Responsa: The Sympathizer

I want to thank those who wrote and welcomed me back to blogging. However, I am still on holiday for another month so if I resume, I expect my blogs will be infrequent. But, who knows. Infections are very hard to get rid of.

I was asked a number of questions. The first was about why my response was so over the top. The simple answer – it was not. I checked the reviews. They were much shorter and covered the gamut of character and plot, atmosphere and style and did not focus in depth on one theme. But they were just as effusive. The novel did win a Pulitzer.

Why did I not discuss the flaws and only mentioned that they existed? My excuse – the novel was too terrific to focus on the distractions. For example, one flaw I believe was the excessive drinking in the novel, particularly among the Vietnamese characters. The novel is an alcoholic’s dream. But the characters like the crapulant major depicted as alcoholics are rarely described as drinking let alone drinking to excess, whereas the most sober characters drink like shickers.

Was the novel satirizing the Vietnamese imitation of this American trait? I do not believe the novel here was satirizing the Vietnamese community or how much the Vietnamese men had become Americanized, for this was not a trait I have observed at all in my dealings with the Vietnamese. Further, as Nguyen explained in an interview, in using the plot device of a Vietnamese man confessing to another, he was offering a conversation between and among Vietnamese to portray and satirize American culture and the extent to which the Vietnamese sometimes aped its worst traits. But, in this case, do they? Or was the novel then satirizing drinking as a fictional device? I suspect the latter, but I am afraid it did not work for me.

In one sense, the novel is a satire of the spy novel itself. Making the central character a mole had to be a tribute to John le Carré who invented the term. On the other hand, among the many writers Nguyen cites as sources, specifically on the Vietnam War and on Francis Ford Coppola’s film, I did not find le Carré among them. Besides, the anti-hero, Smiley, is le Carré’s chief protagonist and he hunts moles rather than being one himself. Nguyen’s character, who has such a lofty as well as deprecating view of himself, is a counterpoint to Smiley who is modest to a fault as well as self-deprecating.

However, if Nguyen’s novel is in part a satire of the spy novel, why did I not write more about lies and betrayal that provide a central core and fascination in that genre of fiction? Because Nguyen inverts this theme. The protagonist, Man, his handler, and Bon swear fealty to one another at the age of fourteen, and though one is on the opposite side of the other two ideologically, they never betray their pledge of loyalty to one another as much as one might abuse the other in the end. In one sense, the novel is a romance about male bonding and a satire of it at the same time. There is no Kim Philby, or simulacrum to Philby, in the novel.

Why did I never explain my reason to focus on the theme of Vietnamese acculturation and American culture? Two reasons. Nguyen saw this as the major thrust of his novel. Second, as I thought I suggested, this was the issue in which I personally was most interested. But why did I not talk about fictional devices at least to illustrate how they advanced the theme instead of quoting so much? Good point. The protagonist is, after all, a Hamlet figure and the war film he helps produce is called The Hamlet, for Nguyen’s novel is about the schizophrenic character of the Vietnamese for whom divisiveness is central – into North and South, into communists and nationalists, into imitators of Americans obsessed with a woman’s cleavage, itself a reflection of division.

The main character may see both sides of an issue, but he is even more hapless than Hamlet. His assassinations are as gratuitous as the murders in a Tarantino film, but they have no finesse. His schizophrenia always sabotages his own actions.

That brings up another flaw that I found in this brilliant novel. I think that Nguyen has a keen ear for the inner voice and thought, almost keener than anyone I have read, but he has a tin ear for actual voices. Read what the characters say – you really cannot tell the characters apart. Just compare Nguyen’s novel to any of le Carré’s who is an artist of mimicry. There are some exceptions in Nguyen, such as the General’s speech or those talks of Richard Held, the prototype of the American ideologue of permanent war who makes Trotsky, the originator of permanent revolution, look like a piker. However, even in these cases, it is content that gives the character away, not the timbre or tone or inflexion. They do not have individualized voices. But Nguyen’s novel is so much more profound than those of le Carré, who is not just a terrific writer of spy thrillers, but a great novelist. But the detailed portrayal of voice and gesture, of clothes and composure, of breathing and glances, all the devices that help make the surfaces of the characters so vivid, are just not there in Nguyen, at least with any great skill. However, the probing of the inner world more than makes up for this deficiency. Far more.

The major difference, however, is that le Carré is not an artful dodger but an artful liar, someone obsessed with dissimulation both as a mechanism and a subject matter. Nguyen is too interested in truth and the spy format is simply a great device to explore his obsessions. In Nguyen, the characters, in spite of their erudition, seem clueless. In le Carré, it is M16 and the institutions sponsoring the spying that are portrayed as clueless.

From one point of view, novels are projections of a novelist’s personal obsession, in le Carré’s case, his relations with his mendacious and irresponsible father. Nguyen’s may be with an officious and uptight authority figure, but I suspect not. Nguyen has a long career ahead of him to give us time to figure that out.

Obviously, in such a rich novel, this type of conversation could go on endlessly. And should.

Thank you for writing.

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