Saturday, August 6, 2016

about words: the sympathizer

A few months ago I was prompted to pick up Viet Thanh Nguyen's debut novel The Sympathizer after listening to a fascinating interview with Nguyen on Fresh Air. I finished reading the book a while back, and I've been remiss in not sharing a few excepts sooner.

First: context. Let's begin with the opening sentences:
I am a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces. Perhaps not surprisingly, I am also a man of two minds. I am not some misunderstood mutant from a comic book or horror movie, although some have treated me as such. I am simply able to see any issue from both sides.
If you're from the United States and this doesn't remind you of the opening lines of another novel, then Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man still isn't required reading, which would be an unforgivable failure of the education system.

At any rate, that book begins:
I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allan Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids——and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.
The Sympathizer is steeped in an Ellisonian influence, which not not surprising: Nguyen is an Invisible Man superfan, having apparently gone so far as to name his son after its author.

Either book could be summed up (with no small injustice to each) as a coming-of-age or epiphanic novel, darkly comedic, exploring problems of identity (both personal and collective), the white hegemony in the United States, and idealogues in general. The curse of the eponymous, anonymous invisible man is to be seen not as himself, but simply as a black man, a proxy for an entire demographic, which puts him at odds with parties on both sides of the color line. The sympathizer is likewise afflicted with empathy for his enemies and a heightened perception that keeps him from viewing the world in black and white—a heavy liability to a man whose line of work is communist espionage. WEB Du Bois's concept of double consciousness offers itself as a useful skeleton key to these books—but whereas this sense of a self divided is finely woven into the narrative fabric of Invisible Man, it  center stage in The Sympathizer.

Our unnamed narrator is a Vietnamese man writing his confession in the late 1970s. He was born in the North, but fled to the South with his family when he was a still a child. As a young man he was indoctrinated in Marxist ideology and then attended university in the United States; during the Vietnam War he served as a captain in the South Vietnamese Army while relaying intel to the National Liberation Front. By his own admission he is a bastard, born to a Vietnamese teenager impregnated on the sly by a French priest.

Knowing this, we can appreciate where our narrator is coming from, even if we really cannot (or should not) claim to get it. His DNA is an admixture of Eastern and Western; he is fluent in Vietnamese and English; he sees the United States through foreign-born eyes, but can also examine Vietnam through the lens of his experience in the USA; he simultaneously appreciates and despises America; he uses the word "we" interchangeably, referring at times to either/both his North Vietnamese comrades or/and his countrymen in the South.

The arc of the The Sympathizer takes us from the stampeding chaos of the fall of Saigon to a Vietnamese community in Los Angeles, where the narrator observes the activities of an exiled South Vietnamese general and reports to his superiors back home. He spends several months on the set of a (fictitious) Hollywood Vietnam War epic called The Hamlet; he tries to keep his composure during excruciating encounters with fatuous orientalist oriental studies professors and fiercely anticommunist congressmen. Ultimately, he travels back to Vietnam with a doomed squadron of guerrilla combatants when his conflicted loyalties and need to maintain his cover land him in waters way over his head.

The Sympathizer is a good novel, a very good one, a great one—but not a transcendent one. It equates to the sum of its parts—no more than that, but certainly no less. I have to mention this because I don't think I'd rank it in the top tier of my personal favorite novels, and yet I've dog-eared almost every other page. Aside from Ralph Ellison, the writer Nguyen most reminds me of is Herman Melville, with whom he shares a knack for tangential knowledge drops. He avails himself of every available launchpad for extrapolation and parable, and

Exhibit A:
All this time I kept my gaze fixed on hers, an enormously difficult task given the gravitational pull exerted by her cleavage. While I was critical of many things when it came to so-called Western civilization, cleavage was not one of them. The Chinese might have invented gunpowder and the noodle, but the West had invented cleavage, with profound if underappreciated implications. A man gazing on semi-exposed breasts was not only engaging in simple lasciviousness, he was also meditating, even if unawares, on the visual embodiment of the verb "to cleave," which meant both to cut apart and to put together. A woman's cleavage perfectly illustrated this double and contradictory meaning, the breasts two separate entities with one identity.
Exhibit B would have to be a very long passage detailing the use of a squid as a teenage masturbation aid, set forth by Nguyen in exuberant Mellvillian flourish. I won't be sharing it here. You'll have to pick up a copy of The Sympathizer for that one.

I'm just going to flip through the book and see what I find on the pages whose corners I've folded in.

Ah: an Eastern communist's remarks on Western capitalist architecture:
Drenched in café au lait stucco, the mall was bordered by an example of America's most unique architectural contribution to the world, a parking lot. Some bemoan the brutalism of socialist architecture, but was the blandness of capitalist architecture any better?
Ruminations from an urban beer garden on the eve of the fall of Saigon, and a prominent slant rhyme with the end of the Great Gatsby:
What was it like to live in a time when one's fate was not war, when one was not led by the craven and the corrupt, when one's country was not a basket case kept alive only through the intravenous drip of American aid? I knew none of these young soldiers around me except for my brood brothers and yet I confess that I felt for them all, lost in their sense that within days they would be dead, or wounded, or imprisoned, or humiliated, or abandoned, or forgotten. They were my enemies, and yet they were also brothers-in-arms. Their beloved city was about to fall, but mine was soon to be liberated. It was the end of their world, but only a shifting of worlds for me. So it was that for two minutes we sang with all our hearts, feeling only for the past an turning our gaze from the future, swimmers doing the backstroke toward a waterfall.
The Vietnamese immigrant marvels at the very concept of a tax refund:
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 was 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. Now, despite my sense of fellow feeling for my exiled countrymen, I could not also help but feel that our country was being born again, the accretions of foreign corruption cleansed by revolutionary flames. Instead of tax refunds, the revolution would distribute ill-gotten wealth, following the philosophy of more to the poor. What the poor did with their socialist succor was up to them. As for me, I used my capitalist refund to buy enough booze to keep Bon and me uneasily steeped in amnesia until next week, which if not foresightful was nevertheless my choice, choice being my sacred American right.
Nguyen is very upfront about his grudge against the film Apocalypse Now; in his interview with Terry Gross, he says something to the effect that The Sympathizer is his revenge against Francis Ford Coppola. The Hamlet, the in-book film that the protagonist works on as a consultant by dint of happenstance, is plainly a cardboard stand-in for Apocalypse Now, and Nguyen takes aim at it with both barrels:
I confess to being angry with the Auteur, but was I wrong in being angry? This was especially the case when he acknowledged he did not even know that Montagnard was simply a French catchall for dozens of Highland minorities. What if, I said to him, I wrote a screenplay about the American West and simply called all the natives Indians? You'd want to know whether the cavalry was fighting the Navajo or Apache or Comanche, right? Likewise, I would want to know, when you say these people are Montagnards, whether we speak of the Bru or the Nung or the Tay.

Let me tell you a secret, the Auteur said. You ready. Here it is. No one gives a shit.
Later on, and more to the point:
I had failed and the Auteur would make The Hamlet as he intended, with my countrymen serving merely as raw material for an epic about white men saving good yellow people from bad yellow people. I pitied the French for their naïveté in believing they had to visit a country in order to exploit it. Hollywood was much more efficient, imagining the countries it wanted to exploit. I was maddened by my helplessness before the Auteur's imagination and machinations. His arrogance marked something new in the world, for this was the first war where the losers would write the history instead of the victors, courtesy of the most efficient propaganda machine ever created (with all due respect to Joseph Goebbels and the Nazis, who never achieved global domination). Hollywood's high priests understood innately the observation of Milton's Satan, that it was better to rule in Hell than serve in Heaven, better to be a villain, loser, or antihero than virtuous extra, so long as one commanded the bright lights of its center stage. In this forthcoming Hollywood trompe d'oeil, all the Vietnamese of any side would come out poorly, herded into the roles of the poor, the innocent, the evil, or the corrupt. Our fate was not to be merely mute; we were to be struck dumb.
Meet James Yoon, who plays a supporting role in The Hamlet:
Yoon was the Asian Everyman, a television actor whose face most people would know but whose name they could not recall. They would say, Oh, that's the Chinese guy on that cop show, or That's the Japanese gardener in that comedy, or that's the Oriental guy, what's his name. Yoon was, in fact, a Korean American in his midthirties who could play a decade older or a decade younger and assume the  mask of any Asian ethnicity, so malleable were his generically handsome features. Despite his many television roles, however, he would mot likely go down in history for a highly popular recurring television commercial selling Sheen, a brand of dishwashing soap. In each commercial, a different housewife would be confronted by a different kind of sticky dishwashing challenge that could only be solved by the appearance of her chucking, knowing houseboy, who offered her not his manhood but his ever-ready bottle of Sheen. Relieved and amazed, the housewife would inquire as to how he had come across such cleaning wisdom, whereon he would turn to the camera, wink, smile, and utter the slogan now famous across the nation: Confucius say, Clean with Sheen!

Not surprisingly, Yoon was an alcoholic.
Back to random selections. Here—something eerily reminiscent of the political climate in the United States and elsewhere abroad:
[The general:] The people cry out for freedom! The communists promise freedom and independence, but deliver only poverty and enslavement. They have betrayed the Vietnamese people, and revolutions don't betray the people. Even here we remain with the people, and we will return to liberate the people who wave been denied the freedom given to us. Revolutions are for the people, from the people, by the people. That is our revolution!

Nothing was so true, and yet nothing was so mysterious, for the questions of who the people were and what they might want remained unanswered. The lack of an answer mattered not; indeed, the lack of an answer was part of the power in the idea of the people that brought the men to their feet and the tears in their eyes as they shouted, Down with communism! Like salmon that instinctively knew when to swim upstream, we all knew who the people were and who were not the people. Anyone who had to be told who the people were probably was not part of the people...
Attend well:
I had an appointment with the crapulent major's widow. I confess that my plan was to give her the money in my pocket, money that I admit could have been used for more revolutionary purposes. But what is more revolutionary than helping one's enemy and his kin? What is more radical than forgiveness?
Another flash of Melville, on the subject of fish sauce—or rather the unavailability of fish sauce in mid-1970s Los Angeles:
We did our best to conjure up the culinary staples of our culture, but since we were dependent on Chinese markets our food had an unacceptably Chinese tinge, another blow in the gauntlet of our humiliation that left us with the sweet-and-sour taste of unreliable memories, just correct enough to evoke the past, just wrong enough to remind us that the past was forever gone, along with the proper variety, subtlety, and complexity of our universal solvent, fish sauce. Oh, fish sauce! How we missed nothing tasted right without it, how we longed for the grand cru of Phu Quoc Island and its vats brimming with the finest vintage of pressed anchovies! This pungent liquid condiment of the darkest sepia hue was much denigrated by foreigners for its supposedly horrendous reek, lending new meaning to the phrase "there's something fishy around here," for we were the fishy ones. We used fish sauce the way Transylvanian villagers wore cloves of garlic to ward off vampires, in our case to establish a perimeter to those Westerners who could never understand that what was truly fishy was the nauseating stench of cheese. What was fermented fish compared to curdled milk?
On a Ho Chi Minh slogan: "nothing is more precious than independence and freedom:"
How could I forget that every truth meant at least two things, that slogans were empty suits draped on the corpse of an idea? The suits depended on how one wore them, and this suit was now worn out. I was mad but not insane, although I was not going to disabuse the commandant. He saw only one meaning in nothing——the negative, the absence, as in there's nothing there. The positive meaning eluded him, the paradoxical fact that nothing is, indeed, something. Our commandant was a man who didn't get the joke, and people who do not get the joke are dangerous people indeed. They are the ones who say nothing with great piousness, who ask everyone else to die for nothing, who revere nothing. Such a man could not tolerate someone who laughed at nothing.
I'll bet Nguyen was hoping this would sting:
You know what makes us human? In the mirror, the shorter of the duo slipped a bottle into his pocket. With a weary sigh, Bon reached for the baseball bat beneath the cash register. What makes us human is that we're the only creatures on this planet that can fuck ourselves.

Perhaps the point could have been made more delicately, but he was never one to be interested in delicacy. He was more interested in threatening the shoplifters with severe bodily harm until they fell to their knees, surrendered the items hidden in their jackets, and kowtowed for forgiveness. Bon was merely teaching them we had been taught. Our teachers were firm believers in the corporal punishment that Americans had given up, which was probably one reason they could no longer win wars.
Finally, a long passage of the broader Vietnamese refugee community spread out across America, which more than a little reminds me of Allen Ginsberg's "Howl:"
But of out deference to our hosts we kept our feelings to ourselves, sitting close to one another on prickly sofas and scratchy carpets, our knees touching under crowded kitchen tables on which sat crenellated ashtrays measuring time's passage with the accumulation of ashes, chewing on dried squid and the cud of remembrance until our jaws ached, trading stories heard second- and thirdhand about our scattered countrymen. This was the way we learned of the clan turned into slave labor by a farmer in Modesto, and of the naive girl who flew to Spokane to marry her GI sweetheart and was sold to a brothel, and the widower with nine children who went out into a Minnesotan winter and lay down in the snow on his back with mouth open until he was buried and frozen, and the ex-Ranger who bought a gun and dispatched his wife and two children before killing himself in Cleveland, and the regretful refugees on Guam who petitioned to go back to our homeland, never to be heard from again, and the spoiled girl seduced by heroin who disappeared into the Baltimore streets, and the politician's wife demoted to cleaning bedpans in a nursing home who one day snapped, attacked her husband with a kitchen knife, then was committed to a mental ward, and the quartet of teenagers who arrived without families and fell in together in Queens, robbing two liquor stores and killing a clerk before being imprisoned for twenty years to life, and the devout Buddhist who spanked his young son and was arrested for child abuse in Houston, and the proprietor who accepted food stamps for chopsticks and was fined for breaking the law in San Jose, and the husband who slapped his wife and was jailed for domestic violence in Raleigh, and the men who had escaped but left husbands behind, and the children who had escaped without parents and grandparents, and the families missing one, two, three, or more children, and the half dozen who went to sleep in a crowded, freezing room in Terre Haute with a charcoal brazier for heat and never woke up, borne to permanent darkness on an invisible cloud of carbon monoxide. Sifting through the dirt, we panned for gold, the story of the baby orphan adopted by a Kansas billionaire, or the mechanic who bought a lottery ticket in Arlington and became a multimillionaire, or the girl elected president of her high school class in Baton Rouge, or the boy accepted by Harvard from Fond du Lac, the soil of Camp Pendleton still in the tracks of his sneakers, or the movie star...who circled the world from airport to airport, no country letting her in after the fall of Saigon, none of her American movie star friends returning her desperate phone calls until with her last dime she snagged Tippi Hedren, who flew her to Hollywood. So it was that we soaped ourselves in sadness and we rinsed ourselves with hope, and for all that we believed almost every rumor we heard, almost all of us refused to believe that our nation was dead.

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