Oct 31, 2016
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."