The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen (Grove Press, 2015)
Set in the aftermath of the Vietnam War, this debut novel poses as a confession by the unnamed “sympathizer” of the title, an American-educated Viet Cong spy whose misadventures as a mole in the service of a Republican Army general he records for an unidentified “Commandant.” Ordered to maintain his cover at war’s end, the sympathizer follows the general and his cohort as they flee besieged Saigon for the seedy streets of Los Angeles, where he monitors the general’s efforts to rebuild, from among his fellow refugees, an army to retake the South.
The folly of the narrator’s quest matches that of the general’s: like the unnamed “I” of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man—allusions to which dot Nguyen’s novel like Easter eggs—the sympathizer proves an incorrigible naïf stumbling toward awareness. Having survived the war with his hands mostly clean and, despite CIA training in torture, his youthful idealism intact, it’s on his second sojourn in the States that he starts his true education. When not running hits for the general—dirty work, necessary to maintain his cover, whose victims come back to haunt him—he serves the communist cause by consulting on a film whose Hollywoodizing of the war he hopes to mitigate by convincing its megalomaniacal director, referred to as “the Auteur,” to hire Vietnamese actors for the VC roles. The narrator’s victory in this rather beside-the-point battle (would Ho Chi Min really care about Hollywood hiring practices?) literally blows up in his face, landing him, in one of Nguyen’s more insistent nods to Ellison, speechless and confused in an all-white hospital room, a nagging hole in his memory.
As with Ellison’s narrator, this missing piece of mind proves the key, if not to the kingdom, to the sympathizer’s enlightenment. The question is whether readers will stick with the novel long enough for this moderately satisfying payoff. To keep readers engaged, Nguyen parades across his pages a cast of characters motley as a Robert Altman ensemble, including a CIA specialist in torture; an Orientalist academic given to racist condescension; his chain-smoking, free-loving secretary of Japanese heritage; a John-Quincy-Adams-quoting, influence-peddling Orange County congressmen and former Green Beret; a twenty-something Berkeley-educated Vietnamese rock ’n’ roller; and an American pop-listening Viet Cong re-educator, to name but a few. Colorful as they are, too many of these characters resemble loudly dressed manikins, eye-catchingly lifelike yet not quite alive, some of them plagued by incongruities. The Orange County congressman, for instance, boasts to an influential political scientist of not having read his book, an oddly anti-intellectual brag for a man prone to quoting, at length from memory, the lesser-known President Adams.
More prominent examples are Bon and Man, friends of the sympathizer since childhood with whom he sealed a teenage pact of blood-brotherhood. This episode, briefly sketched in retrospect, stands largely alone in substantiating the trio’s bond, which holds, we’re asked to believe, despite the friends finding themselves as adults on opposite sides of the war—though Bon, a Republican partisan, remains apparently unaware of his friends’ communism. Further backstory of Bon and the narrator’s friendship comes not until page 224 of this 371-page novel. Bon’s and Man’s own backgrounds are sketched hardly at all. This is less a problem for Bon, who, having joined the sympathizer in Los Angeles, appears more often in-scene, allowing us a sense of him through his actions and words. Man, more mentioned than seen, remains a mere cipher—less man than outline.
These problems suggest a first-time novelist still mastering his craft. More evidence appears in the sympathizer’s garrulous narration, which at times betrays the conceit that we are reading a confession penned to the presumably Vietnamese “Commandant.” Nguyen’s habit of channeling facts about the war through his narrator leads to mini history lessons like the following:
Our country was overrun by acronyms, with the ICCS [International Committee of Control and Supervision] otherwise known as ‘I Can’t Control Shit,’ its role to oversee the cease-fire between north and south after the American armed forces strategically relocated. It was a smashingly successful cease-fire, for in the last two years only 150,000 soldiers had died, in addition to the requisite number of civilians (39).
Interesting as the information here is, clearly it’s aimed at the reader not the sympathizer’s ostensible audience, who, a veteran of the war, would doubtless already know it. This and similar passages break the plane of the fiction, like holes in the movie screen.
Such instances, infrequent enough, might be overlooked. Harder to ignore is the novel’s often vexing style. Oddly redundant phrases pepper the narration: American pop songs “usually always made bad things bearable”; types of French colonials include “the diffident wallflower”; a group of prostitutes possesses “spirited élan” and a former South Vietnamese officer a “doomed mortality.” Such dubious verbal excess extends to the narrator’s overzealous pursuit of metaphors, many hammy. Smitten with the general’s daughter, the narrator longs to “rub the emollient, creamy pulp of [his] ecstatic self onto her soft white skin”; South Vietnamese refugees in Los Angeles find themselves “consumed by the metastasizing cancer called assimilation and susceptible to the hypochondria of exile.” Dealing a rhetorical blow, the narrator hits an opponent “where it hurt, in the solar plexus of his conscience.”
What to make of these unfortunate figurative flights and clunky locutions? That Nguyen’s narrator delivers also some evocative descriptions—a man’s “Clark Gable mustache” is described “playing dead on his upper lip”; suitcases, abandoned on a runway during a VC attack, lie “burst open and spilling their entrails”; a toilet in a Filipino hotel gives “a depressive sigh” when flushed—makes it hard to read his poorer offerings as designedly so, as the Ukrainian Alex’s sublimely butchered English is, for instance, in Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything Is Illuminated. One suspects Nguyen, in going for maximum narrative verve, let his narrator’s verbal play lead the prose where it would, without looking back. That the resulting novel contains not just groaners but gems suggests, like much else in this debut, Nguyen’s considerable potential, not yet fully realized in this ambitious, flawed first effort.