s. He encounters questions of cultural and personal identity and worth that bring home the realities of being seduced by the wonders of free market capitalism. THE COMMITTED is a shiny pearl of a novel that carries on this story.

“If you made a coq au vin of John le Carré, Ralph Ellison, Amy Tan and Kurt Vonnegut, and threw in a significant amount of Red Bull and gave the potion to Edgar Wright to put on screen against a soundtrack of Euro-trash disco music, you may begin to come close to describing THE COMMITTED.”

With humor and pathos intact, Nguyen puts the pedal to the metal. If you have spent a distinct chunk of time learning how to breathe to slow down your anxious, racing heart during the pandemic, you will have to utilize your new skills to get through this rapid-fire, violent, funny and terrifying bumper car collision of colonialism, communism and capitalism. “Collaborating was the great twentieth-century sin of the French, who could only mumble the word…. The Algerians might disagree about collaboration being the greatest sin, weighed against the outright massacre of their people by the French colonizers we shared. But who cares what the Algerians have to say? For that matter, who cares what we have to say, especially if we say nothing, as the dead usually do?” Everyone is searching for something. What matters — who he is — is changing as he comes up against the identity issues of other refugees and instead decides to rush headlong into the long-dreamed-about wonders of the Western capitalism of his colonial oppressors.

The Sympathizer is not just trying to survive; he has the basics. So now what? He finds himself, like Patrick Bateman and the ravenous rich of ’80s Manhattan, choosing to upgrade economically with consumer culture and drugs while the black clouds of political degradation and oppression continue to haunt him. He and Bon find themselves drawn into a neo-liberal intellectual world courtesy of other Vietnamese living in the chaotic city. The Sympathizer must find a new way to bring about positive collaboration between his refugee cohorts and his new friends. This brave new world gives birth to dark abuses of the senses and confusing and difficult looks at how the past, present and future all combine to affect each other.

This sounds like a dark, moody book with a lot of posturing about political identity, oppression, the evils of colonialism, and the corruption of the freewheeling renegade consumer culture. However, it reads like a thriller. If you made a coq au vin of John le Carré, Ralph Ellison, Amy Tan and Kurt Vonnegut, and threw in a significant amount of Red Bull and gave the potion to Edgar Wright to put on screen against a soundtrack of Euro-trash disco music, you may begin to come close to describing THE COMMITTED. What are these characters hoping to commit to? What is our protagonist committed to? Save the deep analysis for the long time that this book will stay with you after the last “God, why have you done this to me?” is proclaimed.

The Sympathizer is going through a deep evolution that resounds well beyond his life and finds some kinship with the questions that we in the post-pandemic era are using to redefine what and who we are — as a country, as individuals, as spiritual beings. The man of two minds is all of us, but his story is very specifically his own as well. Once again, Nguyen entertains, teaches, queries and thrills his readers with a story that touches so many of the hot coals of the firepit that is the persistence of identification and memory.

Reading THE SYMPATHIZER first may help you enjoy the sequel even more, but THE COMMITTED operates just fine on its own as a powerhouse of a novel that captures a time left behind and the repercussions of oppression. Nguyen is an awesome storyteller, and this is a book for the ages. Enjoy this rollercoaster ride of a story.

Category: Reviews

 

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