Sara Webster reviews The Committed for the Chicago Review of Books.
It’s easy to feel like you really know a character after reading a confessional novel. But like people, characters evolve too. In a great novel, they react and change with their conditions. Such is the case in The Committed, Viet Thanh Nguyen’s thrilling sequel to his Pulitzer Prize winning debut novel, The Sympathizer.
When we last saw the unnamed sympathizer, he had been dispatched from an intense episode of torture. In The Committed, the faceless commissar Man exiles his blood brothers, Bon and our sympathizer, from Vietnam to Paris. Now, the narrator goes under the alias Vo Danh; however, it’s that alias which is rarely used. Instead, most people call the sympathizer by his nickname, Crazy Bastard, because he’s become, understandably, unhinged. Bon hates communists and doesn’t know that both Vo and Man were communist spies. As with The Sympathizer, Vo’s motivation to protect his best friend, Bon, from discovering his communist identity serves as the primary tension that heightens throughout the novel.
The plot is elusive. And, yet still, a lot happens. We finally get to meet Vo’s aunt (who is really Man’s aunt), a sophisticated literary editor who takes a shine to Vo’s confessional manuscript. Vo befriends the Boss, a Chinese gangster who pushes a “remedy” drug made from Vietnamese coffee beans and collects “insurance” to leave people alone, like something out of a Coppola or Scorsese movie. He’s a Chinese-Parisian Godfather, which is to say, the Boss reads as a bit of a stock character, yet still provides a good point of anxiety for Vo. For money, Vo takes up the Boss’s offer to sell both hashish and the remedy. In this sudden acceptance, Vo becomes a capitalist.
This new role as a drug pusher causes Vo to consider his morals, his past life, and the fact that he left behind the revolution and communism for a Parisian lifestyle, which has no real, revolutionary purpose. Mostly, we are in Vo’s head amid a lot of violence that surrounds such a profession. It’s important to note that Vo is not well. Torture and murder have made Vo crazy. A mental puddle, Vo is prone to cry over minor troubles, sometimes for no apparent reason at all. We are deep in Vo’s perspective and, as the novel progresses, his analytical mind dissects Marxist theory, communism, philosophy, and his failure as a revolutionary. For the philosophically minded, this is a treat.
It is to Nguyen’s credit that Vo is both incredibly likeable, funny, wise to a certain unstable degree, while remaining entirely unhinged. It’s fun. Vo explains his feelings with acute awareness, which avoids feeling like we’re trapped in a narrative of asylum. Rather, we question Vo’s sanity based on the comments and actions from those around him. A person changes seats on the Metro while Vo rehearses obscene thoughts – probably out loud. Vo’s exclamation that he doesn’t need anyone to talk to, because he talks to himself all day, is met with a response: this is indeed evident.
Loose and unsteady, Vo no longer has a plan or agenda, and the shift on his mental state is seen in the prose. Somehow, the novel feels softer. The writing is confident, but less tense. It’s a pleasure. Compared with The Sympathizer, a book that had me on the edge of my seat, The Committed feels more like storytelling, a gripping story at that too.
The novel’s microscopic focus lends predominantly to the relationship between the remients of French imperializing presence, after the Fall of Saigon, and the colonized Vietnamese. Perhaps,the most fascinating observations stem from the white French socialist intellectuals. Vo’s pseudo aunt has two friends, the Maoist PhD and the BFD. These academics drop philosopher names like flower petals and talk down to Vo, who they claim to support. In this, there’s a short-lived, self-congratulatory nature to the Frenchmen. Indeed, the white “woke” intellectual is satisfyingly called out when Vo finally lets loose on BFD. As a drug dealer, Vo gets into trouble with some thugs, and a particularly grueling torturous incident sends him to Paradise, an aptly named asylum. Revenge is imminent but, without spoiling anything, the way the revenge shakes out is a lot quieter than expected. This moment takes readers into the last section. Some surprise elements appear that don’t hit like the rest of the book. It feels, to this reader anyway, that the turns of events aren’t the issue so much as the set-up, or lack there-of, in some cases. The book ends much like its predecessor, in a hazy, open-ended manner that pleasantly leaves the reader guessing even after the book’s the end. The Committed is a fun, energetic, and dizzying adventure.