Oct 31, 2016

Doug and His Sympathizers

The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen
Dinner and Acknowledgments

Our meeting last Thursday was another fine example of Doug's excellent hospitality. He could have laid out an assortment of banh mi and washed it down with iced coffee and sweetened condensed milk and no one would have complained. But that would have been predictable.  So Doug eschewed tradition and went with a nicely-done London broil accompanied by...everything.  Not to be missed was his chocolate cake made with Guinness Stout and his gigantic chocolate chip cookies.  (The latter were, alas, too large to sneak into my jacket pocket for the trip home.)

Our Review and Discussion of The Sympathizer

Of the 14 titles Doug offered us last month, Viet Thanh Nguyen's The Sympathizer was not the shortest nor the easiest. But it was arguably the most thought-provoking.  Framed as a first-person confession, Nguyen's unnamed narrator takes the reader on a perilous journey from the fall of Saigon to the Vietnamese diaspora in Orange County and back again to the reeducation camps of the Viet Cong and the flight of the boat people.  Along the way, we're treated to a funny, satirical, and at times harshly critical study of America, its values, and their effect on the Vietnamese experience here and abroad.

Doug expected I'd like the novel, with its insights on Asian-American assimilation and identity (Doug, are you profiling?), but we both wondered if others would. The answer came quickly. Though straddling two dinner tables, the group joined together in lauding Nguyen's inventiveness and adroit use of the English language (there's that profiling again!).  Many (Mando, Paul, and Tom) enjoyed the story on historical merit alone; others (Larry and John) were impressed by the novel's cultural ambitions, including its send-up of the entire Vietnam war film genre.  We didn't spend much time comparing it to The Quiet American, although the parallels were obvious since Nguyen's narrator repeatedly alludes to Graham Greene's Saigon.

By the end of the evening, time was our undoing.  We just didn't have enough of it to do justice to Nguyen's richly layered tale of war and its aftermath.  At my insistence, we spent a moment enjoying the significance of the characters' names (e.g., French colonialism and American naivete are conflated in the CIA agent, "Claude"; the despised William Westmoreland character is "Richard Hedd"; the purest of Vietnamese characters, whose death is sadly inevitable, is appropriately named "Bon").  At Doug's instigation, we also tussled with the "meaning" of the book and its narrator's epiphany that "nothing" is the answer.

Rating The Sympathizer

When it came to rating the book, all but one of us was effusive.  Dan was the holdout. He complimented the "great" writing, but felt cheated by the filmmaking scenes and gave it a miserly 5.  Even Stan, who agreed that the scenes in the Philippines slowed the story's progression, was able to muster a 7 for what he felt was extraordinary writing. Dan's dim view didn't prevent The Sympathizer from impressing the rest of us and garnering a formidable 8.2.

Next Up:  The Sellout by Paul Beatty

For our next title, we vacillated between the Patty Hearst story in American Heiress and the summer's most talked-about novel of race relations, The Sellout.  We opted for the latter (persuaded in part by page length) and we'll soon see if the story of one man's cheeky reintroduction of slavery helps us dig deep into America's "original sin."


  1. Great book. Intriguing story line. I was amazed by Nguyen's writing, narrative and turn of phrase style which has completely assimilated into and captures Americana, even its blemished recent history. Not bad for a refugee, and thank goodness a travel ban like Trump's didn't forestall Nguyen's move to USA, as we'd all be the worse off if it had. Um, and yeah, Doug's choco chip cookies are worth leaving Saigon for!

  2. I'm waiting for Doug to post the recipe for his cookies. :-)

    In the meantime, there was one criticism of the book that I didn't mention but I think several guys voiced. As the book nears the end, the narrator lands in a prison camp and reminds us that his story is a confession--one which is taking place in the camp. It's a little confusing at first, but what seemed to bother guys more was that the novel suddenly feels and reads differently. It's more existential and philosophical, and as the other characters fall away the story just doesn't feel as compelling, especially since all of the narrator's angst and introspection ultimately gets summed up in somewhat glib fashion (i.e., that the war and everything that followed, as Doug pointed out, was all worth "nothing").

    Not sure if I've recalled this correctly, but I think that's what the backbenchers among you were grumbling about.

  3. The glib "nothing" is quite possibly all that would be left after trying to live the different lifestyles of Vietnamese agent, American gangster, and friend to only two others who do not survive to the end. Our own twisted history with Vietnam could well have us throwing our hands up with little or no (nothing) in understanding what happened.

  4. You're right. We did talk about the narrator's different personas (and "sympathies") and the identity crisis that afflicts him throughout the story and causes him to find nothing of significance at the end. We never considered that this is our (American) fate as well...

  5. As mentioned, I fall into the camp of finding this very interesting as a view into history. I was an adolescent as the Vietnam War reached its crescendo and I didn't really understand the nuances of the politics -- as it turns out, the US supported corrupt and ineffective leaders and the South Vietnamese army with its numbers and equipment should have done better. We all remember the pictures of the helicopters evacuating our embassy and wondering what all the agony of the previous years meant. But how often do we stop to think about the fate of the Vietnamese -- North and South -- after the war?

    This novel paints a fascinating insider view of what happened, of the civil war that separated friends and family, and which however much it caused us pain, was far worse for the country that was consumed by it. I was drawn deeper and deeper into the book as it proceeded. Though -- I was one of those who found the end contrived and perhaps difficult to swallow.

    But, all around, an excellent read!