The Sympathizer

I’m not sure if it is something about communism itself that is difficult to capture literarily (not sure if that’s a word, but now it is), or if, like all of the real-world political manifestations of communism, literature focusing on this political theory is simply bound to be imperfect, but there comes a point in every fictional book in which communism is an issue (if not a character) that the whole thing just goes off the rails.

The Sympathizer (by Viet Thanh Nguyen) is a mostly gripping, intelligent page-turner, until the last 50 pages, where…things go a bit haywire. It’s not the first book to fall apart at the end, but dammit, this one was disappointing as hell because the rest is *so* good. The book follows a half French, half Vietnamese communist secret agent, embedded in the defeated Vietnamese regime/military, who sojourns to America with a prominent Vietnamese general to continue gathering intelligence regarding the other-side-of-the-pond activities of Vietnamese nationals desperate to take their country back from communists.

The writing is sharp and witty and the descriptive language is brilliant. But then something happens when the main character goes back East on the nationalists’ doomed mission to attempt to infiltrate the now-communist Vietnam; it just goes bananas. It reminds me a lot of a Richard Wright book I read in college—I can’t remember now if it was Native Son or Black Boy—but it similarly went off the rails on some communist sh!t once you got deep into the book. Although, I have never liked Richard Wright in the least, so maybe I’m biased.

I’m not even about to get started on the virtues of communism versus capitalism. What I will say, which I think is abundantly clear by, like, life, is that communism hasn’t found a way to ever be what it is supposed to be whenever it actually comes into being. Not that anything else ever has, but like, it seriously just hasn’t lived up to the hype in any of the corners of the world in which it’s been “implemented.”

Kind of like this book.

But FIRST, I have to give props where props are due for this book. The writing is top-notch. There are lines that grab you, ones that you turn over and over in your mind long after putting the book down, and when you read them, they don’t even need a book behind them to have the weight of truth.

My favorite: “I was in close quarters with some representative specimens of the most dangerous creature in the history of the world, the white man in a suit.

TRUER. WORDS. HAVE. NEVER. BEEN. SPOKEN.

Still, I’m all about my endings. In fact, sometimes when I am deciding if I should read a book that I’ve never heard of before, I will read the last paragraph to gauge. I mean…I didn’t spend a week (or more) of my life filling my mind and spirit with someone else’s work only to get to the end and be like…huh?

Keeping it 100, this ending is very mediocre. I can’t tell if the author is commenting on communism itself with the plot twist of the book, or whether there is supposed to be some other deep symbolism that went completely over my head. That happens, you know. Sometimes, as a defense of the incomprehensible, people will tell you “you just didn’t get it.” But, who the hell—if not a lawyer with three degrees—is supposed to “get” it?!

I, like many humans, never figured out a way judge a book for the great parts, despite the ending. Most of us aren’t like, damn we got divorced and hate each other now, but those first 15 years was DOPE af #doe. Also, I am still salty about that True Blood sixth season—the one that was so horrible that the actors were probably jealous of characters who had died in previous seasons. If, unlike me, you have mastered the ability to forgive a falter at the endzone, please read this book for all the other great stuff in it.


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Enjoy a slightly-relevant picture of me shooting things while visiting the Cu Chi Tunnels in Vietnam. Gun original to the Vietnam War.

-Dij

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