I don’t know if Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizer is going to win the Mystery Writers of America Edgar Award for Best First Novel by an American Author, but I do know one thing: it sure is critically acclaimed. Adjectives used: strong, rare, authentic, dark, funny, remarkable, brilliant, fierce.
It’s a complex narrative with complicated characters. Backstory: Three Vietnamese boys are closer than brothers. One, Bon, grows up to be an assassin. One, Man, becomes a communist big shot. And the main character, who remains unnamed throughout the novel, is a spy – a communist sleeper agent who is evacuated from Saigon in 1975. I’ll call him “S.”
Nguyen uses a framing device; S is writing a confession for “the commandant.” This framework allows S to set forth his tale and to reflect upon it. He is loyal to his country and to his friends. His reports back to his handler – written in invisible ink behind routine letters home to his aged auntie – are like messages in a bottle, tossed out into a roiling sea.
And so time passes, with S embarking upon a series of adventures. He spies on the general. He is drawn to the general’s daughter. He dates an older woman, then loses her to another man, a Japanese-American journalist. He is ordered to assassinate the journalist. He does so, badly. He gets a job as a technical adviser on a film about Viet Nam, and is shocked to find that all the speaking roles go to white folks. (Shades of #Oscarssowhite!) He is ordered to kill an ex-Special Branch officer, and does so. The general forms an Army with the help of a right-wing US Congressman, with the aim of going back to Viet Nam and overthrowing the government. S doesn’t want to go, but he must, if he wishes to save his friend Bon. While there he is captured, interrogated and tortured. We learn who is responsible, and S learns the ultimate futility of dreaming of revolution.
While all the critical adjectives listed above are true, I found it very difficult to get into The Sympathizer. It’s very dense, the language is mannered, and the narrative tone is distancing. As I reflect, there are many passages that I found very compelling and overall, I admire the book. In comparing this debut to the other nominees, it is clear that Nguyen is an amazing talent and The Sympathizer is clearly superior to Past Crimes and Where All Light Tends to Go. However, I’m going to have to give the top spot to The Luckiest Girl Alive for relatability.
Literary Lunchbox Edgar Rankings: Best First Novel
- Luckiest Girl Alive by Jessica Knoll
- The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen
- Where All Light Tends to Go by David Joy
- Past Crimes by Glen Erik Hamilton