“The Sympathizer” wins Pulitzer Prize for some reason


The author of “The Sympathizer” is Viet Thanh Nguyen.  

I posted this (with some edits) on the Pulitzer Prize Facebook page:

I am completely puzzled by why this manipulative, approval-seeking book won a Pulitzer. It is over-written and hyperbolic, but that may have been overlooked that because of the topic — the Vietnamese community of Southern California and their gaze toward their home country. People in the US who only know about what’s happened in Viet Nam since 1975 through war movies that focus on our guys in the jungle may think there’s only one side to the story and this is it. 

It starts out as if the writer had watched the movie “Last Days in Vietnam,” put himself in that picture, and then took up the plot line of the true story of Pham Xuan An (see the book by Larry Berman, 2007) who really was a double agent. Many, many details of the two lives, fictional and real, including the time spent studying in the US, right up until when the narrator flees Vietnam, whereas Pham An stayed and kept his cover as a reporter for Reuters. Nguyen then makes his narrator take a gig as consultant to a movie that sounds like Apocalypse Now, which shows us how movie extras in the Philippines are treated but not what the war in Vietnam was really like.   Finally, in order to keep us engaged, delivers a 70-page interrogation and torture scene that ends the book. Seventy pages is more than you need unless you get off on torture. The narrator is not credible as a real spy, drinks and is out of it too much, is seemingly untrained and undisciplined, and doesn’t really know enough about what’s going on to be a good informant. He arranges the useless murder of an innocent acquaintance and actually does it himself (although someone else pulls the trigger) — not a likely job for someone who is supposed to lay low and survive. The book winds up with him defying his handler’s warning and going back to Vietnam supposedly in order to protect a friend – but there’s no way that makes sense, emotionally or strategically or plotwise.. The whole book is supposedly a text produced while he’s imprisoned in Vietnam after trying to stir up an antigovernment movement through Thailand, kind of a Bay of Pigs effort without the support or planning, which goes bad fast. Some people may find the squid part funny; I found it funny/disgusting and not important to the plot.

However, the book does give a picture of a community that is not written about much – the Vietnamese, especially those who worked for the Americans, who fled Vietnam after 1975 out of fear of what would happen next. Many of them came to Orange County, CA, outside LA and that’s the world he’s writing about. Maybe this book won a prize because it’s about a group of people most Americans don’t think much about. It’s not a flattering picture, though, and it certainly does not appreciate the role they play in California (and national) politics. Disclosure: My husband and I just came back from Vietnam where we taught labor relations for 6 months at a university in HCMC. In the South, we met people who look back with nostalgia on the American days, the 1960s, as a time when there was plenty of money around, which is of course true. Many of these people have family in “Cam,” the Vietnamese word for “orange,” meaning Orange County. The next generation, the grandchildren of those who fled, are now coming back to VN. When they bring money and can speak good English and good Vietnamese, they have a great time. They don’t get captured and tortured; they get invited to dinner parties. The Revolution has prepared a thriving country for them to invest in. There is a much better book that could be written about what’s going on in this community.

I have been participating in a Facebook read-along book group led by Cate Poe, and have been expressing my irritation at this book for some time now. I bought my copy second hand from Alibris, for $10, and when it came I was surprised to see that it had been withdrawn from a public libraryin Jefferson County, Colorado. Since it is a 2015 book, new and expensive, and even had one of those special library covers on it, I wondered what was going on. But I’ll bet someone like me actually read it and said, “What a mess!”

One of the blurbs on the back of he book  is from Andrew X Pham, probably Pham An’s son. This may be intended to clear Nguyen of having drawn from Pham An’s life story in writing his novel.

PS: I got a  message saying that Andrew X Pham is not Pham An’s son; that he’s at http://andrewxpham.com/

Published by helenaworthen

Labor educator, retired from University of Illinois, taught at TDT University in Ho Chi Minh City in the Faculty of Trade Unions and Labor Relations. Co-author with Joe Berry of Power Despite Precarity: Strategies for the contingent faculty movement in higher education, forthcoming (August 2021) from Pluto Press.

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