Winner of the Pulitzer Prize

No-No Man: Viet Thanh Nguyen’s nihilist masterpiece

Roy Scranton reviews The Committed for The Yale Review.

Blue and yellow illustration with two faces on either side of a hanging lamp
Illustration by Laura Padilla Castellanos

IN THE ESSAY “COMMITMENT,” first published in 1962, Theodor Adorno asserts, “It is not the office of art to spotlight alternatives, but to resist by its form alone the course of the world, which permanently puts a pistol to men’s heads.” Adorno is making the point here, somewhat dramatically—though not, in light of the Holocaust informing it, hyperbolically—that the true measure of any work’s resistance to the everyday brutality of politics lies not in its content but rather in its form, since it is only through form that art can genuinely express human freedom. In his new novel The Committed, the Vietnamese American novelist Viet Thanh Nguyen dramatizes Adorno’s thesis, offering readers a work of postcolonial theory in the guise of a crime novel, a book that resists the annihilating violence of our world with the power of what we might call its nihilist form.

Nguyen, a Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist and MacArthur “genius grant” awardee, has built a body of sophisticated, learned, and wickedly ironic work, including his monograph on Asian American literature, Race and Resistance; his study of the cultural memory of what Vietnamese call the American War, Nothing Ever Dies; his short story collection, The Refugees; and his expansive and satirical war novel, The Sympathizer. That novel transformed Nguyen from a successful academic into a literary celebrity and brought him numerous awards, including the Pulitzer Prize.

The Sympathizer’s dynamic mélange of satire, pastiche, historical drama, suspense, and violence has received voluminous critical attention, with many readers remarking especially on Nguyen’s knowing references to and reworkings of passages from canonical works such as Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. Part of what astonishes about the novel is the way its heterogeneous sources and complex, polyvalent shifts in tone and register are forged into a single, compelling narrative through the voice of its highly self-conscious, sometimes unhinged, and often quite funny narrator, who introduces himself (and the book’s central dilemma) in the novel’s often-quoted opening lines: “I am a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces. Perhaps not surprisingly, I am also a man of two minds.”

The narrator is a captain in the South Vietnamese secret police, but that role is a cover for his deeper identity as a Communist spy. This doubleness is not only internal but also structural, figured through the narrator’s relationship to two blood brothers: Bon, the soul of goodness, a loyal, down-to-earth, true-hearted tough guy and like our hero a soldier of the Republic; and Man, the thinker, the conniver, and like our hero a Communist spy. Over the course of the novel, which adroitly inverts the archetypal plot of the war novel, the narrator and Bon flee the fall of Saigon for Los Angeles, only to return to Vietnam as part of a quixotic anti-Communist infiltration. The infiltration goes awry: their team is ambushed and killed, and the two men are captured, then tortured in a reeducation camp on the orders of a figure called the Commissar, who turns out to be the narrator’s old comrade, Man. (Along the way, the narrator also works as an adviser on location in the Philippines for a film satirically resembling Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now.)

The Committed is written in the same voice as The Sympathizer, and it picks up where that novel left off. But The Committed is more than a sequel: it is a continuation, completion, and refraction of the earlier novel’s themes, a masked and polyglot confession, an attempt to express the impossibility of living ethically in a society that persists only through the suffering of fellow human beings. A novel of ideas in the tradition of Lionel Trilling’s The Middle of the Journey and Ellison’s Invisible ManThe Committed dramatizes the situation faced by anyone on the American left today, particularly those who insist, “Something must be done!”

More specifically, The Committed explores the paradoxical role of identity in revolutionary politics—how identity is necessary yet limiting, and always a potential source of further oppression—a problem Nguyen elsewhere identifies as the threat of “identity closure.” As he puts it, “Once that closure happens, the revolutionary potential of identity is dead, and identity becomes complicit in power.” The Sympathizer was ultimately unable to resist the allure of closure, letting itself resolve into a story of traumatic identity formation, ending with the assertion “We will live!” The Committed, by contrast, strives to keep open identity’s revolutionary potential, and does so, paradoxically, through an absolute commitment to negation.

 COMMITTED STARTS SLOWLY, in a subdued key, following the narrator—now sometimes called Vo Danh (“Nameless”)—and Bon from a refugee camp in Indonesia to early 1980s Paris. There, Vo Danh deals drugs for an ethnic Chinese-Vietnamese refugee gangster called “the Boss,” mingles with French intellectuals, and eventually ends up embroiled in a turf war with Algerian criminals over a network of heroin customers made up largely of those same intellectuals.

Two main plots structure the novel’s narrative. The first involves the clash between Vo Danh’s Sino-Vietnamese gang and the Algerians. The second connects back to The Sympathizer: Bon discovers that the Commissar is now in Paris, wearing a white mask to hide his face (which had been burned off in an American napalm attack), and plans to take his revenge, while Vo Danh, who has kept the Commissar’s true identity a secret from Bon, hopes to stop him. As the plots unfold, the novel expands into a strange and stirring constellation of action and ideas, a Calder-Lichtenstein mash-up of bullets and dialectics, perpetually shifting in tone and register from the lowest scatological humor to subtle discussions of Louis Althusser and Julia Kristeva, from self-parodying melodrama to chilling gravitas, from crass puns to stark existential crises. Scenes of disturbing and sometimes even cartoonish violence are interwoven with nuanced meditations on decolonization and postcolonial theory, as gangsters quote each other passages on the virtues of violence from psychiatrist and political philosopher Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth.

All the greatest American works of art have something horrific about them, some air of nihilistic excess.

But it is precisely through Nguyen’s willingness to dramatize these problems in this way that he is able to bring them to life with something of the urgency with which they were originally articulated. When today we read Fanon writing, “decolonization is always a violent event” or “For the colonized…violence represents the absolute praxis,” it is difficult to remember that he means actual violence, that decolonization has often been spectacularly bloody, that its proponents have often adopted terror tactics, and that Fanon’s description of decolonization as “an agenda for total disorder” is not wrong. In an era in which faculty are urged to “decolonize your syllabus,” Nguyen’s work reminds us that, as scholars Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang wrote in 2012, “decolonization is not a metaphor.”

Nguyen’s juxtaposition of both crude humor and lurid, Grand Guignol violence against a discourse increasingly indistinguishable from sententious jargon redeems the seriousness of that discourse from the evacuation of meaning with which neoliberal ideological capture threatens it. The Committed reminds us that real violence always has some inherent excess, some element of the absurd, and always exceeds the merely moral, even (perhaps especially) when it is most committed to moral truth. And it challenges Fanon’s theory of violence—that “violence detoxifies,” that it “frees the colonized from his inferiority complex and from his despair and inaction,” and that it “makes him fearless and restores his self-respect.” In some sense, the novel offers a formal aesthetic argument against valorizing the role of violence, even traumatic violence, in identity formation, even as it formally violates the norms of the contemporary literary novel.

At one point, for instance, Vo Danh reflects on the way the violence of the formerly colonized can too easily perpetuate the very dynamic of oppression against which it was deployed:

Perhaps that was the only way to get rid of the colonizer, but where did it leave the colonized, infected with the parting gift of the colonizer, the venereal disease of hatred? The triumphant among the formerly colonized would turn this hatred of the colonizer into a barely disguised self-hatred for letting themselves be colonized for so long. They would not take out the self- hatred on themselves; they would take it out on the rest of the formerly colonized who were not so violent as the victorious.

Such meditations offer a conceptual framework through which to view the action of the novel—on one hand a vicious fight between two groups of formerly colonized people over marginal territory within the colonial power’s capital, on the other a revenge plot concocted by a compromised refugee against the revolutionary who tortured him. They also dramatize the inevitable disintegration of theory and praxis at the heart of any revolutionary project, as the violent disorder of genuine revolution necessarily exceeds and even negates whatever intellectual or moral script might have attempted to justify and order it in advance.

Take the scene in which Vo Danh’s fellow gangsters rescue him from being tortured and killed by the Algerians, one of whom is called “Beatles,” after his Beatles T-shirt. The writing here aspires to the balletic devastation of a John Woo film sequence, then lands with the imaginative empathy of Dostoyevsky:

The door to the stairway slammed open and Le Cao Boi slid down the handrail by the seat of his pants, sunglasses shield- ing his eyes, toothpick in his mouth, automatic pistols in both hands—bang! bang! bang!—and behind him was the Ronin in a shiny green double-breasted suit with the collar of his silk shirt open to the sternum and with a pump-action shotgun—bang! bang! bang!—and following him was Bon, crouching at the top of the stairs and bracing a submachine gun on his knee to provide cover fire—bang! bang! bang!—and it was awfully loud in the cellar, the screaming and shouting and cursing not helping matters, and I reached over and picked up the barely lit cigarette in the ashtray that Beatles had been smoking—bang! bang! bang!—and it felt so good after having been deprived of my addiction, the pleasure not ruined even when Beatles was knocked back onto the coffee table by the impact of several bullets, the gelatinous mush of his brains looking like all the brains I had ever seen because we are all human, and why couldn’t we just get along—bang! bang! bang!—and I looked down at his lifeless eyes, the half-empty cup of his shattered head resting on the edge of the coffee table near my knee, and I wept for him because if I had been him, born in this place, living his life, I might have done the same heinous things he had done, even to me—bang! bang! bang!

The mix of riotous violence, hard-boiled grace, and intense empathetic reflection is characteristic, as is the way that this scene, in bold lines and primary colors, follows, dramatizes, and subverts the narrator’s meditations on postcolonial texts. The novel’s form emerges through such contradictions—contradictions in style and contradictions between style and content—which refuse to be resolved, calling to mind the work of Nouvelle Vague filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard or his greatest American disciples, Don DeLillo and Quentin Tarantino.

The novel’s stylistic aporias are mirrored in its narrative. It doesn’t really matter whether the Vietnamese gang or the Algerians wind up controlling this particular niche of the Parisian heroin trade, since victory on either side signals the failure of anticolonial solidarity and the capitalist coopting of revolutionary violence. The situation is even more vexed with Bon’s revenge plot, since discovering that the faceless Communist Commissar who tortured him was Man would mean finding out that the most important relationship in his life was a lie, while for Vo Danh to keep Bon from killing Man, or prevent him from discovering the secret Vo Danh had kept from him, would be to deny Bon the justice a lifetime of suffering at the hands of Communists demanded. Unlike the novel’s stylistic aporias, however, the narrative resolves, if a pile of bodies can be called a resolution. The Vietnamese gang is wiped out by the Algerians in a bloody ambush, and Vo Danh is let go, only to find himself in a Sergio Leone/John Woo-style confrontation with his blood brothers Man and Bon.

Caught in what he later calls the dialectic “between aspiration and exploitation,” or “the infinite dialectic…between the impossible and the possible, between salvation and annihilation, between nonviolence and violence, between our capacity to save ourselves and destroy ourselves,” in which violence begets violence and liberation leads only to the construction of new forms of repression to be deployed against new victims, the only revolution to which our anonymous man of two minds can remain committed is the “disturbing space of the negative, the nothing, the blank, the void, where we must create ourselves anew, each of us unique, each of us in solidarity with others in their uniqueness, a sincere but maybe stupid belief that makes you a man of either vision or hallucination.” What Vo Danh ends with is the mantra he worries through the last half of the novel like a string of rosary beads and finally calls a joke: “Nothing is sacred.” Which of course could mean either that there is nothing in this fallen world we might hold sacred, or that holiness is to be found in negation itself.

ALL THE GREATEST AMERICAN WORKS OF ART have something horrific about them, some air of nihilistic excess. In the realm of literature, whether we speak of more recent masterpieces such as Toni Morrison’s Beloved or Samuel R. Delany’s Dhalgren, or older ones like William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom!, Gertrude Stein’s The Making of Americans, or Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, any truly great American work speaks from the monstrous heart of a haunted people. Why is this? Perhaps because we live the contradiction of our birthright, like Vo Danh caught between the highest ideals of human freedom and the dehumanizing violence through which those ideals took shape—in Vo Danh’s case a brutal Communist anticolonial revolution, in our own an indelible and unredeemable history of genocide and slavery born from the Enlightenment.

In its nihilistic excess, The Committed embodies the argument advanced by Adorno in “Commitment” when he writes,

Art, which even in its opposition to society remains a part of it, must close its eyes and ears against it: it cannot escape the shadow of irrationality. But when it appeals to this unreason, making it a raison d’être, it converts its own malediction into a theodicy. Even in the most sublimated work there is a hidden “it should be otherwise.”… The moment of true volition, however, is mediated through nothing other than the form of the work itself, whose crystallization becomes an analogy of that other condition which should be. As eminently constructed and produced objects, works of art, even literary ones, point to a practice from which they abstain: the creation of a just life.

Thus while The Committed offers no hope, no justice, no moral ground on which to stand and condemn, no argument which cannot be seen by our sympathizer dialectically from both sides, it is precisely through its wholesale resistance to a world in which the only solution to injustice is new injustice, the only solution to repression new repression, and the only solution to violence more violence that the novel offers in its form a crystallization and objectification of the possibility of justice which its content denies.

In the end, not even the most committed and autonomous art can save us as we confront repressive and racist power structures, the nightmare of ongoing and seemingly endless exploitation, and an apocalyptic future of fire and ash and dead yet rising seas. But sometimes a work emerges that offers a vision (or hallucination) of a better world, not through overt avowals of social justice, which, to adopt Adorno’s words, “are even in their protest constitutively implicated in the process of rationalization itself,” but by its total commitment to the impossible possibility that things could be otherwise. As Adorno argues and Viet Than Nguyen shows, this wager takes place not in the content of the work but strictly in its form: in this case, how the novel achieves a kind of identity in integration even as it nihilistically dis-integrates itself at every turn. The Committed offers a miraculous act of aesthetic suspension, proving that with American ingenuity you really can make something—and something sublime—out of nothing.


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