For every book we read during the book club, we try to write a review. This way anyone who couldn’t be there, can still join in with the fun! Roy den Boer is our main reviewer for the book club books, judging all that we have picked.
In The Sympathizer Viet Thanh Nguyen does a deep dive into the post-war experiences of the Vietnamese who had chosen the side of the establishment. The military men and women who had fought against the communist revolution, making deals with US intelligence and who were left out to dry when the war became politically unpopular in the United States. The first part of the novel takes place in Vietnam. The Americans have quietly been retreating and their Vietnamese allies are all searching out their contacts for a means of escape from the increasingly hostile country. The bulk of the novel is about these people in exile. Former bigwigs reduced to operating liquor stores, secretly plotting a second attempt at winning the conflict they had lost.
Our main character, nameless throughout the novel, is a double agent. Publicly working for a Vietnamese general, secretly feeding information back to the revolutionaries even eventually from exile in the United States. His two best friends from childhood further reinforce the duality of the main character. Man is a leader in the revolution, Bon is eternally faithful to the military.
It is in this last thread, the friendship of the three men, that the flaws of the novel begin to show. We get a cursory remembrance of the three meeting in a playground, but are given very little to invest in the relationship of these three men. This decade, and eventually continent, spanning friendship doesn’t come alive one bit. The author’s motivation for concocting the friendship is clearly all intellectual. Intellectually it really works to enforce the duality of the main character to have his loyalties split between these two friends on opposite sides of the conflict. Intellectually it shows people on both sides of the conflict for historical insight. Nguyen fails at getting the reader invested beyond the intellectual.
Elevating these purely intellectual aspects of a novel above and beyond the basic joys of a novel ends up feeling very cold. The entire denouement of the novel, which I won’t spoil, is also something that invites a very reasonable “I see what you’re going for” in favor of making you feel something.
Some of this can, obviously, be chalked up to who the main character is. A double agent is cold, calculating and unfeeling by design. But an almost 400 page novel needs to get me invested for me to love it. Nguyen references Graham Greene in the book, and in the parts of the novel that deal with the more thrilling aspects of spy life you can feel the influence Graham Greene had on Nguyen’s writing. But there’s a reason Greene mostly wrote novels that were just shy of 200 pages; cold and smart only gets a reader invested enough for a short read.
Nguyen obviously has an incredible amount of knowledge and insight into this time and these people populating this environment. He even finds a lot of excellent scenes. The general going for a walk around the refugee camp in Cambodia on their way to America is a great scene rendered with a specificity that speaks volumes. These moments on the edges are when the novel is truly great. The side characters are drawn broadly, but are allowed humanity because they’re not part of the larger scheme. The larger characters and stories of the novel are subjugated to the importance of the novel. The novel remains very, very good and its virtues are strong enough that I’d recommend it for the insight into that historical time and place alone, but the academic in Nguyen keeps the novel from being truly great.