The Sympathizer: A Review
Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizer directly refutes a dominant perspective: many of its readers likely think of the Vietnam War as something that happened to America, a big mistake that started in the Gulf of Tonkin and was largely resolved when US combat forces left in 1973. In this sense, Nguyen’s novel is the best complement in English-language Vietnam War fiction to what Marilyn Young’s The Vietnam Wars, 1945–1990 did for American histories of the war — acknowledging that war’s more distant beginning in an anti-colonialist independence movement and tracing its aftershocks well beyond the flight from Saigon. For its scope, depth of perspective, quality of prose, and its seductive, baroque narration, The Sympathizer is — along with Karl Marlantes’ Matterhorn & Alfredo Véa’s Gods Go Begging — one of the three best Vietnam War novels available to an English-reading audience.1
The Captain (the novel’s otherwise unnamed protagonist) is in the tradition of the Dostoevskian anti-hero, a misfit, an outsider with divided loyalties.2 Nguyen, with deliberate care, develops a picture of a man compromised from the moment of corrupt conception. The “bastard” epithet continually directed at him fits not only the circumstances of his birth, but the bifurcations that multiply as his story unfolds. While I don’t share the same identities, the Captain’s great blessing and curse — seeing the world from multiple perspectives — resonated with me on a smaller scale: my parents’ divorce in my early childhood created parallel worlds I lived in simultaneously, a Rubik’s cube of interpersonal, political, religious, and cultural identities that all shifted as I traversed the no-man’s land between parents. Nguyen’s treatment of this condition — in The Captain’s racial, cultural, political, and religious identities — is not simply convincing, it’s masterful.
In my more jaundiced Iraq War vet moments, I find myself sympathetic to various immigrant & refugee Vietnamese characters’ piercing, Solzhenitsyn-esque disaffected criticism of what they see as the US’ decadent society & shallow popular culture — ostensibly of the Great Malaise era, but every bit as resonant today.3 I admit I enjoyed the skewering of the Hollywood that produced not only Apocalypse Now (the primary inspiration for the book’s biting critique of American Vietnam War cinema) and The Green Berets, but — pushed forward — the post-9/11, Global War on Terror-era’s Homeland.4
The Sympathizer is a necessity for any conflict studies or Vietnam War reading list or syllabus. In fact, it’s just downright necessary — and excellent.
Others in the conversation to round out the top five: Larry Heinemann’s Close Quarters & Paco’s Story, Duong Thu Huong’s Novel Without a Name, Bao Ninh‘s The Sorrow of War, Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried & Going After Cacciato. All of these are a fair step below the top three.↩︎
Nguyen readily acknowledges the influence Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (a reverence underscored by naming his son Ellison); Ellison’s novel was, in its own part, influenced by Dostoevsky.↩︎
I have here in mind “reality” television, the primary contribution of which is the presidency of a cronyist, xenophobic, racist mediocrity, and a broad cultural bent toward escapist fantasy (e.g. Hollywood superhero blockbuster & serial dramas of palace intrigue) and narcissism. If religion is the opioid of the masses, then these must be the Ecstacy.↩︎
“[Americans] pretend they are eternally innocent no matter how many times they lose their innocence. The problem is that those who insist on their innocence believe anything they do is just. At least we who believe in our own guilt know what dark things we can do.”↩︎