Viet Thanh Nguyen’s Pulitzer Prize-win­ning de­but novel,

The Sym­pa­thizer (Grove Press, 2015), is no­table for the den­sity of its first-per­son voice. The nar­ra­tor, a Viet­namese army cap­tain, does not spend much time con­tex­tu­al­iz­ing any­thing for the reader. He sim­ply throws us into the ac­tion and lets us fend for our­selves. This is just as well, be­cause the novel’s set­ting — the Viet­nam War and its af­ter­math — does not lend it­self to sim­ple ex­pla­na­tions. In­stead, Nguyen re­lies on irony and dark hu­mor to ex­plore the trou­bling legacy of that war, es­pe­cially as it re­lates to the Viet­namese who left for Amer­ica.

The au­thor and his fam­ily came to the U.S. as refugees from Viet­nam in 1975. They first set­tled in Penn­syl­va­nia and even­tu­ally in Cal­i­for­nia, where Nguyen’s par­ents opened a Viet­namese gro­cery store. Nguyen would go on to study at the Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia, Berke­ley, and is now pro­fes­sor of English and Amer­i­can Stud­ies and Eth­nic­ity at the Univer­sity of South­ern Cal­i­for­nia. Nguyen reads from his work and is joined in con­ver­sa­tion by au­thor Max­ine Hong Kingston (The Wo­man War­rior: Me­moirs of a Girl­hood Among Ghosts) on Wed­nes­day, March 29, at the Len­sic Per­form­ing Arts Cen­ter, pre­sented by the Lan­nan Foun­da­tion.

As Nguyen’s novel opens, evac­u­a­tion is the main or­der of busi­ness. A va­ri­ety of Viet­namese peo­ple wait­ing for planes to take them to Guam, and then maybe on to Amer­ica, are hot, sweaty, and pan­icked. The on-site toi­lets are un­us­able, so a swim­ming pool is used in­stead. Noth­ing can be taken for granted. Vi­o­lence can, and does, erupt, even on a plane. The nar­ra­tor’s best friend, Bon, loses his wife and child in the blink of an eye. This is the most poignant event in a se­ries of vi­o­lent oc­cur­rences de­scribed by the nar­ra­tor. He is gen­uinely moved by the death of Bon’s son, who is also his god­son. The reader can’t help but be moved, too, when the next day, Bon tries to throw him­self into the open grave.

The char­ac­ters are sketched just sharply enough that we can see them be­fore the nar­ra­tor tugs us along onto the next episode. Soon we are in Amer­ica, and the power dy­namic be­tween the char­ac­ters shifts dra­mat­i­cally. The ex­pe­ri­ence is like that of read­ing a nov­el­is­tic comic book peo­pled with ar­che­typal char­ac­ters — the Gen­eral, the spy — rather than feel­ing deeply in­vested in the jour­ney of any one char­ac­ter. In an in­ter­view Nguyen gave to Paul Tran for

The Mar­gins, the Asian Amer­i­can Writ­ers’ Work­shop pub­li­ca­tion, he ad­dressed Toni Mor­ri­son’s com­ments on how some writ­ers of color write for the dom­i­nant gaze. “I was very con­scious of what Toni Mor­ri­son has said about how she writes,” Nguyen told Tran. “She al­ways writes about black peo­ple and says black ex­pe­ri­ences are al­ready uni­ver­sal. There are no apolo­gies in her work. It was very im­por­tant to me that there be no apolo­gies, no trans­la­tions, no ex­pla­na­tions in this novel be­cause th­ese are signs of writ­ing to­wards dom­i­nant cul­ture.” Nguyen went on to say that in­stead he chose “to adopt this crit­i­cal and satir­i­cal ap­proach to­wards Amer­i­can cul­ture.” Th­ese key de­ci­sions sharply in­form Nguyen’s writ­ing and can be help­ful for a reader to un­der­stand the dis­ori­ent­ing rides he takes us on.

Though Nguyen is satir­i­cal about Amer­i­can cul­ture, he does not by any means let the Viet­namese off easy. In The Sym­pa­thizer, the nar­ra­tor writes: “I cashed the check in my pocket, my tax re­fund from the IRS. It was not a large sum and yet sym­bol­i­cally sig­nif­i­cant, for never in my coun­try would the midget-minded gov­ern­ment give back to its frus­trated cit­i­zens any­thing it had seized in the first place. The whole idea was ab­surd. Our so­ci­ety had been a klep­toc­racy of the high­est or­der, the gov­ern­ment do­ing its best to steal from the Amer­i­cans, the av­er­age man do­ing his best to steal from the gov­ern­ment, the worst of us do­ing our best to steal from each other.”

Nguyen’s work is busier and less emo­tional than that of Gra­ham Greene, whose Viet­nam novel, The Quiet Amer­i­can, was re­cently char­ac­ter­ized by H.D.S. Green­way in The New York Times as “a book we re­porters all had in our back pock­ets.” Green­way goes on to quote Greene’s writ­ing in that novel: “They want enough rice. They don’t want to be shot at. They want one day to be much the same as an­other. They don’t want our white skins around telling them what they want.” Greene had a way of stream­lin­ing even his most com­plex nar­ra­tives so that we care about his char­ac­ters, even though they them­selves might seem dis­en­gaged or dis­af­fected. Nguyen’s fo­cus is less on our en­gage­ment with his story or his char­ac­ters and more on plung­ing us into a cer­tain mind­set. When the nar­ra­tor and his friends are sit­ting in the Gen­eral’s of­fice in a Los An­ge­les liquor store, the scene is set up as though this were a Mafia story; but the mono­logue can be re­lent­less in a way that might have you yearn­ing for a good Gra­ham Greene novel.

In Los An­ge­les, the nar­ra­tor’s now-room­mate, Bon, works as a part-time jan­i­tor for a church and as a sales clerk for the Gen­eral’s liquor store. The nar­ra­tor works as the face of the Ori­en­tal Stud­ies pro­gram at a univer­sity. He is bira­cial, half Viet­namese and half French, and the chair of the de­part­ment pa­tron­iz­ingly lets him know that he is no longer a mon­stros­ity — and that like the chair’s own bira­cial son, he too has a place in so­ci­ety.

Early on, the nar­ra­tor fares bet­ter than many of his fel­low im­mi­grants from Viet­nam. At the univer­sity, he gets into a re­la­tion­ship with a Ja­panese co-worker. He glee­fully cites Ben­jamin Franklin’s fa­mil­iar ad­vice on the ben­e­fits of hav­ing a re­la­tion­ship with an older wo­man. There are oth­ers for whom the shock of trans­plan­ta­tion is more than they can bear. The nar­ra­tor tells us of a stray sui­cide, and how in many im­mi­grant fam­i­lies, the gen­der dy­nam­ics are chang­ing.

Nguyen’s in­sider per­spec­tive is a re­fresh­ing flip to the Apoca­lypse Now-style nar­ra­tives we have got­ten in the past about the Viet­nam War. To see the war from the point of view of those who are nor­mally treated like ex­tras in Hol­ly­wood movies ( just an­other warm body) is an es­sen­tial ex­er­cise for any­one who views her­self as a global cit­i­zen. Even for our most cur­rent wars, in Afghanistan and Iraq, the fic­tion we read is of­ten writ­ten by for­mer U.S. soldiers. It is rare to get war fic­tion from the per­spec­tive of, say, an Afghan in­ter­preter or an Iraqi doc­tor. In this frame­work, Nguyen’s unique voice ex­plores the hor­rific con­se­quences of war while also keep­ing a fo­cus on the friend­ships and loves that per­sist through it all.

Nguyen’s in­sider per­spec­tive is a re­fresh­ing flip to the Apoca­lypse Now-style nar­ra­tives we have got­ten in the past about the Viet­nam War.

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