A new way of looking at war

The Sympathizer is one of the most accomplished war novels in recent years, right up there with Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk. The story of a North Vietnamese secret agent working with the Southern Vietnamese forces, it finds new ground in subject matter that has been examined by writers too numerous to count. To understand its significance, however, will require a little history.

Following the Vietnam War, American war literature underwent a contraction. The focus of writing about war narrowed until it focused almost exclusively on the boots-on-the-ground experiences of soldiers, with little attention paid to larger social or political context. In this regard, the most emblematic work of war fiction in the last 40 years is Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, a series of sketches about soldiers making their way through the Vietnamese jungle, surviving on gallows humour and M-16s. It is a very good novel, still worth reading, but its blind spots deserve to be taken into account, for those are precisely where Nguyen finds the drama of his story.

It makes perfect sense that writers, especially those who served in Vietnam, would want to keep their heads and ignore the wider geopolitical forces at work in the conflict. The war was a quagmire for the U.S., its ideals drowned in death and mud. By focusing on survival at the individual level, writers could sidestep the larger issues that made war such a disaster.

Nguyen takes the opposite approach in The Sympathizer. Rather than turning away from geopolitical issues, he leans into them, making intrigue and politics the foundation of his story. And it makes for a profound, moving reading experience.

The story starts at an unusual place for a war novel: at the end of the war. The narrator, who, much like Dostoyevsky’s Underground Man, goes unnamed, is a member of the South Vietnamese military. They have just been driven out Saigon by the communist forces of the Viet Cong, and he and his colleagues are preparing to leave the country on an American military plane. But his comrades don’t know that he is a double agent working for the Viet Cong – a sympathizer, in the parlance of the Cold War. He has been spying on them for years, and he continues to do so when they arrive in the United States.

While the deposed commander attempts to scare up funds to bankroll a return mission to Vietnam, the narrator passes his time by writing letters, dating a nightclub singer and, in a bravura set piece, working for a director who’s making a film about Vietnam. The director is clearly modeled on Francis Ford Coppola and the film is recognizable as Apocalypse Now. The chapters detailing this misadventure are funny and sly, bringing up themes of representation and media. It’s the kind of “postmodern” material that war literature has avoided in the last generation or so, finding it inauthentic in the face of the overwhelming reality of war. But Nguyen’s point is that war has many different layers of reality, from battlefields to the representation of those battlefields on televisions and movie screens.

The Sympathizer continues following the narrator as he navigates intrigues and conspiracies, much like a character in a Graham Greene novel. It’s thrilling to see Nguyen come at such familiar material from so many different directions, creating a Vietnam story unlike any other, but it’s also illuminating for our own present circumstances.

There are dozens of books about the United States’ recent militaristic forays into Iraq and Afghanistan, but there’s a sameness that crops up in many of them, deploying as they do techniques and ideas familiar from Vietnam literature. Indeed, one of the most celebrated books about Iraq, Redeployment by Phil Klay, is essentially an updating of The Things They Carried. There’s the same linked stories structure, the same focus on the daily minutiae and fear of soldiers, though it lacks O’Brien’s distinctive brand of dark humour. Perhaps this is because readers and writers still haven’t come up with new ways of looking at our recent wars, ways that recognize the competing realities at play, the money and the bureaucracy and the ideology. A bold exercise in genre cross-pollination like The Sympathizer could be just what chroniclers of America’s forever war need right now.

  • Adam’s work has appeared in many venues, including the Paris Review Daily, Electric Literature and Real Life. He lives in Grand Rapids with his wife and two daughters.

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