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Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Book Discussion Report: The Sympathizer

During the middle of September, my local library system, RAILS, sent me on tour to both train the book club leaders of Northern IL and facilitate a book discussion with them.  The details, handouts and slides for those programs can be found here.

This post today is going to be like all of my other Book Discussion Reports [of which I have hundreds on the blog at this point] except, instead of reporting on 1 book discussion, I am going to compile the notes from all three discussions into one report.

Here we go:

On September 13, 15, and 20, 2016 I met with library workers to discuss The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen. From the publisher's description:
Winner, 2016 Pulitizer PrizeWinner, 2016 Edgar Award 
A profound, startling, and beautifully crafted debut novel, The Sympathizer is the story of a man of two minds, someone whose political beliefs clash with his individual loyalties. 
It is April 1975, and Saigon is in chaos. At his villa, a general of the South Vietnamese army is drinking whiskey and, with the help of his trusted captain, drawing up a list of those who will be given passage aboard the last flights out of the country. 
The general and his compatriots start a new life in Los Angeles, unaware that one among their number, the captain, is secretly observing and reporting on the group to a higher-up in the Viet Cong. 
The Sympathizer is the story of this captain: a man brought up by an absent French father and a poor Vietnamese mother, a man who went to university in America, but returned to Vietnam to fight for the Communist cause. 
A gripping spy novel, an astute exploration of extreme politics, and a moving love story, The Sympathizer explores a life between two worlds and examines the legacy of the Vietnam War in literature, film, and the wars we fight today. (From the publisher.)
On to the discussion notes:
  • As usual I started with the forced vote of likes, disliked, and so-so on this title. Overall most people voted to be so-so on this book with a few strong liked and only 2 “disliked” over the course of these 3 meetings. Usually when discussing a book with so many initial so-so comments, I am nervous. Will these participants have a strong enough opinion to keep the discussion going? Thankfully, they did. I think that is a testament to the quality of this book. The book is all about vacillating back and forth. It is about confusion and being “of two minds” so it makes sense that most people are in the middle. The whole book was about being in the middle so this response makes perfect sense.[For the record, I am solidly in the like category for this title for that very reason.]
  • Here are some of the opening comments from all three meetings. I like to capture these because often they are the most insightful and useful things people say and I can build off of them for the entire discussion:
    • The style was difficult for me. The narrator is recounting conversations but there are never quotations marks. [This comment came up at each discussion]
    • The era is hard for me. This also came up at all locations but the reasons were different. It ranged from-- “I am too young and it is too unfamiliar to me” to “My family was forever changed in a negative way by this war and I don’t like to read about it,” with other comments in between. Since these setting/time frame comments came out so quickly at each discussion, I made sure to ask about the setting early in each discussion.
    • The book was too challenging. Again, this was a common thread through the three discussions, to the point that 1 person outright asked me, “Why did you choose this book?” I answered that I purposely chose a more challenging title because of the group we had. We were all book discussion leaders already and if they were going to take the time and come be trained by me, I needed to make it worth their while. I take my job seriously as a trainer and wanted to give everyone a challenge.
    • Someone added to this, the goal of any good book is to start a conversation and or learn about a new perspective. This book absolutely did that for me.
    • This book gave me PTSD- I had war dreams. I'm not kidding.
    • I never would have read this book on my own. This, by the way, is the best compliment you can get from a book club participant. I shared that point with the group after someone made this comment.
  • Question: How much did you know about the Vietnam War era before reading this book?
    • This is a great way to start any discussion of this book. People shared their personal experiences with the war. We had many, like myself, who were born after the war ended and really don’t know much about it except for movies, and books. We did not get to it in history class. We had others who lost family members, even those whose Dad’s went to war and came back forever scared. Still more talked about following it in the news.
    • One of my favorite comments was when a woman talked about how she grew up in the Uptown neighborhood of Chicago which is where the Vietnamese refugees who were sent to Chicago went to live. She was a young child and was friends with many of these children. She shared some great stories.
    • Another good one: I lived through the war and it affected my personal life, but this book forced me to change my perspective. I was always focused on what the Vietnamese did to my family, but now I see the “shoe on the other foot.” It opened my mind.
    • I had only seen the experiences of vets during this war from the American perspective. Seeing the experiences of the Vietnamese soldiers [on both sides] was interesting. In another discussion this also came up. In this case, the person did not have a personal connection to the war, but was “excited” by this new perspective.
  • Asking about the era led each group into a discussion about historical fiction:
    • We talked about the definition of historical fiction. One popular definition is that it must take place at least 50 years in the past. But another one says, it must take place before the author could experience the events. This book is on the cusp. It is set about 40 years before the publication date and the author was a very young child when his family fled Vietnam for America, so he is writing not from his own experiences but those of his immediate elders.
    • One participant who is an immigrant herself [from Austria] said that just about 40 years after WWII, TV shows and movies about the war started to become very popular in Europe. She talked about how 40 years seemed to be enough time to start to be able to be critical and self aware about history and to begin talking about recent troubles.
    • I think this book does a good job of starting a conversation about recent history and forcing us to engage with a different perspective.
    • He forced me to take what I thought I knew and slow down and contemplate all sides of this war and era and how it all fits together. 
    • It was written beautifully but brutal- brutally honest.
  • Questions: Speaking of popular culture representations of this war, what about the large subplot about the Vietnam War movie?
    • It seemed a bit long, but it did make me question how “great” movies like Apocalypse Now or Platoon really are. We hold them up as cannon in American film, but now, I don’t know.
    • Becky shared an essay Nguyen wrote that was in her paperback edition where he talked about watching those movies in the theater and being physically ill from them. Mainstream white America loved the movies, but he could not stand how they portrayed his people.
    • We talked about how this extended subplot was both about challenging white America to look at those movies differently, and to show our protagonist inability to be effective as a man of two minds. He was playing both sides, but both sides were disappointed in the part he played in the movie. It was a failure on every front.
  • Question: How did you feel about our nameless narrator:
    • I did not connect with him. That was hard for me as a reader. I wanted to, but I couldn’t.
    • But, isn’t that the point. He can't even connect with himself. He is constantly of “two minds” about everything. I liked that I could feel a little bit like he feels all the time. The author did a good job putting me in his head and making me “feel” a connection.
    • He creeped me out. Who is this guy? What is the truth? I was unsettled the entire time because of him.
    • He was an assassin. He killed people and they haunted him-- in a funny way. He was the assassin humanized. That was interesting.
    • Yes those dark humor moments made him a little more human to me. {in each discussion we had a discussion about the use of dark humor in this novel.]
    • He didn’t know who he was. He’s a chameleon and adapted to where he was. I got frustrated that he never showed who he really was.
    • But that makes sense that we don’t get a name for him. He isn’t a specific person.
    • The recounting of the rape toward the end of the book was intense. It broke him to remember it and admit he did nothing to stop it, but it was also very hard for me to read it.
    • Many people skimmed this scene.
    • This book in general was hard to read because of the narrator. This comment led to Becky sharing some comments Nguyen made in his acceptance speech for the Pulitzer Prize when he talked about finally feeling free to write a novel for Vietnamese Americans. He thought he had to write to a mainstream, white audience, but Toni Morrison's example of writing directly to an African American audience gave him the courage to ignore mainstream America and write directly to his people. This might explain why we are a little uncomfortable reading this, but it also makes the book so much more interesting at the same time.
  • Question: Does our narrator believe in [ or maybe, sympathize with] anything?
    • Family. Bon and Man are his family. He would and does do whatever it takes for them.
    • I thought the answer would be Vietnam, or Communism, or America, but I think in the end he was disappointed by everyone and everything. Maybe he cannot believe in anything because he cannot fit in anywhere. He is too much a product of his life as one of “two-minds.” That’s why he is The Sympathizer, he can sympathize with everyone and everything- yet that leaves him with nothing to believe in, truly. 
    • At the end of the book, he realizes that he was understanding Communist credo he followed that talked about how nothing is more important than freedom wrong.  The emphasis is not on freedom, it is on NOTHING. He believes in nothing. This is a quiet moment at the end of the novel, but it is so important. This is his overall lesson from his life's work. 
    • Discomfort was an overall theme of this book. 
    • But maybe his realization that he lives in nothing will now give him the chance to start believing in something. Maybe he can finally move on now.
  • Question: How do you feel about the book’s open ending?
    • The war did not have a clear end so it makes sense for the book to be open ended
    • It would have been forced and wrong if the book tied everything up in a bow. 
    • At the end, he is no longer a man of "two minds." He is completely unravelled. Everything he did in life was for nothing.
    • By the end, he understands that war is a total waste of time. He saw good in his friends and his enemies.
    • The ending is his new beginning-- some people saw this hope in the open ending.
    • Others saw the open ending as an indictment that this cycle will continue with other places, other wars, and other refugees all over the world forever.
    • While the ending was open, no one wanted to posit what would happen in the future for the narrator and Bon. We were all spent and exhausted, but glad to have read it.
  • This lead to a discussion about refugees-- specifically those in the news today
    • All immigrants, especially those fleeing war have to start over from nothing. He is no different. He is "everyone" in a way.
    • This book changed my views on refugees and how we treat them. 
    • I thought right away about Syrian refugees and how divided we are as a country about this issue right now.
    • I connect with the plight of today's refugees more than I could with those in this book. Maybe that is because I am living through it. I have less personal connection to Vietnam.
    • I think it is also key that we are talking about refugees who are here in America because of our interventions in their countries. That is a hard discussion but one that needs to happen.

Readalikes: I provided a two page list of readalikes to the participants. Here is a direct link but the text is also below:

If you enjoyed The Sympathizer you may also like…

Suggested by Becky:

The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson and The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga [both Fiction]
Like The Sympathizer, these award winning titles all share a strong, first person narration by a protagonist living in the “East” [North Korea and India respectively] who makes morally ambiguous decisions, yet despite his serious flaws still manages to captivate the reader. Contemplations of the true meaning of freedom also appear in all three novels.  Each is a compelling, literary fiction-psychological suspense genre blend where readers learn about a different part of the world from a new, honest, and often unsettling, point of view.

Beloved by Toni Morrison
In interviews, Nguyen has mentioned how reading this novel opened his eyes to how a hyphenate American can tell a story that is both beautiful and brutally honest about the experience of “the other” in America while still honoring and respecting the others place as an American. Nguyen has also cited Morrison’s comments that she writes for African American readers first and foremost as permission for him to write directly to a Vietnamese audience as an American writer. After reading The Sympathizer, despite their surface differences, the similarities between the underlying message of these novels is striking.

Daniel Silva’s  Gabriel Allon series beginning with The Kill Artist
If you liked the introspective spy protagonist in The Sympathizer but wished the story had more action, then this series is perfect for you. From NoveList’s series description, “Balancing action-packed thrills with nuanced portraits of volatile Middle-Eastern politics, these gripping spy thrillers follow a tough yet introspective Mossad agent-cum-art restorer as he unravels intricate international plots, leads his team on violent missions, and reflects on haunting traumas in his personal life as well as in Israeli history.”

Also, consider watching the films  Apocalypse Now and/or Platoon after reading this novel. I bet you will see them in a completely different light.

Suggested by NoveList:

The Quiet American by Graham Greene
Complex, flawed characters are involved in espionage and war in a richly detailed historical setting -- Saigon before the departure of the French, using compelling writing and bleak atmosphere. The narrator of The Sympathizer comments directly on The Quiet American as an example of Western attitudes towards Vietnam and Asia, making this a good choice for readers interested in exploring these themes more deeply and from a historical perspective. [Fiction]

Tree of smoke by Denis Johnson
This psychological, literary novel follows an American CIA agent and a Vietnamese double-agent during the Vietnam War. It explores the tragedy, hypocrisy, and ineptitude of the American involvement in Vietnam. Like Nguen's novel,Tree of Smoke is a character-driven story, bleak in tone and rich in historic detail.  [Fiction]

Matterhorn: a novel of the Vietnam War by Karl Marlantes
Lieutenant Waino Mellas and his fellow Marines venture into the mountain jungle of Vietnam as boys and fight their way into manhood, confronting external obstacles as well as racial tension, competing ambitions, and underhanded officers. This award-winning novel excels at capturing -- like The Sympathizer -- how little divides what is good and bad within each person's nature.  [Fiction]

Vietnamerica: a Family's Journey by G. B. Tran
A memoir in graphic novel format about the author's experiences as the son of Vietnamese immigrants who fled to America during the fall of Saigon describes how he learned his tragic ancestral history and the impact of the Vietnam War on his family while visiting their homeland years later. Readers will find it an interesting, real-life complement to the fictional experiences of the General and his family in the US described in Nguyen's novel. [Nonfiction]

Embers of War: the Fall of an Empire and the Making of America's Vietnam by Fredrik Logevall

A history of the four decades leading up to the Vietnam War offers insights into how the U.S. became involved, identifying commonalities between the campaigns of French and American forces while discussing relevant political factors. This is a prize-winning history by an author recognized as an expert on the era; readers looking for a comprehensive grounding in the events that led up to the Vietnam War will find this a perfect choice. [Nonfiction]

During the discussion, more readalikes came up and even a listen alike:


Christine said...

Thank you! We are currently reading and will discuss The Sympathizer next week on 2.15.17. I don't know you saw that the author had a new follow-up release this week: http://www.chicagotribune.com/lifestyles/books/sc-refugees-viet-thanh-nguyen-books-0208-20170207-story.html

Becky said...

I did see that. And he has an essay in last week's Sunday NYT book review. Good luck with the discussion.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for documenting everyone's insights and opinions, gave me a fresh perspective and even more to think about!