Louis Menand’s literary approach to the era masks some analytical fuzziness.
A Novel Without Character—But Plenty of Anti-Colonialism
By Viet Thanh Nguyen
(Grove Press, 2015 and 2021)
Viet Thanh Nguyen is a novelist torn between two poles. On the one hand, he’s a figure out of time, a believer in the novel—the Big Novel of Ideas—and a would-be heir to the postwar literary humanism of Ralph Ellison and Saul Bellow. But he’s also very much of our moment, a writer for whom there is nothing but bare-knuckled, zero-sum, unceasing political combat, and a true believer in literature’s role in this spectacle. In his fiction, the result is a kind of internal civil war that mimics the one quietly running through the publishing industry itself. This conflict manages to both energize and distract his debut novel, the Pulitzer and PEN/Faulkner award-winning The Sympathizer (2015). But its resolution leads to the failure of its follow-up, The Committed (2021).
American literature needs more politics, he insisted in a December 2020 New York Times essay, “The Post-Trump Future of Literature”—though by this he meant that American literature ought to espouse his preferred politics. “Explicit politics in American poetry and fiction,” he declares, “has mostly been left to the marginalized: writers of color, queer and trans writers, feminist writers, anticolonial writers.” Never mind that this isn’t true, that he constructs a definition for political literature so narrow that it excludes satirists, award-winners, and some of his best-selling contemporaries. For Nguyen, the only future for American literature that isn’t an apolitical “retreat back to white privilege” is one driven by attempts to expose the faults of settler-colonialism in America (or, failing that, in Israel).
Despite this, Nguyen is among the most talented and original novelists currently writing. In its scope, voice, and sheer ambition The Sympathizer, though far from perfect, is unlike almost everything else that’s published (let alone celebrated) today.
Its nameless narrator introduces himself in an echo of Bellow and Ellison: “I am a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces.” He’s a sympathizer—“a man of two minds”—who doesn’t fit neatly into any of the American paradigms about Vietnam, immigration, or the Cold War. An adjutant to a South Vietnamese general, he’s in fact a communist agent. But his truest loyalties are to two childhood friends, Bon—an ardent anti-communist whose father was executed by the Viet Cong—and Man, the Sympathizer’s communist handler. When Saigon falls, he goes with Bon and the general into a California exile, seeking to fulfill his obligations to both friends. For Man, he reports on and encourages the general’s quixotic attempt to found a counterrevolution within a community slowly settling into American life; at the same time, he tries to keep Bon out of self-consuming despair and, by following him back to Vietnam in a squad of anti-Communist insurgents, simply alive.
This isn’t exactly a war novel. As in Ellison’s Invisible Man and Bellow’s Augie March, we follow our narrator through a variety of roles—college student, spy-in-training, consultant to a war movie very much like Apocalypse Now—and across musings on American culture, war, friendship, and political theory. “My Vietnam War never ended,” Nguyen has written (his family fled Vietnam in 1975, when he was four) and at its best, The Sympathizer brings the long Vietnam conflict to life not as one front in a chess game between global superpowers but as a muddled civil war among blood brothers, as its central trio imagine themselves. It’s not exactly a war novel because it’s not exactly clear where the war’s boundaries lie. Here is a novel that, like its postwar predecessors, takes seriously what seemed to be a crisis of man—and, like them, finds totalizing answers wanting.
Yet it’s in exactly this intellectual engagement that The Sympathizer sometimes falters. Too often Nguyen forsakes his own voice and those of his characters for that of academic theory: the deconstruction of the settler-colonial psychology of Americans. So readers endure periodic disquisitions on the lack of ethnic representation in American cinema; the flaws of capitalism; the moral naiveté of regarding a scene involving masturbation, a squid, and supper as more obscene than those involving torture, massacre, or death; and, at the base of it all, an American belief in the presumption of innocence for me, universal guilt for thee.
The problem is less the ideas—critiques of American liberalism are hardly new to fiction, nor are they entirely off-the-mark—than their execution. Nguyen’s prose buckles under the weight of all this exposition. For all the celebrated verve of his narrative voice, he seems never to have found an adjective or adverb worth culling. Paragraphs frequently founder on reefs of cliché; sentences such as “At the gates, prickly rolls of barbed wire sagged with middle-aged disappointment” are all too common.
The result is that, over and above the fact that most of Nguyen’s theory-driven critiques aren’t new at all, as he presents them they’re simply boring. Ellison and Bellow may have also filled their worlds with characters who implausibly shared their voluminous and idiosyncratic reading, but those authors’ ability to craft debate and comic monologues from this marks their talent’s scale. You realize, reading Nguyen, just how large a challenge his influences set for themselves—and how easy they made it look.
The Sympathizer is a flawed but ambitious book, a novel of ideas deserving genuine engagement. Unfortunately, its 2021 sequel, The Committed, shows us the kind of schlock that results when novelists decide that their primary fealty is to the paint-by-numbers schemata of trendy jargon. The Sympathizer sets out to tell the story of Vietnam and the Vietnamese but not through the story of the Cold War, to avoid making it a refugee story, or even an immigration novel—rather one of exile, of emigration, perhaps. The Committed, committed as it is to Nguyen’s political ars poetica, is merely a novelization of critical theory. Everything it says is a vehicle for this.
The novelist Marlon James has referred to Nguyen’s follow-up as, “A white hot literary thriller disguised as a novel of ideas.” It is neither. This sequel finds Bon and the Sympathizer—now the Man of Two Minds—in 1980s Paris. Released from their re-education camp, they survive their refugee journey as “Boat People” and land within a Vietnamese criminal organization in the city’s slums. The plot is exceptionally simple: they stumble into a turf war with a small group of Algerian drug dealers. Violence ensues. Along the way, their boss (simply “The Boss”) sets out to blackmail political figures, including the rising “BFD.” Bon, meanwhile, plots to murder the commissar of their prison camp, who is now in Paris—a man he doesn’t realize is Man.
The Committed has no patience for humanism or human beings. Unless they’re returning from The Sympathizer no one in The Committed garners a proper name. The narrator’s namelessness, drawn from Ellison’s device in Invisible Man, is an effective tool: part of the point is that his identity is too unstable for any name to hold. But in erasing everyone’s name, Nguyen tries to make a blunt point, probably to subject white elites to the reduction to symbolic roles that is endured by the Vietnamese extras in the Coppola-like fictional movie in The Sympathizer. The result, however, is flatness: there are no characters in this novel—not even its narrator, Bon, or Man. There are only abstractions, cardboard cutouts arranged and rearranged in encounters that, for all the novel’s deliberate engagement with the full variety of bodily fluids, remain wholly sterile.
Marx’s description of the French peasantry—“They cannot represent themselves; they must be represented”—serves as a refrain throughout The Sympathizer, following Edward Said’s deliberate misreading of Marx to refer to artistic, rather than political, representation. So perhaps this insistent namelessness is meant as a claim that artistic representation is always impossible, or unethical, or exploitative. Or maybe that there’s no there there to represent: Nguyen seems to anticipate this, and characters charge the Sympathizer, one after another, with a nihilism he denies too forcefully.
I suspect the real answer’s much simpler. It’s a failure of artistry. These aren’t people; they’re excuses to quote or paraphrase from a critical theory Greatest Hits album. So we get regular disquisitions from Marx, Sartre, Aime Cesaire, Simone Beauvoir, and Frantz Fanon throughout. The implication, none too subtle, is that we’d be better served to put this book down and just read Black Skin, White Masks if we want to understand postcolonial critiques. (In fact, we would.) This results in the kind of prose you can find for free in corporate press releases and all across Twitter: “But because we shared a widespread condition called ‘colonization,’ which only afflicted nonwhite people, I said…”
These failures are intentional and bound to The Committed’s a clear image of what a novel should do: “Art is not a mirror held up to the world but a hammer with which to shape it,” the Sympathizer recalls hearing in college as he prepares to torture a rival. “Could the professor have imagined one day that I would hold this in my hand and it would not be a metaphor or a simile but an actual thing with which to hammer an actual head, smash an actual skull, bludgeon an actual brain?”
In this moment, he rejects his own weaponization—not braining an Algerian competitor—but he does not reject the contention that art itself is and ought to be a political weapon. “You need the right kind of violence,” another Algerian, radicalized in Afghanistan, tells him a few pages later, “the kind that makes you a man, not the kind that makes you a thief.” He doesn’t commit this murder, but it is still the violent who’ll bear it away. Maybe the Sympathizer will find that better, more effective kind of violence in yet another sequel, so obviously set up by The Committed’s cliffhanger ending, the author oblivious to his work’s participation not so much in the war of ideas as in the slow, creeping Disneyfication of both literature and the academy, worlds in which true originality is too risky to bet on.
Why is this so much more troubling than the failures The Committed shares with The Sympathizer, itself overtheorized and marred by clunky prose? The difference is this: The Sympathizer is written to be read. The Committed is written to be written about, mere fodder for academic journals and seminar papers. Nguyen knows what—and how—his colleagues like to teach and he has written for them, their course lists, and the questions they like to pose to graduate students. Its references are shallow and singled out in spotlights. The description of the white mask Man wears to cover his near-facelessness (a result of Napalm—but you’re following the symbolism, right?) sets up a bright but misguided undegrad’s ten pages’ reading it in light of the 500-word excerpt from Fanon offered as an in-class handout. And don’t get me started on the time our narrator creates a deliberately nauseating cocktail called “the Guilt and the Shame,” then proceeds to get drunk on it. I last encountered this kind of alcohol-fueled symbolism in undergraduate fiction workshops, back when we were all wise enough to cringe at it.
What’s most frustrating is that Nguyen truly is more talented than most of his contemporaries. He’s right, after all, to call out the dullness of MFA, Inc—and is the rara avis of contemporary literary fiction who didn’t take that route to prominence. Perhaps one day he will find a way to reconcile his politics and his art. I hope so: because if he fails what a waste it will be—not just of Nguyen’s talent but of the energy of American letters—to prefer easily copied formulas that forget literature can and should live beyond the seminar table. This choice of terrain is revealing. For all his talk about how literature must be part of an effort to effect real political change, Nguyen writes for the already converted. It’s as if he’s gone beyond the reduction of language to bare power games and reduced politics itself to just another language game: it’s wordplay all the way down. Fair enough. But it’s a strange decision for someone truly confident that a novel can be a political act that makes something happen.
Perhaps that’s why Nguyen’s essays on politics and literature have to elide the long history of political engagement—even activism—in American letters, from Melville and Whitman through Faulkner and Dos Passos. Despite his claims, American authors (even white ones) have engaged with politics beyond the Vietnam War. Robert Lowell spent time in prison as a conscientious objector during World War II and wrote “For the Union Dead” before American troops set foot in Vietnam. Adrienne Rich kept writing long after they left. As Nguyen himself concedes, there are, in fact, many contemporary writers who take up politics with skill. Go read one of 2020’s best novels, Phil Klay’s Missionaries, and try to argue that one must—or should—choose between politics on the one hand and either literary craftsmanship or humanism on the other. We can and do have political literature that isn’t propaganda. It’s all around us.
J. L. Wall is a critic, poet, and teacher whose writing has appeared in First Things, the Kenyon Review, America, and other publications.
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