Close your eyes (open them so you can finish this sentence then close them again) and try to conjure up the first image that comes to mind of the Vietnam war. Is it the young naked child running from the napalm attack, or a dramatic scene from Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now? My mind immediately goes to Jane Fonda hanging out on that anti-aircraft gun, like the white feminist hippie Rosa Parks she aspires to be.
Whatever the symbol, the Vietnam War has become a period of time embedded in our lives through iconography, either the chilling photos of destruction or videos of Walter Cronkite exposing just how bad the war was going for the South. Novels like The Sympathizer seek to make this foreign landscape accessible to American readers, seamlessly merging the distant jungle wasteland of Southern Vietnam with the familiar battleground of suburbia.
While the novel accurately describes how amazing this party who promised to bring glory to a war-torn country and instead used brutality and force to stifle it back into the third world, I felt as if the violence didn’t go far enough. After all, as the Vietnamese proverb goes, “Chúc Mừng Năm Mới,” right?
There’s so many more communist scenes I think the book should’ve included. I wanted to see the main character sitting down for lunch with Ho Chi Minh to talk about politics or the weather. Even though the novel is primarily set in America, I craved some of the comforts of a communist totalitarian state, like peasants starving in the streets, the constant paranoia the government will seize you and your family, as well as public executions. If there’s no journalists being silenced or used as propaganda machines, then is it really a novel about communism?
In the spirit of Hollywood, maybe a white person like Matt Hardy or whoever should’ve played the Communist sleeper agent main character, perhaps reenacting dramatic scenes shooting down the Viet Cong with a cigar in his mouth while simultaneously being one himself. This is about Vietnam, so just like combat veterans or white teens trying to crack a joke, the country should only be referenced as ‘Nam the whole time! It’s the respectful term, after all.
For the more well-read audiences, maybe Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried has some spice to be added into the mix. Just like these reviews, I want to be hesitant 24/7 if the stories are really happening or are just an elaborate metaphor for how terrible wartime fighting really is (or is it?). And since the main character is a veteran of war living in America, why doesn’t he start killing people drive a taxi and become Robert De Niro?
Despite these shortcomings, Nguyen manages to sneak in several passages that sing glorious social commentary on the realities of American life, including this actual quote from the book:
“Something like country music was what lynch mobs must have enjoyed while stringing up their black victims. Country music was not necessarily lynching music, but no other music could be imagined as lynching’s accompaniment. Beethoven’s Ninth was the opus of the Nazis, concentration camp commanders, and possibly President Truman as he contemplated atomizing Hiroshima, classical music the refined score for the high-minded extermination of brutish hordes. Country music was set to the more humble beat of the red-blooded, bloodthirsty American heartland.”
All in all, The Sympathizer is an excellently written book that simply hesitates to be as brutally totalitarian as it rightfully needs to be. In the spirit of this More-Communist attitude, instead of giving this brilliant work the score I believe it deserves, the novel will receive the average of all the previous scores, in order to place it on the even playing field it deserves. Therefore, The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen deservingly earns a 0.21428571428571428571428571428571/10.
Alex has an honorary doctorate from the Kim Dan Institute of Higher Learning in Book Reviews. He is also working on becoming ordained as a minister online.