Viet Thanh Nguyen certainly knows how to debut well. His first novel, “The Sympathizer,” snapped up a host of literary awards in 2016, including the Pulitzer Prize. It was nominally a thriller, but what captured imaginations was its startling exploration of the post-war political entanglements of Vietnam and the United States, and how those entanglements played out in the psyche of one divided man. The story of a refugee turned spy somehow managed to be both penetrating and playful, philosophical and punk.
Readers who want more of a good thing will be excited to dive into “The Committed” (Grove Press, 368 pp., ★★★ out of four), out Tuesday, which picks up after the events of the first novel. The unnamed narrator and his friend Bon arrive in Paris after being “reeducated” in a camp back in Vietnam and are soon swept up by the heady existential ideas of French intellectual circles. They’re swept up, too, by more clear and present dangers: They begin working for a Vietnamese drug dealer locked in an escalating conflict with the local Algerians. Gunfights ensue.
“The Committed,” by Viet Thanh Nguyen. (Photo: Grove)
The vibrant self-centeredness of 1980s Paris is perfectly captured in Nguyen’s observant prose, down to the dog poo caking the sidewalks and “the peeling blue paint on the steel door of [his] aunt’s apartment building.” The plot is frantic and violent — or would be if it weren’t relayed in the wry, intellectually conflicted voice of this narrator. We learn so much about his internal life that the storyline becomes almost beside the point… which is good, as after an electric opening act “The Committed” turns muddy and difficult to follow.
Even the novel’s eventual scenes of torture carry barely a whiff of tension or horror. Acts of utmost violence and betrayal are instead causes for sardonic rumination (“Although I feared the Boss for good reason, I feared Bon a little bit less. This was a mistake, in retrospect, given that Bon has shot me in the head”). While most novels have a front-burner plot and back-burner themes and ideas, Nguyen has inverted the recipe, prioritizing his exploration of ideas of foreignness, and his withering indictment of “the endless, schmaltzy gratitude that host countries demanded of refugees who came from countries raped and bombed by the host countries.”
Author Viet Thanh Nguyen. (Photo: BeBe Jacobs)
The unnamed narrator’s life might be easier if he was full only of that rage. But, unfortunately for him, he’s also full of the desire to assimilate, to not feel like an outsider in France, wearing a “white mask.” He tells us from the start that he’s a divided entity, torn by competing desires, competing nationalities, competing ideologies. He’s rueful about the vulnerability that comes with his ambivalence: “I, who could sympathize with anyone, wanted more than anything for someone to sympathize with me.”
Readers who found new ways to think about race and the refugee experience in “The Sympathizer” will find plenty more to explore here.
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