The Short Version: Captured by an enemy force, an unnamed solider – a communist double agent working first in South Vietnam and then living, after the fall, in America – recounts what is supposed to be his confession. But what he actually confesses to is far more complicated than even he realizes.
The Review: There comes a moment, about halfway into this novel – a moment that’s more like an extended interlude – where our narrator ends up working on a movie that’s being made about the Vietnam War. The film, which evokes Apocalypse Now!, plans not to feature any true roles for actual Vietnamese people, other than just dying in the battle scenes. The narrator makes a pitch that there ought to be better representation and he achieves, through no small personal sacrifice, a bit of this goal – only to find, later, his name left out of the credits entirely and his impact on the movie only marginally changed anything. He makes the argument to his friend that he did it, though; he got the better representation for their people. His friend, Bon, retorts that now white people can say “look, though, we did such a good job” and consider themselves accomplished in the field of diversity.
I had to put the book down for a moment after that conversation, which comes towards the end of the book (movies taking a good year or so to come out after filming), because it not only captured the way that Nguyen is able to present both sides of an argument and make both seem like they’re correct – but it also made me realize that tokenism like this is still prevalent today. After all, when was the last time you read a book about the Vietnam War by a Vietnamese author? Go on, think about it. I’ll wait.
We tout the novels like the entire oeuvre of Tim O’Brien or Denis Johnson’s Tree of Smoke but these tales tell one story: the American story. Funny how, as a nation comprised almost entirely of immigrants, we’re so reluctant to tell the story of those who immigrate here later – or whose problems we’re engaging with around the world, whether or not they want us to. The Korean War has it worse off, storytelling and historical record-wise, as few people want to remember that we even fought that war. But, oddly enough, even the present conflicts in the Middle East have fiction that is starting to do this better, to tell the story of not just our brave American soldiers but the ordinary people who have to deal with our presence and even stories of the brave soldiers on the other side, willing to die for their cause as much as (if not more than) our soldiers.
The thing about The Sympathizer, though, is that while it’s very easy to fall into the war side of this book… it isn’t really a war book, not in the way that you’d think. There are certainly scenes of jungle conflict and the opening of the book is a harrowing and horrifying race to escape as the South was falling, nearly down to that infamous last helicopter – but Nguyen seems more interested with the psychology of how various actors in that conflict (a General for the South, his wife, their Westernized daughter, an ordinary soldier, the double agent, etc) try to make a go of it in America. Sometimes this is funny, sometimes it is a little sad, often times it is a bit of both: the General ends up owning a liquor store and the sense of lightly-comic frustration that masks a true sadness is searingly memorable.
And Nguyen is a tremendous writer. The novel opens with one of the most brilliant paragraphs of introduction I’ve seen in a long time, the narrator explaining his duplicity and doubleness and also musing on whether or not you can call certain things “talents” – for talents are meant to be used and his ‘talent’ uses him. Later, after he makes a fake grave for his mother on the film shoot in their set graveyard, he writes “At least in this cinematic life she would have a resting place fit for a mandarin’s wife, an ersatz but perhaps fitting grave for a woman who was never more than an extra to anyone but me.”
Oof, right? What a line.
He also has a great sense of humor, like a diatribe about Benjamin Franklin and communism’s lack of sexual revolution that made me guffaw – and also take to Twitter to try and convince the folks at Jacobin that they ought to devote an issue to socialism and sexual politics. And the absurdity of the ending chapters might not be laugh-out-loud funny, but it is funny without a doubt. Just that darker kind of funny that also makes you a little uncomfortable.
But the sad fact is: the book lists, staggers even. The narrator’s confession (which he admits he is writing right from the start) lasts for just about 300 of the 370-ish pages and while his captors are quick to needle him about how rambly it is, how overwritten, how it seemed to miss the point of the exercise… I had some of those same thoughts, frankly. Descriptions, smartly written though they may be, run rampant through the novel’s pages and I found myself really having to work to keep reading. When I was reading, I was interested… but almost academically. I was waiting for the next great moment as opposed to just reading the book for the ordinary pleasure of reading. When the twist at the end arrives, it’s almost too late; I’d nearly given up on the novel, not for any true dislike but just because it was a slog to get there, even if the individual parts of the slog were all worthy and interesting. The end does redeem things a bit, twisting the novel into something far more extra-ordinary than it would seem at first glance – but it isn’t enough to truly make the book as great as it started out being.
Rating: 3 out of 5. The importance of a Vietnamese author telling a Vietnamese story about a war called the Vietnam War cannot be overstated. And this is a very good novel at times, capturing not only the complicated politics of that conflict but also the complicated politics of being a refugee, being of not-just-two-but-really-three minds (North, South, American), and being a spy in a strange land. But it rambles at times, it ricochets, and never quite coheres like you want it to. The narrator is so unreliable and so particular about what it is he explains (confesses, if you will) that you not only can’t quite trust him, but moments occur where you wonder why he chose to write this at all (as opposed to just skipping it as he does with so many other things). It’s a complicated book and one that might sit better upon a re-read someday. I suppose we’ll have to find out.