On Viet Nguyen’s The Sympathizer, the grotesque in art, and guilt.

the-sympathizer-new-193x288If I were asked to pick a work of cinema that most resembles Viet Nguyen’s The Sympathizer, the recent Vietnam War novel that reads like a mash-up of Graham Greene’s The Quiet American and George Orwell’s 1984, I would pick The Triplets of Belleville.  This despite the fact that The Sympathizer includes a segment about the making of an Apocalypse Now-esque film by a Coppola-esque director.  To me, the most striking feature of The Sympathizer was its depiction of life as fundamentally grotesque.

Not that I think life is gross.  But part of what makes The Triplets of Belleville so charming is the way all the characters’ physiognomies are exaggerated to convey their lives and loves.  Bicyclists’ leg muscles bulge to bursting beneath twiggy torsos.  A subservient waiter bows so abjectly that his head dips below his waist.  Americans totter forth bulbous, ponderous, perpetually facestuffing.  Bodyguards tower broadshouldered like playing cards.  Frogs fly splayed-limbed through the air, detonated by grenades.  Old television programs are as unsettlingly racist as you’d expect.  The whole film is horrifying and beautiful.

Still from Triplets. See what I mean?

And I couldn’t help thinking of that film while reading Nguyen‘s book, given the prevalence of dark human body metaphors, especially through the first third of the book.  Passages like:

We were smoking a final cigarette at the mouth of the dank, dripping alley that was the beer garden’s exit when a trio of hydrocephalic marines stumbled out of the vaginal darkness.


I woke up in the perineum of time between the very late hours of the evening and the very early hours of the morning, grotty sponge in my mouth, frightened by the severed head of a gigantic insect gaping its jaws at me until I realized it was only the wood-paneled television, its twin antennae drooping.  The national anthem blared as the Stars and Stripes waved and blended with sweeping shots of majestic purple mountains and soaring fighter jets.  When the curtain of static and snow finally fell on the screen, I dragged myself to the mossy, toothless mouth of the toilet, then to the lower rack of the bunk beds in the narrow bedroom.


Grease glazed the orange Formica tabletop, while chrysanthemum tea stood ready to be poured from a tin pot into chipped teacups the color and texture of the enamel on human teeth.

So much of the world Nguyen creates resembles our bodies, but always in unsettling ways.  To my reading, the reason seems to be that life, for soldiers even attempting to carry on with normal life in peacetime, truly is grotesque.  Horrors abound, and it must be awful knowing the misdeeds that transpired in your name, and the misdeeds that might be expected of you still.  Here is Nguyen on the pervasive evil of war:

The point of writing this is that the crapulent major was as sinful as Claude estimated.  Perhaps he had done worse than simply extort money, although if he did it did not make him above average in corruption.  It just made him average.

Indeed, this calls to mind the passage from Greene’s The Quiet American that suggests the most damning behavior in war is to act without accepting responsibility for the full human costs of each choice.  In this passage Pyle, an American ambassador, is surveying the wreckage from a bombing he helped plan, hoping that it would boost the political chances of the south Vietnamese conservatives.  The narrator, politically agnostic, isn’t shocked so much by the bombing itself as by Pyle’s attempt to squirm free of blame.

QuietAmericanPyle said, ‘It’s awful.’  He looked at the wet on his shoes and said in a sick voice, ‘What’s that?’

‘Blood,’ I said.  ‘Haven’t you seen it before?’

He said, ‘I must get them cleaned before I see the Minister.’  I don’t think he knew what he was saying.  He was seeing a real war for the first time: he had punted down into Phat Diem in a kind of schoolboy dream, and anyway in his eyes soldiers didn’t count.

I forced him, with my hand on his shoulder, to look around.  I said, ‘This is the hour when the place is always full of women and children — it’s the shopping hour.  Why choose that of all hours?’

He said weakly, ‘There was to have been a parade.’

‘And you hoped to catch a few colonels.  But the parade was canceled yesterday, Pyle.’

‘I didn’t know.’

‘Didn’t know!’  I pushed him into a patch of blood where a stretcher had lain.  ‘You ought to be better informed.’

‘I was out of town,’ he said, looking down at his shoes.  ‘They should have called it off.’

The first third of Nguyen’s novel, the section that felt like a response to The Quiet American, was great.  As befits the narrator’s status as a mole, a communist agent embedded in the South Vietnamese Army, forced to fight against his allies in order to maintain his disguise, much of the writing can be interpreted several ways.  Nguyen‘s aim seems well-described by this short dialogue between a leftist Vietnamese reporter and the narrator — this appears shortly after a small cadre of South Vietnamese military leaders take refuge in California:

So what do you think of our Congressman?

Are you going to quote me?

You’ll be an anonymous source.

He’s the best thing that could have happened to us, I said.  And that was no lie.  It was, instead, the best kind of truth, the one that meant at least two things.

viet-nguyen-small-319x400Despite the wavering ambiguity through much of this section, Nguyen occasionally drops the trickery to deliver cutting political analysis.  I’ll end this post with one more quotation from his book, a beautiful passage that helps explain the doublethink that allows Americans (as an undifferentiated aggregate perhaps best represented by our major televised news organizations) to believe in their exceptionalism and status as defenders of freedom and liberty despite imprisoning huge numbers of people without just cause, despite torture, despite having built an empire from the stolen land, labor, and resources of others with no plan for future recompense … I could go on.  But why?  You don’t need my rant.  You should read Nguyen‘s explanation instead:

They believe in a universe of divine justice where the human race is guilty of sin, but they also believe in a secular justice where human beings are presumed innocent.  You can’t have both.  You know how Americans deal with it?  They pretend they are eternally innocent no matter how many times they lose their innocence.  The problem is that those who insist on their innocence believe anything they do is just.  At least we who believe in our own guilt know what dark things we can do.