Fiction: ‘The Committed’ Review

Sam Sacks reviews The Committed for The Wall Street Journal.

The narrator of Viet Thanh Nguyen’s “The Committed” (Grove, 345 pages, $27) is a man without a country or a name—we know him by the pseudonym Vo Danh, or “nameless.” When he was introduced in the 2016 Pulitzer Prize winner “The Sympathizer,” he was a communist spy dispatched to the United States to scupper the counterrevolutionary schemes of South Vietnamese emigrants. But when he reports back to Hanoi, he’s thought to be overly attached to the American way and is tortured and re-educated for his trouble. Since then, we learn in “The Committed,” he has fled by boat to a refugee camp in Indonesia and then traveled to Paris, his father’s native city. It is 1981 and Vo Danh is “still a man of two faces and two minds.” His best friend is a diehard anticommunist who knows nothing of his past in espionage; his aunt is an assimilated French woman who presides over leftist intellectual circles; Vo Danh himself hates his country’s former colonizers with a patriotic fervor, but he has to admit to a traitorous love for foie gras and Françoise Hardy.How does he cope with the psychological schism? Mostly by ranting about the dark joke of his predicament. Vo Danh finds work scrubbing toilets at a restaurant that fronts for Paris’s Vietnamese mafia and soon graduates to dealing hash to his aunt’s upmarket comrades. Drug-pushing provides his initiation to the spoils of capitalism, though, ironically, his clients are all champagne Marxists prone to offering defenses of Pol Pot. His roiling, pox-on-both-their-houses cynicism often comes across like bits from a stand-up comedy routine (Paul Beatty’s masterly race satire “The Sellout” took a similar approach). True, there’s not as much dog crap on the streets of Saigon as in Paris, Vo Danh notes, but that’s because in Vietnam canines are lunch, not pets. Considering a heritage festival organized by Vietnamese expats, he wonders if it will include gambling, which is taught to children during Tet celebrations.

The science of dreams. Plus exploring Texas with Rick Bass & more.The funny, excoriating voice delivering these observations has lost none of its energy since “The Sympathizer.” What has changed is the balance between action and ideas. The plot of “The Committed,” which mostly dwells on Vo Danh’s misadventures with the mafia, has no specific grounding in historical events and often seems incidental to its protagonist’s intellectual evolution. Postcolonial and critical race theories exist in the underpinnings of “The Sympathizer”; now they have come to the surface, sometimes in ham-handed ways. Vo Danh subdues a rival gang of French-Algerians by quoting Frantz Fanon. In an especially ill-conceived scene, learning about feminist scholar Hélène Cixous helps him give sexual satisfaction to a prostitute.“Am I not always infinitely dialectical as I synthesize the thesis of me and the antithesis of myself?” he asks. Ultimately, Vo Danh arrives at a liberating concept of radical passivity that I would need much more knowledge of theory to fully unpack. The biting back and forth of this double-edged novel remains a thrill and a provocation, but there are aspects of “The Committed” that seem written for the Academy.

Category: Reviews

 

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