Sunday, August 20, 2017

The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen

I've mostly gotten into romance novels and nonfiction lately, so I don't read as much literary fiction as I used to - which is a damn shame, but it is what it is. That is what book clubs are for! To force you to read those Important Novels that you know you should read for cultural reasons, but feel more like work than pleasure every time you try to slog through the pages.

When my book club picked THE SYMPATHIZER for our August read, I was excited because this book won the Pulitzer Prize and it's about a time period I don't know much about (Vietnam War). I took U.S. History, like other students, but I seem to recall the curriculum ending during the 1950s...probably to skip all that "controversial" stuff like hippies, the Civil Rights era and the Vietnam War. Maybe that's changed since I was in school, but back in the day, I remember that our textbooks halted in the 1980s

Anyway, this book. It's difficult to summarize because it goes all over the place, plot-wise, but basically it's about this Vietnamese guy who's also half-French. After the fall of Saigon, he's sent to the America to report back to his fellow Vietnamese agents while also living with a group of refugees. While here, however, he gets immersed in U.S. culture, and encounters many hypocrisies and cruel double-standards in both cultures, which he comments on with dry, darkly amused wit that wouldn't be out of place in Joseph Heller's CATCH-22.

How to describe the writing? I have a pretty big vocabulary, but I learned several new words in this book, like glabrous, errata, froideur, and temerate (I kept a list because I wanted to look them up so I could use them myself later - I already managed to work glabrous in somewhere, which I feel very proud of). This is a dude who thinks nothing of using chiaroscuro and palimpsest in the same paragraph (and those were two of the words that I already knew, because I am a huge nerd).


I swear, this guy, Jose Saramago, and Cormac McCarthy are all running around somewhere cackling gleefully while swinging around a giant sack of unused quotation marks and cheers-ing themselves for their artistry with the frustrated tears of their readers.

How to describe the story? It's a weird war story that's too dark to be funny but too funny to be dark, so it sits in some weird limbo of you reading this and feeling increasingly awkward and uncomfortable, like you're not sure whether to laugh or run screaming into the night. Highlights include necrophiliac reverse-tentacle hentai (read: he has sex with a dead squid); a pickled two headed baby in a jar; and an ass-hat director who's making an exploitative film about Vietnam.

Did I like this book? Eh. It was really difficult to read. I liked parts of it, and it has many quotable passages, but overall it felt too much like work and I felt the tone was really imbalanced. Also, the lack of quotation marks make it really difficult to follow who is talking, especially since sometimes there will be multiple dialogues going on within a single paragraph. I was glad to get a new, fresh perspective on a war I didn't know much about, but overall was left feeling pretty disappointed.

2 out of 5 stars

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