My rating: 3 of 5 stars
The ambition and audacity of this Pulitzer-prize-winning 2015 novel can’t be denied. Synthesizing postcolonial theory with the tradition of the Great American Novel, Nguyen retells the story of the Vietnam War and its aftermath from the perspective of—not quite one of its victims, which is too moralistic a frame for Nguyen’s often immoral and immoralist narrator, but one of its subjects: someone whose race and nationality meant, by the unequal rules of geopolitics, that he was to endure it in humble silence.
The Sympathizer takes the form of a confession: our nameless narrator is a divided man, half-French and half-Vietnamese, a Communist agent spying for the North in the upper echelons of the South’s military establishment. As if to represent his own split self, his two best friends and blood brothers are an ardent nationalist and a committed Communist. His narrative begins with the chaos and violence of Saigon’s fall and proceeds to the malign peace of postwar life in Los Angeles, where the narrator, still writing reports in invisible ink to his Communist friend and liaison back in his homeland, carries out two murders on behalf of the South Vietnamese general who employs him.
He also sojourns in the Philippines as cultural consultant and counselor to Vietnamese refugee extras for an unnamed auteur shooting an Apocalypse Now-style film about the breakdown of the American psyche in Southeast Asia. Throughout these misadventures, the narrator offers brittle, sarcastic, and erudite commentary on Americans’ condescending self-satisfaction and imperial arrogance.
Eventually, the narrator joins a counterrevolutionary military expedition back to Vietnam and finds himself a captive of the Communists. Most of what we’ve read before the concluding chapters has been his self-criticism in the Maoist mode. The novel climaxes with the narrator’s visionary perception of the truth behind all the political masters he’s served and masks he’s worn.
From the first paragraph of the novel proper (“I am not some misunderstood mutant from a comic book or horror movie”) to the last paragraph of the concluding “Acknowledgements” section (where we learn that Nguyen’s son is named Ellison), The Sympathizer is clearly and closely modeled on Invisible Man. Like that 1952 classic, this is a mock-epic narrated by a fractious outsider to the American mainstream who also finds wanting its official enemies (Communists and ethno-nationalists in both cases).
Nguyen’s narrative mode also derives from Ellison’s style of parabolically and satirically “dilated” realism, a tradition passing back through Ellison to Joyce, Melville, Sterne, Cervantes, and the Menippean satire, but generally signifying in American letters the ambition to write a novel big enough to contain the nation’s victors and victims, its utopian promises and dystopian betrayals. Nguyen likewise flagrantly alludes to other American novelists—Nabokov, Bellow, Roth—who as linguistic, cultural, or ethnic others wrestled this protean, adversarial country into sprawling, angry, beautiful spates of language and narrative.
I can’t decide if this novel’s belated midcentury ambitions are its glory or its downfall. I tried to read it once before and found it merely mannered and hectoring—I also made a perhaps ill-advised nasty remark about it on these electronic pages—but once I gave it enough time to let its tonal richness develop, I came to admire Nguyen’s audacity. I have made no secret that I am unimpressed with our timid, trendy, fragmentary autofiction, everyone writing like Wittgenstein after a few melatonin gummies, so I can’t very well judge too harshly a writer willing at this late date to go balls to the wall (and this is a fairly testosterone-soaked book) by reinventing the Great American Novel all over again.
But I did mention postcolonial theory. Nguyen is uneasy in his chosen novelistic tradition, and this seems to me to lead not to productive ambiguity but to a mix of evasion and cheap sarcasm.
Take the novel’s satire of Apocalypse Now. Nguyen turns Coppola’s epic into a much stupider-sounding film called The Hamlet, which ends when the Marlon Brando character is killed by the madame of a Vietnamese brothel the American soldiers used to frequent. His dying words? “The whore! The whore!” He likewise turns Coppola himself into a shrill caricature who could be any white male idiot or “talk to me, baby” Hollywood cartoon. Earlier in the novel, an Orientalist professor is given the same satirical treatment, airily discoursing about East and West as he sits in “an overstuffed leather club chair that enfolded him like the generous lap of a black mammy.”
When Nguyen’s narrator denounces the entire American film industry as a machine for oppression, both in the ideology it disseminates to the globe it oversees and in the vast sums and resources it commands, I nodded in agreement. The world would probably be a better place without motion pictures; I have no desire whatever to defend Hollywood or Coppola, and I only wish more American thinkers would come out against corporate entertainment as such in these disgusting days of Marvel-movie monoculture and its pseudo-intellectual poptimist alibis.
But there is no point for the novelist in pretending that the object of his critique has no inherent merit or value. “The whore! The whore!” debases not Coppola; its facile reductiveness lowers The Sympathizer. If you spend too much of your novel lecturing stupid white people—especially if you exaggerate their stupidity—then your novel remains on the intellectual level of stupid white people. Why bother?
Consider the road not taken. Twice in the novel, the narrator or his interlocutor likens Vietnamese culture in particular or Asian culture at large to that of Italians: “No, we fought to the tune of love songs, for we were the Italians of Asia.” Since Nguyen was going to bring an iconic Italian-American artist onstage anyway in the form of Coppola, why not explore this likeness and conundrum?
A more original polemicist today would inveigh against the foolish conviction shared between the social justice warriors and the alt-right ethno-nationalists that the cultural achievements of America or Europe can be meaningfully characterized as “white.” Yet in place of this actually subversive thought, Nguyen gives us The Hamlet and a few didactic grad-student “Easter egg” nods to Said (via Marx: “they must be represented”) and Spivak (“an epic about white men saving good yellow people from bad yellow people”) during lengthy discourses about how #representationmatters.
Whatever the political acuity or urgency of woke rhetoric, the problem faced by the most ambitious of contemporary novelists is that such language has now become Teen Vogue middlebrow, a literary cliché, and so unable to serve as the imaginative motor of a great novel. I don’t want to be merely insulting, but if Nguyen’s critique is so scorchingly radical, then whence The Sympathizer’s Pulitzer?
By the way, a Korean friend once told me that the Koreans were the Italians of Asia (she said this to explain why we got along so well). I mention it because this friend of mine is a Marxist literary critic, as is her husband, and I happen to have read her husband’s as-yet unpublished paper criticizing The Sympathizer for resting within the tired post-Beloved convention that multicultural literature should be about historical trauma, a focus that neglects the materialities of land and labor in favor of scarred bourgeois subjectivities.
Nguyen knows such a critique from the left is coming and encodes his riposte into the novel’s final chapters. His Communist interrogator berates him for the literary style of his confession:
The good news is that you show glimmers of revolutionary consciousness. The bad news is that your language betrays you. It is not clear, not succinct, not direct, not simple. It is the language of the elite. You must write for the people!
But he inwardly voices his countervailing contention that “It seemed as much of a crime to commit a cliché to paper as to kill a man…” Much of the final chapters read like an argument Nguyen is having with himself: the aesthete vs. the activist in the inner theater of the novel. He sutures this rift in his concluding epiphanies, to his satisfaction if not to mine. Under torture he perceives the primordial existential void behind all ideologies from which the riven self issues:
What had I intuited at last? Namely this: while nothing is more precious than independence and freedom, nothing is also more precious than independence and freedom! These two slogans are almost the same, but not quite. The first inspiring slogan is Ho Chi Minh’s empty suit, which he no longer wore. How could he? He was dead. The second slogan was the tricky one, the joke. It was Uncle Ho’s empty suit turned inside out, a sartorial sensation that a man of two minds, or a man with no face, dared to wear. This odd suit suited me, for it was of a cutting-edge cut. Wearing this inside-out suit, my seams exposed in an unseemly way, I understood, at last, how our revolution had gone from being the vanguard of political change to the rearguard hoarding power. In this transformation, we were not unusual. Hadn’t the French and the Americans done exactly the same? Once revolutionaries themselves, they had become imperialists, colonizing and occupying our defiant little land, taking away our freedom in the name of saving us. Our revolution took considerably longer than theirs, and was considerably bloodier, but we made up for lost time. When it came to learning the worst habits of our French masters and their American replacements, we quickly proved ourselves the best. We, too, could abuse grand ideals! Having liberated ourselves in the name of independence and freedom—I was so tired of saying these words!—we then deprived our brethren of the same!
He cannot write in a more populist style because his playful paronomasia and nimble reversals are the sign in the text of the self’s irreducible variousness, the only philosophical security against oppression, whether from right or left.
Yet Nguyen won’t take the final step into the modernists’ ethically apophatic aesthetics, their outright refusal to name values lest in naming them they expose them to the corrosive air of public life. The Sympathizer ends with a paean to refugees, an affirmation of sympathy not as bourgeois moderation, which it had threatened to become in our hero’s self-proclaimed “ability to see any issue from both sides,” but as attention to the powerless:
Our life and our death has taught us always to sympathize with the undesirables among the undesirables. Thus magnetized by experience, our compass continually points toward those who suffer.
Ellison, Bellow, Nabokov, and Roth share a faith in America at which Nguyen finally balks. The earlier novelists represent the last stand of an individualist liberalism (Ellison: “Let man keep his many parts and you’ll have no tyrant states”) that was cut down in the late 20th century by the massed forces of neoliberal technocracy and its answering identity politics, which together sundered the old subject of liberalism.
Like the Great American Novelists before him—and like their sponsor, Ellison’s own namesake, Ralph Waldo Emerson, name-checked in The Sympathizer as “that greatest of American philosophers”—Nguyen posits a man who contains multitudes (he is Vietnamese, French, American, liberal, Communist, heterosexual, homosocial, bourgeois, poor, Catholic, atheist, etc.) and so is able to enlarge his “I” into a “we.”
Such an expansive literary subjectivity is not our way in the second decade of the 21st century. We are strata analyzed by varied metrics and unremitting social judgments; we are a credit score, an insurance appraisal, a sexuality, and an ethnicity; we are the sum of our institutional rankings and axes of oppression. We are anything but the selves conceived on the grand and unshackled model of the 19th- and 20th-century novels that fearless writers built as havens for and cathedrals to our human glory. Nguyen deplores this contemporary loss of self enough to have his hero come around to “we” as his preferred pronoun by the novel’s conclusion, yet elsewhere he writes with less conviction and stoops to what reads to me as mere snideness (I note with some discomfort that this might be an effect of his presence among the Twitterati).
Nguyen’s concluding “we” is not the collective of the cosmopolitical enlightened nation as imagined by Emerson and Ellison. It is, more fashionably, the “we” of the oppressed as such. And say what you like about Ellison et al.’s liberalism, or even their proto-neoconservatism—which consciously left a space of authority for the bourgeois novelist in the beloved republic—it was more honest than the academic radical’s nostrums about a suffering collective whose emancipation would, by the terms of his own theory, mean his undoing.
Trust the tale, not the teller: The Sympathizer at its best knows what its author sometimes strains to deny. Better, anyway, this failure than success in a more small-minded enterprise.