peteg's blog

Viet Thanh Nguyen: The Sympathizer

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Extracted from the Chicago Public Library. I feel like we saw the same movies: Apocalypse Now, Once Upon a Time in America, Fight Club, Infernal Affairs, 1984, right up to the last bit of torture porn, which must have been Zero Dark Thirty or some other flag waver that I drew the line at. Yes, the Vietnamese I met in St Louis called Chicago chick a go (p66). Nguyen consciously, with occasional ostentatious bravery, nibbles on the (white man's) hand that feeds: he keenly observes (p180) that Country is white man's music, which sounds like a fine analysis until Google tells you that Country has been called "the white man's blues", and we're back to watching the same movies. The General's army, assembling east of L.A., are rag-tag space monkeys. The mole was not played by Tony Leung, nor the General's apparently luscious daughter by Maggie Cheung. The clash of civilizations (p250) is tired and wants to retire. (Dr Hedd is a pastiche of horrorshow cold warrior intellectual armchair generals.) He struck a chord on the topic of American happiness (p245):

So, [Englishman Hedd] said, are you happy? It was an intimate question, nearly as personal as asking about my salary, acceptable in our homeland but not here. What was worse, however, was that I could not think of a satisfactory answer. If I was unhappy, it would reflect badly on me, for Americans saw happiness as a moral failure and thought crime. But if I was happy, it would be in bad taste to say so, or a sign of hubris, as if I was boasting or gloating.

I agree with Andrew X. Pham that it was a compelling read. I'm less certain that it was audacious. See Nam Le on ethnic lit.

Philip Caputo wrote a lengthy review at the New York Times. I think I enjoyed the overwriting more than the writing.

It later won a Pulitzer for fiction.