The Sympathizer. Viet Thanh Nguyen.

Nguyen, Viet Thanh. The Sympathizer. Grove, New York, 2015. Kindle electronic version. F/5/16.

A pretty dependent fiction addict, I troll the literary prizes so I don’t miss anything new and exciting. Part of my response to this book (which I chose because it was this year’s Pulitzer winner) is surprise at its having won the prize. The writing is at times impressive, at times awkward, and often, I thought, self-important to the point of being bogus. And the story’s content struggles to be both “war is hell” blood and guts realistic, and also spiritually enlightening. It falls way short of managing that stretch.

Our hero tells us at the start that he’s a double agent, part of the defeated American/South Vietnamese military now transplanted to America, but clandestinely in touch with the Communists back home. He lets us know along blood and guts realism lines that he’s a bad boy in the time-honoured military style, jumping prostitutes and other women, drinking all the alcohol he can get his hands on, and committing a couple of murders pretty much entirely for political or professional convenience. But wait: he feels so bad about the murders that both victims follow him around as ghosts. And he spends a lot of time excoriating himself over his inner struggles between his “two sides”: communism and capitalism? Vietnam and the United States? Self-centredness and altruism? Pragmatism and spirituality? All/none of the above? Of course it’s modern-fiction-consistent that we aren’t told, but somehow here that ambiguity doesn’t amount to a convincing call for soul-searching, so we’re left feeling like Mr. Nguyen has bitten off more than he can chew.

This is all informed by figurative language with an unusual flavour.  Sometimes it works:

… my stomach began to rotate counterclockwise.

… The American mind continuously whitewashing the graffiti of despair, rage, hatred, and nihilism scrawled there nightly by the black hoodlums of the unconscious.

sometimes it doesn’t:

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…

Toward the end (could be a minor spoiler here) the plot veers back to Vietnam and we find our hero in a POW torture chamber reminiscent of where they put Robert De Niro and Christopher Walken in The Deer Hunter. But which side is he on? And what hideous physical trials and grasping for spiritual truth is he going to have to squirm through to either find out for himself, or escape?

In a story where the character had captured my imagination I would have wanted to find out, but by the middle of this obviously false allegedly human-endurance saga, I’m yawning and waiting for things to wind up.

Swallowing this kind writing is a bit like being force-fed an ideologic mix of pragmatism and spirituality and being expected to grant credibility. After a really good bowl of the heavily graphic prisoner of war scenes piled on top of sex, booze, and murder in the States (representing your tough military world view), our troubled hero concludes on the last page:

… we find ourselves facing more questions, universal and timeless ones that never get tired. What do those who struggle against power when they seize power? What does the revolutionary do when the revolution triumphs? Why do those who call for independence and freedom take away the independence and freedom of others? And is it sane or insane to believe, as so many around us apparently do, in nothing? We can only answer those questions for ourselves.

Okay. But why am I not convinced that this justifies all the not-quite-coherent roughage I’ve just consumed?

I don’t think I’m alone, but there may be a difference between the average American reader and the rest of us. Googling a couple of reviews, one from the New York Times read like a book-jacket rave (although that journalist also wasn’t completely happy with the uncontrolled writing), but one from the Guardian, more or less ignoring the book itself, focused on the process of selecting the Pulitzer winner as being a hybrid creature of politics and economics.  Not entirely the sophisticated literary evaluation I imagine we want and should be expecting.

I take the Guardian’s point. I’ve always had trouble with the modern practice of using lofty recognition to deal with things we don’t like to admit: we’ve made a mistake, or our behaviour in the past was at odds with what we now think of as moral, reasonable, or safe. Giving not-particularly-good black actors an Oscar (or complaining loudly in the media when they don’t happen to win one) doesn’t make slavery or lopsided police brutality go away, doesn’t reflect well on the Motion Picture Academy, and embarrasses serious African-Americans. Giving Mr. Nguyen the Pulitzer for his strange and strangely-written book doesn’t change what happened in Vietnam and how America or Vietnamese-Americans feel, or should feel, about it. Never mind it trivializes the prize and turns us poor readers looking for something interesting away to some other source. 5.6/6.9.

About John Sloan

John Sloan is a senior academic physician in the Department of Family Practice at the University of British Columbia, and has spent most of his 40 years' practice caring for the frail elderly in Vancouver. He is the author of "A Bitter Pill: How the Medical System is Failing the Elderly", published in 2009 by Greystone Books. His innovative primary care practice for the frail elderly has been adopted by Vancouver Coastal Health and is expanding. Dr. Sloan lectures throughout North America on care of the elderly.
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