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The Sympathizer
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2016 Book Discussions > The Sympathizer - Whole Book, Spoilers Allowed (June 2016)

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message 1: by Caroline (last edited Jun 03, 2016 12:23AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Caroline (cedickie) | 384 comments Mod
Here's the thread for discussing the whole book with spoilers very much allowed!

I finished the book earlier today and heard myself say "whoah" before setting it down. I'm not sure when a book last caused such a reaction in me so I imagine there will be quite a lot to discuss here.

Though all spoilers are fair game, I've posted a quick summary of the second half of the book here for anyone who'd like a reference. Check the first half thread for a brief summary of the first half.

(view spoiler)

Feel free to add your thoughts, comments, and questions. I'll include some topics in another comment.


Portia After reading chapter 6, I've decided to never eat calamari again.


Caroline (cedickie) | 384 comments Mod
Here are some topics that really grabbed me, with a few questions thrown in here and there:

Duality and Identity : Duality, alongside personal and cultural identity seem to be major themes of the book. We know from the start that the protagonist lives a double life and we later learn that he doesn't seem to belong anywhere. There is a constant struggle between him trying to accept this duality (his mother tells him he's not half of anything, he's the best of two things, or something along those lines) while facing rejection at almost every turn. The schoolyard bullies reject him, his father barely acknowledges him, the General and Madame accept him as a soldier but reject him as a potential son-in-law. And of course, he knows his allegiance belongs with the communists, but he can't help but warm to certain aspects of American culture and feels guilty for the deaths of the crapulent major and Sonny. His reeducation at the Commandant and Man's hands ultimately splits him in two - the narrator switches from first person, briefly to third person, and ultimately back to a first person who refers to himself as "we," or two men torn apart.

Perception and Representation On pages 251-2 of the paperback version, the Sympathizer comments on Dr. Hedd's (of the country club) book and how he perceives the Vietnamese: "Before this meeting I had reviewed his book one more time and found two instances where his categories addressed someone such as myself...These categories existed as pages in a book exist, but most of us were composed of many pages, not just one. Still, I suspected, as Dr. Hedd scrutinized me, that what he saw was not that I was a book but that I was a sheet, easily read and easily mastered. I was going to prove him wrong." I think this passage highlights much of what the protagonist, and possibly Nguyen as well, is trying to do throughout the book.

In an interview with Nguyen at the end of the paperback version, he says that he wanted to provide a voice to the Vietnamese perspective that properly captured the anger felt by many Vietnamese. He doesn't claim to be the first person to provide a voice to this perspective but says he's trying to reach a new audience and make a stronger point than what's been made before. He also states that he wanted this anger to be powerful, confrontational, and directed at everyone; everyone should be held accountable. What do you think of this new voice? What do you think of his decision to have the Sympathizer address his confession to the Commandant, rather than to an American official?

Nguyen also says in the same interview that he didn't want any character or piece of the story (such as Phuong in The Quiet American )to represent all of Vietnam and instead wanted the characters to "embody aspects of what happened to Vietnam and the Vietnamese people...." Do you think he was successful in this regard?

Pacing and Ending What did you think of the pacing of the book? It starts off with a lot of action, then almost lulls us into a false sense of security (with a couple of assassinations thrown in here and there), then blasts us to Thailand and all the brutal events that occur in the final chapters of the book. What did you think of the end of the book? I'm not sure whether I liked that final scene with the boat, though it does remind me of the final boat scene in Apocalypse Now (especially with "the horror, the horror" echoing in the background). What's the purpose of Nguyen's final confession ("nothing!") Does it do anything other than reveal the anger Nguyen intended to convey?

Friendship What do you think of the Sympathizer's relationship with his two closest friends, or blood brothers, Man and Bon? Do you think they change over the course of the book? Does he value these relationships equally?

Other thoughts? There are many, many things I didn't include above.


message 4: by Portia (last edited Jun 03, 2016 10:36AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Portia I mentioned in another thread that the author wrote a sort of essay on the concept of The Generic Asian Actor.

Now I'm thinking that the whole book is a series of essays or near-tirades, in some cases, tied together by the overall story.

I'm not sure if I am 100% correct on this, so what do other people think?


Hugh (bodachliath) | 2716 comments Mod
I think I'll try and finish the book before saying any more - I have about 70 pages to go. So far the second half has not held my attention as well as the first part.


message 6: by Hugh (last edited Jun 05, 2016 05:10AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Hugh (bodachliath) | 2716 comments Mod
I finished the book this morning, and found the final section the most compulsive. I feel a bit too closely involved in the story to step back and think about the ideas and the structure, so I may allow a bit of thinking time before saying much more here, but it was undoubtedly a rewarding, fascinating and moving book.


Caroline (cedickie) | 384 comments Mod
Hugh, I can certainly understand needing to take a moment to step back and take it all in! It's been a few days since I finished it and I'm still processing some of the scenes.

Portia, I didn't read it as a series of essays but can see where you're coming from. It did seem as though Nguyen had a series of points he wanted to convey so many of the scenes and relationships seemed targeted at making sure he drove them home.


Portia That works, too. Or tirades.


Hugh (bodachliath) | 2716 comments Mod
I can't talk about the ending without spoilers that would change the perceptions of anybody who hasn't got to the last few chapters yet. So:
(view spoiler)


Portia This morning, I caught bits and pieces of an interview with the Mayor of a town in Orange County, CA. His parents were boat people and he was born in CA one month after they arrived. Timely.


Caroline (cedickie) | 384 comments Mod
I would be curious to reread this book at some point to see how my knowledge of what happens in the end alters my perception of the rest of the book.

Though Nguyen says that his main reason for writing this book was to bring a new perspective to a wider audience about the Vietnam War, there is much that resonates with recent history and representations of race in current pop culture. Check out this NY Times article on Asian American actors fighting for visibility in Hollywood.

Hugh, I agree that the final chapter felt tacked on. I liked it but it felt rushed compared to the rest of the book. It felt as though he couldn't think of how to tie up all the essays or tirades Portia points out. Also, as to the interrogations, wasn't there mention earlier in the book that these types of techniques don't tend to lead to good information? It was interesting that the protagonist was able to accept his final answer as the truth despite understanding how those techniques often lead the victim to say whatever the interrogator wants to hear.


message 12: by Hugh (new) - rated it 4 stars

Hugh (bodachliath) | 2716 comments Mod
Yes, it is an interesting point that as Nguyen says, and has been proven scientifically, torture does not improve the quality of a confession. (view spoiler)


LindaJ^ (lindajs) | 2354 comments Caroline wrote: "as to the interrogations, wasn't there mention earlier in the book that these types of techniques don't tend to lead to good information? It was interesting that the protagonist was able to accept his final answer as the truth despite understanding how those techniques often lead the victim to say whatever the interrogator wants to hear."

My recollection (potentially flawed!) is that the discussion was that the physical torture that failed to get truth but that the sensory deprivations or overloads were often successful. Both are certainly torture but physical pain is different than emotional/mental pain, I think.


message 14: by Hugh (new) - rated it 4 stars

Hugh (bodachliath) | 2716 comments Mod
Linda wrote: "My recollection (potentially flawed!) is that the discussion was that the physical torture that failed to get truth but that the sensory deprivations or overloads were often successful. Both are certainly torture but physical pain is different than emotional/mental pain, I think.." ... well of course that's what the military would like us to believe, but I don't think the evidence supports the claim


LindaJ^ (lindajs) | 2354 comments I enjoyed the book. It has some rough edges but overall it was very good. In the late 70's I had occasion to hire a young Vietnamese woman who, with most but not all of her family, was one of the "boat people." I and my staff learned a lot from having her among us, including her hatred of the communists. We all helped her study for her citizenship test. When she passed and they took her green card away, she couldn't get over not having to carry any identification saying she was a citizen. This book brought her and what we learned about a different culture to mind. Her youngest brother quickly became Americanized but she retained much of the culture she had grown up in. What we never discussed with her, however, was the war itself and how she felt about America's involvement in Vietnam.

The Vietnam War shaped a lot of my college experience. I did my share of anti-war protesting and I knew people who spent a few tours of duty in 'Nam.

In short, this book brought back a lot of memories of the 1970's for me. I liked that the author called out many of the parties deserving blame for the situation. How many times has the world seen revolutionaries with justifiable objections to their governments end up with an even worse government; one that is more repressive than the last. I am reminded of Iran and of much of Arab Spring.

Caroline, you raise a number of interesting things to consider. I was particularly taken by the duality and identity themes. I don't know how duality, to some extend, can be avoided by anyone. There is no completely right or wrong way of government. There are few, if any, persons who are always good or always bad. And then the question about the narrator and his two blood brothers and their friendship. I consider them brothers more than friends. They were all so different with different beliefs, yet loyal and true, I think, to each other.

It is really hard for me to think about this book without all the memories it has stirred up.


LindaJ^ (lindajs) | 2354 comments Hugh wrote: "Linda wrote: "My recollection (potentially flawed!) is that the discussion was that the physical torture that failed to get truth but that the sensory deprivations or overloads were often successfu..."
Certainly not implying that I believe it! It was interesting that our narrator was not physically tortured (despite the Commander's urges) but was certainly subjected to sensory torture.


Susan | 11 comments Linda wrote: "I enjoyed the book. It has some rough edges but overall it was very good. In the late 70's I had occasion to hire a young Vietnamese woman who, with most but not all of her family, was one of the "..."

Linda, I had a similar experience while reading The Sympathizer. My good friend also fled Vietnam via boat when she was 5 years old. She told me the emotional story of people jumping from land to boat. Many people died as a result of not jumping far enough to reach the boat and consequently drowning. My friend's grandparents decided at the last minute to stay in Vietnam while the remainder of her family emigrated. They went through the US immigration process and became citizens. Her family (especially parents) had a difficult time acclimating to American culture. Reading this book gave me a better understanding of the challenges her family (and countless others) faced.


message 18: by Hcbinict (new)

Hcbinict | 3 comments Serious spoiler alert question - maybe I missed it, after we find out who the commissar is, do we learn the identity of the commandant ? Thanks


Caroline (cedickie) | 384 comments Mod
Linda, that's a good point about the three men being more like brothers than friends.

Hcbinict, I believe the commandant is another of the many unnamed characters in the book.


Dianne | 210 comments Caroline wrote: "Here are some topics that really grabbed me, with a few questions thrown in here and there:

Duality and Identity : Duality, alongside personal and cultural identity seem to be major themes of the..."


great questions here, thanks Caroline!

On duality, I think our protagonist was split from his very birth. His identity as a 'bastard' profoundly shapes his life and others' perception of him, and he never really overcomes it. Perhaps because of this exposure he is particularly adept at being a double agent, and doesn't really cultivate a true personality of his own, drowning his human impulses in alcohol, prostitution and, the ultimate vice, books.

Regarding perception, I think the author did use this book as a vehicle to disseminate his anger to a larger audience. In the material in the back of the book, he seems to express regret that his work may only impact those who are 'readers', which lamentably are a smaller and smaller group these days. The profound impact of the war, and the treatment of the Vietnamese afterwards in the US, continues to resonate, as some of you have mentioned. I, for one, was not aware of the pervasiveness and subtlety of some of the isolation and mistreatment and it was alarming to read about.

The pacing was strange. I found myself not really liking the 'movie' section, and hoping it would move more quickly. The torture section seemed abrupt and the ending did seem to be a bit of an afterthought.

With respect to friendship, I think that the Sympathizer's relationships with Man and Bon were perhaps the only real relationships he ever had aside from his love for his mother. I don't think he loved Ms. Mori and he certainly didn't love Lana, although he was a bit obsessive about her.

All in all, I thought the book was powerful, rich with meaning, strong in its messaging and resonant long after putting it down. I consider it a 5 star book.


message 21: by Hcbinict (new)

Hcbinict | 3 comments Thanks Caroline. That's what I thought too ( i.e identity of the Commandment) but it was this line in the Times Book review that made me wonder if I missed something:

" Toward the end of the book, we find out where the narrator has been imprisoned, who the shadowy Commandant is, and why everyone is afraid of an even shadowier character known as the Commissar".


Caroline (cedickie) | 384 comments Mod
Hcbinict wrote: "Thanks Caroline. That's what I thought too ( i.e identity of the Commandment) but it was this line in the Times Book review that made me wonder if I missed something

I think they meant that we finally get to meet the commandant and hear him speak. Throughout the book, the sympathizer addresses the commandant as the audience of his confession but we don't know why he's speaking to him or what's happened until those final chapters.


message 23: by Hcbinict (new)

Hcbinict | 3 comments I agree Caroline. I guess I was just taking a quick comment by the NYT writer a little too literally. I suppose it's a good reflection on a book when one (me) wants to make sure they read and absorb every word and thought in it so carefully. Thanks for your input on this great book.


message 24: by Marc (new) - rated it 4 stars

Marc (monkeelino) | 2719 comments Mod
Curious what other readers made out of the turning of common nouns into proper names (The General, The Commandant, The Auteur, etc.). Certain characters had both names (a common noun made proper and an actual given name), and some only had real names (like Ms. Mori). Seemed to sort of keep them at a distance and make them less sympathetic (the ones without actual names). Didn't seem to be any hard logic between who did and did not get names.


LindaJ^ (lindajs) | 2354 comments Marc wrote: "Curious what other readers made out of the turning of common nouns into proper names (The General, The Commandant, The Auteur, etc.). Certain characters had both names (a common noun made proper an..."

Perhaps the ones without real names are composites, i.e., characters that demonstrate the general characteristics of their role in the book. They have a purpose but are not characters expected to change but just to play their specified role.


message 26: by Marc (new) - rated it 4 stars

Marc (monkeelino) | 2719 comments Mod
Linda wrote: "Perhaps the ones without real names are composites..."
Now that you mention it, Linda, most of them were part of the military establishment with pretty defined roles (except maybe The Auteur). Maybe a way to "sympathize" with the rigidness or blind obedience on both sides... ?

Reading through all the comments above, I definitely agree with the concerns expressed over the odd pacing of this book. Thoroughly enjoyed it, but at times, I did feel like I was in the passenger seat of someone just learning to drive a manual transmission.


message 27: by Hugh (last edited Jun 10, 2016 07:12AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Hugh (bodachliath) | 2716 comments Mod
A couple more thoughts on the unnamed characters - some of them (particularly in the film section) must be based on real people who cannot be named or identified too closely for legal reasons. The characters defined by roles in the VC camp would not have been known by name to the captives ((view spoiler)). Then there's the General - which seems natural enough in military circles, and the crapulent major, who must be referred to that way for comic effect. It reminded by a little of the question of why Marlon James referred to The Singer in A Brief History of Seven Killings.


Portia Marc wrote: "Linda wrote: "Perhaps the ones without real names are composites..."
Now that you mention it, Linda, most of them were part of the military establishment with pretty defined roles (except maybe The..."


:-)


Virgowriter (Brad Windhauser) | 2 comments I liked the book--although I didn't love it. The first two thirds move at a decent pace and present interesting situations for the narrator. I also enjoyed how he worked in social commentary about the treatment of Asians and Asian Americans in our culture--either directly or in our media. Once he returns to his country and is captured, the book really dragged. Part of my issue here is that the tone completely shifted and became a much different book. In general, I also found the prose to be kinda flat, the only really interesting section were the few pages written as a screenplay. Where was the craft throughout? The ending left me cold, also bogged down in ideas an pontificating rather than seeing the character fully developed.


message 30: by Whitney (last edited Jun 12, 2016 12:01AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Whitney | 2160 comments Mod
Marc wrote: "Linda wrote: "Perhaps the ones without real names are composites..."
Now that you mention it, Linda, most of them were part of the military establishment with pretty defined roles (except maybe The..."


I also got the idea that the characters with designations instead of names were largely representing types. While "The Auteur" was strongly influenced by Coppola and Apocalypse Now, there were references to other American movies about the Vietnam war thrown in as well. I think the critique was meant for all those American film makers who used Vietnamese mainly as props while ostensibly telling a story about their civil war.

The Department Head seems a fairly obvious stand-in for all the academic Orientalists who would probably just as un-ironically pontificate to Asians about the Asian Character as he does. I loved this: "He had hung an elaborate Oriental rug on his wall, in lieu, I suppose, of an actual Oriental."

I wonder a little that "Richard Hedd" was given an actual name. But maybe Nguyen was unable to resist the obvious and less than flattering name play for a character he stated was based on General Westmoreland.


Whitney | 2160 comments Mod
Marc wrote: "... I definitely agree with the concerns expressed over the odd pacing of this book. Thoroughly enjoyed it, but at times, I did feel like I was in the passenger seat of someone just learning to drive a manual transmission...."

I love this description. I think y'all are right that the pacing was uneven. I also agree with Hugh's comment about the last chapter seeming tacked on. "We will live!" seemed an odd final line for a book with a black as night epigraph from Nietzsche on the humor of torture, and where in the penultimate chapter the main character hysterically embraces nihilism.

I did like the change of tone in the second part of the book. The first part was very "literary", with florid descriptions and 50 cent words, more suited to the decadent Western world in which the narrator was immersed. The second part was much more straight forward narrative, which fits with the much more austere communist reeducation camp. Explained, of course, by one part being written after he had undergone his torture.

Speaking of, I'm no expert on torture but will of course weigh-in anyway. The kind of interrogation that the narrator underwent is not for the purpose of gathering useful information. It's purpose is 'reeducation', essentially brain washing by completely breaking someone's will. Earlier in the book (ironically during the filming of torture scene in "The Hamlet"), the narrator repeats Claude's lesson on interrogation, "...put a sack on the subject’s head, wrap his hands in balls of gauze, plug his ears, and drop him in a completely dark cell by himself for a week, and you no longer have a human being capable of resistance. You have a puddle of water."


Caroline (cedickie) | 384 comments Mod
Whitney, I think that point on torture for "reeducation" purposes makes sense here. He certainly seems to turn into a "puddle of water" by the end!

Marc, I was also curious as to why he chose to name a few of the characters but not others. It seems as though he had a more intimate relationship with each of the named characters with the exception of the intellectual they encounter at the "country club." Perhaps for those characters it was easier to name them then to come up with some sort of clever name for them. I think Lana's name was an important piece of her character - when he first met her, she was Lan, a chaste Vietnamese school girl who wore traditional clothing. Later, she is Lana, a scantily clad, Americanized singer in a rock band.


message 33: by Marc (new) - rated it 4 stars

Marc (monkeelino) | 2719 comments Mod
Caroline, I didn't even pick up on the change from Lan to Lana!

Don't let Whitney fool you with her modest "I'm no expert on torture." :p


message 34: by Portia (last edited Jun 15, 2016 09:33AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Portia Now, HOW is the Gen Pub supposed to interpret that statement?


Whitney | 2160 comments Mod
Dang it Marc! I I have to get a new identity one more time, I am going to be SO angry!


message 36: by Trudie (last edited Jun 20, 2016 05:29AM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Trudie (trudieb) Ok, finished this, my first book I have read with this group, at least within the month scheduled for the discussion.
Wrestled with this novel quite a bit, while the subject was eye-opening and there were many unique and interesting aspects. I just struggled with the style, particularly as to who is speaking when - are quotation marks uncool now ? Paragraphs even ?
Also, while the squid episode is often mentioned when discussing this novel, I actually thought this was amusing but I was completely horrified by (view spoiler) I also could not come to grips with the duality of the protagonist. Nothing in the novel convinced me he was a real person vs some kind of cipher for the author to hang all these interesting thoughts from. However, despite all this I agree there is some fabulous writing here and it is such an educational novel in many ways.


Whitney | 2160 comments Mod
Hi, Trudie. Good to see you joining us! (Just FYI, there's no need to put to put spoiler tags in your posts in the "spoilers allowed" thread.)

It does seem to me that fewer and fewer writers use quotation marks. I find that things flow more realistically that way, but it may take some getting used to. My copy had paragraphs, maybe you were reading a badly formatted e-book?

I agree with you that the narrator was a bit of a cipher. Do you think the other characters were similarly lacking in traits that made them seem like real people, or was it just the narrator? If it was just the narrator, do you think that was a deliberate choice on the part of Nguyen?

Rape and torture in books or movies is usually something I avoid, especially if it's there as a cheap way to add drama or to act as motivation for a hero. Extra especially if it's there just for its own sake. With the subject matter of this book, however, I think it would have been dishonest not the have it in. As a adjutant to an ARVN general and an NLF agent, the narrator would have been at the very least complicit in this kind of torture. Leaving it out or sanitizing it would have diluted his experience and his ethical compromises, with those compromises being what initiated his own torture. Is your issue that these things were in the book, or in the way they were presented?

I did find the main character to be misogynistic. At one point he comes close to acknowledging his lack of concern for women when he says that Sonny reads the kind of feminist books that Ms. Mori is interested in, but he doesn't. It's always difficult to say if the traits of a narrator extends to the writer as well, but in general I wasn't very impressed with his female characters.


message 38: by Hugh (new) - rated it 4 stars

Hugh (bodachliath) | 2716 comments Mod
Re the spoiler tags - both Caroline and I did it earlier in this thread because in both cases the comments revealed things that happen very late in the book, but now that we are this far into the month I'd agree that they seem unnecessary.


Trudie (trudieb) Thanks for clarifying on the spoiler tags, I was not sure what the rules were but now I see this thread is labelled "Spoilers Allowed".

I think I might have coped better with this novel stylistically if Nguyen had not chosen to drop the quotations as well as write in dense and longwinded "walls of words" (as I liked to think of it). It was a step of obfuscation too far, however, I do find when I engage deeply with a story then these aspects are less troublesome.

Largely, yes I think all the characters are very flat and inscrutable not just the narrator. As has been mentioned not many characters even have a name - i.e The Crapulent Major , Dark Marine, Darker Marine e.t.c. I think this is a purposeful decision on the part of the author as I think largely he is writing a kind of essay on Vietnam, torture, communism and the legacy of this in American culture and to me these characters are sort of like shadow puppets to aid in the thesis.
As to the torture and rape sequences I do think it relevant to the subject of this book and I am not squeamish to have those aspects presented in literature but I guess something about it truely shocked me - maybe I had thought the narrator was not truely this repugnant or maybe the author just managed to effect me with his descriptions in a way that I wanted to close the book.

Worth noting that I had an almost identical reaction to similar scenes in The Orphan Masters Son and I am beginning to feel I have a disconnect between novels presented somewhat humorously and satirically and then ending in scenes abject horror.


Scott Cox (tapbirds) I found this to be a powerful, gripping novel. I wouldn't say that it was a "page-turner," but it did begin to grow upon me. However I also felt that the author was guilty of the very thing that he was opposing: revisionist history. First, let me state that I was against the Vietnam War in it's heyday. And that opinion hasn't really changed over the decades. But I think that Nguyen painted such a one-sided attempt to turn American and Vietnam idealists into villains, that he actually made me start arguing against him. For example, it is quite fair to question covert actions against a people's right to self determination. It is quite another thing to realize that some of these totalitarian regimes were (are) more ruthless than were the French or Americans. Pol Pot's killing fields and North Korea's Kim's to be specific (how can I leave out Mao's cultural revolution?). And honestly, the squid scene wasn't really needed. I realize it was just vile and sensational enough to probably help sell Nguyen's novel. But it is cheap, IMHO. In summary, I mostly *liked* the book and felt the message to be challenging, however I could not rate it 5 stars for the reasons above.


message 41: by Dianne (last edited Jun 21, 2016 12:23PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Dianne | 210 comments Whitney wrote: "Hi, Trudie. Good to see you joining us! (Just FYI, there's no need to put to put spoiler tags in your posts in the "spoilers allowed" thread.)

It does seem to me that fewer and fewer writers use q..."



I totally agree that the narrator was a relatively flat character, but I think that was partly because of the role that he played. He was the double agent, the spy, and like an actor, lived his life not as an individual but as an ever changing ghost depending on the demands put upon him. As such, he could not truly have a relationship, could not truly expose himself, could not truly evolve as a human being, and ended up an alcoholic who took solace in prostitutes, etc. I think with respect to the other characters they were largely symbolic characters and secondary to the story at hand and so I don't think their lack of depth was necessarily a shortcoming in the writing.

I absolutely think the graphic violence in this book was appropriate. Similar to Narrow Road to the Deep North, I can't envision how a reader could, particularly from his/her comfortable position far removed from the scene and reading a novel, could adequately grasp the horrors of the actual events without this type of detail.

I agree that the narrator is mysogynistic. I don't think he truly cared about Ms. Mori or Lana, and perhaps the only female he respected was his mother. I'm not sure what the author was trying to convey, if anything, by this characteristic.


LindaJ^ (lindajs) | 2354 comments I did not perceive the narrator as misogynistic. I thought he was haunted by what happened to the female agent and his inaction in that situation. I did not think he treated Ms. Mori or Lana in any way other than what they requested - they used him and he used them. And he was a caricature of a double spy in the 1970's.


Trudie (trudieb) "He was the double agent, the spy, and like an actor, lived his life not as an individual but as an ever changing ghost depending on the demands put upon him. As such, he could not truly have a relationship, could not truly expose himself, could not truly evolve as a human being, and ended up an alcoholic who took solace in prostitutes, etc.

I do agree with this - but I kept trying to understand why he put himself in this position however. He never really seemed ardently passionate about one side or the other - rather apolitical for a person caught up in the murder and torture for political gain ... What I did think he was passionate about was America coming to understand the Vietnamese and to also appreciate their independence as a people. The best writing was his take down's of American culture - the Asian studies professor, the Auteur and Richard Hedd. I just never got a sense of what he wanted beyond that - a communist state or something else - that seemed beyond the point almost.


Trudie (trudieb) "I absolutely think the graphic violence in this book was appropriate. Similar to Narrow Road to the Deep North, I can't envision how a reader could, particularly from his/her comfortable position far removed from the scene and reading a novel, could adequately grasp the horrors of the actual events without this type of detail.
Also, this is interesting because I read and gave 5 stars to Richard Flanagan's novel. The violence of which, I agree is traumatic, but somehow the whole tone of that novel sat better with me. Maybe the ground work had been laid better in that book, the love story providing some light and shade as it were and characters that I connected to. I was prepared to go with the author when he took it it to those dark parts of the story...( I hope that sort of makes sense ?)
As to misogyny .. no I think the narrator liked woman but there was some very questionable sexual politics going on - his night with Lana for example, directly after he has assassinated Sonny, he relates back to us much later with what seemed to me a desire to shock the General with the knowledge ...
" We will always try every possibility, even the blackest and most forbidding passages, or so I was reminded in my night with Lana..."
That was clever way to put that but compounded with all his other little adventures it made me dislike him even before what happens later. Mainly for him wanting to use the knowledge as a weapon....


Britta Böhler Just finished the book and: wow! Can't believe this is a debut novel.
I will need to let it sit for a while and gather my thoughts..


Dianne | 210 comments Trudie wrote: ""He was the double agent, the spy, and like an actor, lived his life not as an individual but as an ever changing ghost depending on the demands put upon him. As such, he could not truly have a rel..."

I totally agree with you Trudie, and I think the commentary about American culture and its impact on Asians residing within America was one of the main objectives of the book. In fact I think the author was chagrined that his message would only reach 'readers' and not the general populous.


Dianne | 210 comments Trudie wrote: ""I absolutely think the graphic violence in this book was appropriate. Similar to Narrow Road to the Deep North, I can't envision how a reader could, particularly from his/her comfortable position ..."

Good point Trudie I think the violence in Narrow Road, while actually more horrific in my opinion, sat better with the flow and tone of the novel. I don't think it was gratuitous here, but the whole sequencing of this novel was rather choppy and that made it harder to become invested.

And you are right I think he did 'like' women, I'm just not sure he was capable of having a relationship or giving them the respect they deserved.


message 48: by Marc (new) - rated it 4 stars

Marc (monkeelino) | 2719 comments Mod
Just came across an interesting series called Revisionist History by Malcolm Gladwell--episode #2 of this podcast is called "Saigon, 1965" and looks at a secret Pentagon research project where captured North Vietnamese soldiers were interviewed to assess their morale.

I thought the Nguyen was less against revisionist history and more for giving any sort of genuine voice to the Vietnamese themselves (today, as much as then). In terms of the violent and graphic scenes, how did having these set within an almost satirical or comedic narrative voice change them? Does such an approach (let's call it dark humor) change how the harsher realities come across?


Trudie (trudieb) Marc wrote: "Just came across an interesting series called Revisionist History by Malcolm Gladwell--episode #2 of this podcast is called "Saigon, 1965" and looks at a secret Pentagon research project where capt..."

That is a great link to what looks like an interesting podcast ....

As to the violence I always find it much harder to read when it is set within a comedic or satirical narrative - I am not sure why, but I much prefer my torture without comedic asides. Maybe I feel tricked slightly or that the contrast between the forms is too great. Maybe I just don't like this type of humor !


message 50: by Marc (last edited Jun 25, 2016 02:17PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Marc (monkeelino) | 2719 comments Mod
That's what I was kind of pondering, Trudie--does the "contrast between the forms" heighten each one (does the violence seem worse when set against a comedic tone)? I know that I found the initial violence kind of abstract in the very beginning and then the end of chapter 3 actually had me in tears (when Bon's wife and son were killed on the tarmac during the attempted evacuation from Saigon). That kind of moving from the abstract to the concrete (or from the general to the specific) hit me hard. It made things real.


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