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2016 Book Discussions > The Sympathizer - First Half, Chapters 1-12 (June 2016)

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message 1: by Caroline (last edited Jun 01, 2016 09:24PM) (new)

Caroline (cedickie) | 384 comments Mod
Here's a thread for discussing the first half of The Sympathizer. Spoilers for this section are allowed but please save any comments about the second half for the whole book thread. If you're unsure of whether something you're posting is a spoiler from something we haven't gotten to yet, feel free to use a spoiler tag. Here's a blog post that will show you how to add spoiler tags.

I've included a brief summary of events and characters from the first half behind the spoiler tags below.

(view spoiler)

Feel free to add any comments, thoughts, or questions you may have so far. I will add some questions and topics tomorrow!


message 2: by Portia (last edited Jun 01, 2016 09:07PM) (new)

Portia I thought it was a squid ^^


message 3: by Caroline (new)

Caroline (cedickie) | 384 comments Mod
Portia wrote: "I thought it was a squid ^^"

It was, my bad! That scene though...not sure I'll ever look at a squid the same way again!


message 4: by Hugh (new)

Hugh (bodachliath) | 2568 comments Mod
A few initial thoughts. I like the plot summary - thanks Caroline. I found it very easy to engage with this book right from the start. Loved the conversational tone and found the narrator very easy to listen to. Choosing a double agent to tell the story immediately allows a balance of views that would be very difficult to achieve without that nuanced perspective. The first section on the evacuation of Saigon is very dramatic - Nguyen manages to make this a riveting read without losing track of the introductions and character development, so this was impressive. It is inevitable that the pace changes once the story moves to America and then the Philippines. I think enough has been said about the squid already!


message 5: by Marc (last edited Jun 02, 2016 06:40AM) (new)

Marc (monkeelino) | 2567 comments Mod
Hugh, I think your last sentence drives home Nguyen's point:
"Some will undoubtedly find this episode obscene. Not I! Massacre is obscene. Torture is obscene. Three million dead is obscene."

Even online, we're much more comfortable talking about death, war, people being shot, etc.


message 6: by Portia (last edited Jun 02, 2016 06:40AM) (new)

Portia Caroline wrote: "Portia wrote: "I thought it was a squid ^^"

It was, my bad! That scene though...not sure I'll ever look at a squid the same way again!"


Calamari is off my menu!

I thought the scene was really, really funny and an exquisite example of comic relief. As we all know, comic relief is essential in books, or plays, full of dramatic tension. My favorite fallback example is The Porter in The Scottish Play.


message 7: by Caroline (new)

Caroline (cedickie) | 384 comments Mod
I was completely shocked by the squid scene, especially when his mother serves it to him and he takes a bite out of it. The Sympathizer has certainly made his point - it feels far more awkward to openly talk about this masturbation scene than it probably will be to discuss the bloodshed that occurs elsewhere in the book.

I was impressed with this book and the writing from the start. With the Sympathizer being no one, or nameless, I didn't expect him to be a well-rounded character. However, though the Sympathizer certainly seems to serve the purpose of sending a strong message to his audience, this character is anything but flat (as demonstrated in part by that squid scene). At the end of my copy of the book (paperback), there's a short interview with the author. There he talks about how he intentionally tried to humanize the protagonist by inserting details and figures, such as his mother, into his story. I found this to be incredibly effective at pulling me into the story and his perspective of events.

There are so many events that stand out, from the evacuation, to the demise of the crapulent major, to his interactions with the Auteur in California and the Philippines!

Catch-22 has already been mentioned in the non-spoiler thread and I think other works worth bringing up are The Quiet American and Apocalypse Now . I'll probably bring these back up in the whole book thread but both are very much apparent in the first half. In the scene with Professor Hammer, the Quiet American pops up in conversation because the protagonist wrote about it for his thesis and they discuss whether Pyle, that novel's double agent, was gay. Nguyen also admits that the Auteur and The Hamlet were partially based on Francis Ford Coppola and Apocalypse Now .

I'm curious to read everyone's thoughts once they've finished the book!


message 8: by Portia (last edited Jun 03, 2016 09:41AM) (new)

Portia I laughed out loud when I read that the actor who always played "The Asian" was most well-known for his role in the commercial for the product called "Sheen." As in Martin. Sweet.

I loved the author's near essay on Generic Asian actors. That is so true and could be expanded to include Generic Native American/First People and on and on. I thought it was brilliant.

Speaking of Martin Sheen, he appeared on Saturday Night Live back in the day in a spot titled "Apocalypse When," poking fun at the length of time it took for the Auteur to get "Apocalypse Now" right.


message 9: by James (new)

James | 62 comments I thought all the movie chapters were excellent, but the most moving section for me was that about the Watchman in the white room. That was really awful.

I’m trying to work out how our sympathiser can hold his communist beliefs and yet be so hands-on active in the planning and execution of activities for the General, which must have led to numerous deaths on his ‘own side’.


message 10: by LindaJ^ (new)

LindaJ^ (lindajs) | 2298 comments Jim wrote: "I thought all the movie chapters were excellent, but the most moving section for me was that about the Watchman in the white room. That was really awful.

I’m trying to work out how our sympathise..."


I agree - both about the white room and how he was able to be both the general's right hand and the sleeper agent. I understand being able to see both sides but when it was necessary to kill to maintain status, that was hard to comprehend.


message 11: by Karen (new)

Karen O | 4 comments I've just read three chapters so far. I'm really enjoying the writing - so full of very striking images. I loved this sentence: "So it was that for two minutes we sang with all our hearts, feeling only for the past and turning our gaze from the future, swimmers doing the backstroke toward a waterfall."


message 12: by Dianne (new)

Dianne | 204 comments I'm about a hundred pages in and I just love this book so far. I really do. The writing is magnetic and engaging, and I am especially impressed with the ironic treatment of the blatant racism (the Asian population described as "foreign weeds [that] choke to death much of our native foliage") encountered by Asians in the US at the time. A brilliant and scathing treatment and one which reveals how entrenched certain stereotypes were at the time. I thought it was interesting how the government sought to keep Asians separate from one another so that they could not develop their own infrastructure and community, one which, even if so developed the author describes as "a pimple on the butt" of America if it had been allowed to exist. What a shocking description and description of racism in such a few words!

The duplicity of the war fought by "citizens of a democracy destroying another country in order to save it" was well put, as was the description of the hypocrisy of the Catholic church.

I also found very noteworthy the descriptions of the valiant war fighters reduced to menial roles, piss tasting beer and subsidized apartments. I imagine many war heroes throughout time have had similar difficulties assimilating, as their amazing abilities in jumping out of planes, or hunting guerillas, or surviving gunfire, etc. are rendered useless upon the strangely monotonous and uneventful return to day to day life.


message 13: by Portia (new)

Portia The film, "The Hurt Locker" dealt with that exact issue.


message 14: by Caroline (new)

Caroline (cedickie) | 384 comments Mod
Jim and Linda, that scene with the Watchman was powerful, as were mentions of the communist agent with the list of names in her mouth. I wonder whether the second half will answer your question about how he was able to kill in order to protect his sleeper agent status. Not that the answer is one that would be acceptable to us but sheds light on the world these characters were living in, as well as the reasoning behind their actions.

Dianne, I was also drawn in by that part about Asians being kept separate so they couldn't establish larger communities. It was interesting to see the General and other officers who were used to flaunting their status be reduced to gas station attendants and cashiers. Though they were quick to reassert their status at any chance they got, such as at the wedding.


message 15: by Dianne (last edited Jun 05, 2016 04:26PM) (new)

Dianne | 204 comments I haven't seen that movie I'll have to check it out!

On a random side note, I'm going to have to incorporate 'crapulent' into my vocabulary. What a funny word I have never heard of before.! I'll have to somehow find a way to use it without offending anyone :)

As for killing to keep spy status, I think that is just part of the job description. He wrestled with it, but really didn't have much choice in his own view. He really had the perfect spy lifestyle and personality, no real family, no real personal attachments, adept at lying and psychological manipulation.


message 16: by Whitney (new)

Whitney | 2064 comments Mod
Dianne wrote: "I also found very noteworthy the descriptions of the valiant war fighters reduced to menial roles, piss tasting beer and subsidized apartments. I imagine many war heroes throughout time have had similar difficulties assimilating, as their amazing abilities in jumping out of planes, or hunting guerillas, or surviving gunfire, etc. are rendered useless upon the strangely monotonous and uneventful return to day to day life. ..."

Definitely, and also keeping in mind that the people who made it out of Vietnam to America were overrepresented by the elite of the country, as Nguyen showed during the evacuation arrangements. Most of those given seats were the ones with high-ranking connections and/or the money to pay the requisite bribes. So you have a group of people who have the usual difficulties of soldiers returning to civilian life with PTSD-inducing experiences and skill sets that don't translate to more than service industry jobs, and also people who are used to being the Mandarins in their own countries. Many of them, such as the general, had comparatively large amounts of wealth and prestige and servants of their own back home. Then there’s the complete cultural shift, language barrier, and being in a country where refugees are usually considered second-class citizens at best. Finally, throw in that they come from a country that was in the midst of a very bloody civil war, so even their fellow refugees can’t be trusted to have their backs.


message 17: by LindaJ^ (new)

LindaJ^ (lindajs) | 2298 comments Having now finished, much of the above is made clearer in Part II but there are also more issues introduced!


message 18: by Trudie (last edited Jun 14, 2016 10:26PM) (new)

Trudie (trudieb) Slowly making progress with this novel - finally at the half way point. I don't want to start off my first discussion in this group being a lone voice of dissent but for reasons that allude me I find it hard to gather much momentum with this book. In principle I like where its going, and I agree that it provides such an insight into this period of time forcing me to dispel all those Hollywood versions of "Vietnam" I have in my head. The writing is very good, its clever, its funny. There are so many sentences I went back to read and languish over but the actual experience of being in this characters head I am finding tiresome ...I think it is possible that as a reader I have a really hard time with this kind of war satire genre. I know I had similar feelings with The Orphan Master's Son. I think this is a classic case of a book I objectively admire for what it brings to the table but can't embrace it passionately so far ...


message 19: by Trudie (new)

Trudie (trudieb) I am really intrigued by this thinly disguised "Apocalypse Now" part of the story. Does anyone know how much is based in truth ? Chapt 10 on the film set in the Philippines discusses a sort of welcome party with "Stripper Soup" and assorted debauchery
"I could see the film shoot was going to generate tales of the movie people from Hollywood that would be passed on for decades...."
I guess I need to look up the history on this film shoot


message 20: by Hugh (new)

Hugh (bodachliath) | 2568 comments Mod
Trudie wrote: "I am really intrigued by this thinly disguised "Apocalypse Now" part of the story. Does anyone know how much is based in truth ? Chapt 10 on the film set in the Philippines discusses a sort of welc..."
Does your copy of the book have the author's postscript - this gives a partial explanation (this is from memory - the book is at home and I am at work, so I don't have it in front of me)


message 21: by Trudie (new)

Trudie (trudieb) Ah, no it doesn't Hugh, but I see it does provide some interesting references to the making of the film - I am utterly intrigued by this backstory. I think I need to re watch Apocalypse Now after reading this plus there is a documentary called "Hearts of Darkness" which would also interest me.


message 22: by Portia (new)

Portia One thing I remember from the time is that is took ages for Coppola to be satisfied. I mentioned in an earlier post that Saturday Night Live did a sketch featuring Martin Sheen, who starred in the movie with Marlon Brando who played the Kurtz character. The sketch was called "Apocalypse Now" and we at-the-time-young Boomers it was timely and well done.


message 23: by Hugh (new)

Hugh (bodachliath) | 2568 comments Mod
Trudie wrote: "Ah, no it doesn't Hugh, but I see it does provide some interesting references to the making of the film - I am utterly intrigued by this backstory. I think I need to re watch Apocalypse Now after r..."
I have just had another look at the book, and the "partial explanation" I was talking about is part of the Acknowledgments


message 24: by Whitney (new)

Whitney | 2064 comments Mod
Portia wrote: "One thing I remember from the time is that is took ages for Coppola to be satisfied. I mentioned in an earlier post that Saturday Night Live did a sketch featuring Martin Sheen, who starred in the ..."

Portia, I loved that sketch! Instead of setting off to kill Kurtz, Sheen was being sent off to stop the out of control production of Apocalypse Now and its clearly insane director. That episode also had the ad for "Martin Sheen Hairspray" with Sheen taking a sip of water than spitting it on Jane Curtain's head.

For those too young to remember (you can give thanks), the commercial that Nguyen is parodying with the Confucius say, Clean with Sheen! ad is the once ubiquitous "Ancient Chinese Secret" Calgon ad. Here it is in all its cringeworthy glory: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BJP5f...


message 25: by Britta (new)

Britta Böhler I only started the novel today. Sorry, I am so late to the party. But I had to brush up on my knowledge of the Vietnam war a bit (which was sketchy at best) before starting the book.
I read the first 30 pages or so today, and am really captivated. And: didnt expect the book to be so funny...


message 26: by Caroline (new)

Caroline (cedickie) | 384 comments Mod
Whitney, thanks for sharing that video link. It is indeed cringeworthy but interesting to see it as a reference point for the book. I found that Martin Sheen episode on Hulu and watched it on SNL, it's pretty funny. Great performances from David Bowie in that episode too!

Portia, no worries about being late. We welcome comments at any time. I didn't expect the book to be so funny either but I really enjoyed that, especially since there are some very dark parts to the story.


message 27: by Luella (last edited Jun 14, 2017 11:55AM) (new)

Luella | 40 comments Mod
Trudie wrote: "Ah, no it doesn't Hugh, but I see it does provide some interesting references to the making of the film - I am utterly intrigued by this backstory. I think I need to re watch Apocalypse Now after r..."

I just took out Notes: On the Making of "Apocalypse Now" not realizing that this book would reference to it. I really like that movie but like the author states it doesn't represent Vietnamese people. I never thought it was supposed to...since it was based on Heart of Darkness I always figured that was the angle. I ended up reading Heart of Darkness as a result of Apocalypse Now and I ended up liking it but the flowery language made it hard for me to get through.

I like the perspective of the book though. Even reading the comments was enlightening. I think it's a little heavy in some areas but it has a lot to say and overall does a good job of outlining things that usually turn into landmines in discussions. Some of the details of the war were just shocking. It's something they gloss over in school or never even get to. I can't remember ever hearing anything from a point of view of people who were in the country at the time. So that I am enjoying. I am looking forward to finishing up the other half of the book.


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