Viet Thanh Nguyen, The Sympathizer

Viet Thanh Nguyen, The Sympathizer, Corsair paperback, 2016. First published in the USA, 2015

This is the harrowing story of the fall of Vietnam to the communist forces, and what followed. The ignominious evacuation of Saigon – a corrupt regime propped up by equally dodgy American military and covert forces fled in scenes realised dramatically here – was mirrored this summer in Kabul. Only those influential or rich enough to bribe their way onto the last planes to leave the airport made it – and not all of them survived.

Nguyen Sympathizer cover The narrative is in the form of a confession to his captors by a self-confessed ‘mole’, a communist spy embedded at the highest level of the Vietnamese military as it struggled to delay the inevitable collapse of the former colonial government. At the onset he emphasises his dual or split nature – an image that looms very significantly at the novel’s end.

He can sympathize with both sides of the conflict: his mother was Vietnamese, his father a French priest. He’s therefore seen with suspicion by the natives of the country he was born and brought up in, but equally by the Americans (he was educated in an American university and speaks perfect English) and Europeans.

The narrator’s final epiphany is breathtaking. The Sympathizer was a worthy winner of the Pulitzer in 2016. It was perhaps a little too long for my taste, and some of the scenes of violence, torture and rape are unpleasant, and I’m not sure they needed to be quite so graphically detailed. The novel packs a serious punch – but I can’t really say that ultimately I enjoyed it. Admired, perhaps.

On reflection I think it was partly the narrative voice that put me off, as well as the content, and excessive length (just short of 500 pp). There’s a whiff of the hard-bitten noir style of the Chandler school. This is in keeping with the covert nature of the mole’s life, his task to pose as something he’s not, which has the effect of creating for him an existential dilemma. Like a tough, embittered Chandler hero, he inhabits a nasty world in which nobody can be trusted or taken at face value, and he’s haunted by the victims of his duplicity.

The satiric section of the novel depicting the narrator’s role in the making of Coppola’s epic Vietnam film ‘Apocalypse Now’ was one of the best parts of the novel. He tries (and fails) to persuade the ‘auteur’ director to portray the Vietnamese characters as something more than ciphers – and pays a heavy price for his efforts.

I’ve started reading a Hardy novel – The Trumpet Major – in an attempt to break this run of unsuccessful reading experiences.

 

Patricia Highsmith, Edith’s Diary

Patricia Highsmith: Edith’s Diary. VMC 2015. First published 1977

Patricia Highsmith’s psychological thrillers probe the twisted minds and lives of people who adopt an oblique approach to what most would call reality. (Carol, which I posted about last summer, is different.) In Edith’s Diary we are back in the world of disquieting mental states in a deceptively tranquil domestic setting in the nineteen sixties and seventies.

Highsmith Edith's Diary coverBrett and Edith move from the city to a sleepy Pennsylvania suburb to enable their son Cliffie to grow up in a healthier environment. Big mistake. It’s not the city that’s unhealthy. Aged eight he tries to smother the family cat. At ten he jumps off a local bridge into the river below – twice – and is fortunate to be rescued.

Sullen, contemptuous and uncommunicative, he clearly has mental health problems way beyond the usual adolescent truculence. As the novel develops Cliffie emerges as something of a psychopath, cruel and unsympathetic to those around him, and with murderous tendencies. As a boy he watches the collapse of his parents’ marriage with detached curiosity verging on pleasure: if he’s ‘not normal’, what are they?

But it’s Edith who’s at the heart of this novel. When Brett leaves her for a younger model, her own difficulties with reality worsen. The occasional entries in her eponymous diary become increasingly out of touch with the heartbreaking and often dangerous realities of her disintegrating life – and mind. One of her earliest entries sets the tone for the rest:

‘Isn’t it safer, even wiser, to believe that life has no meaning at all?’

She’d felt better after getting that down on paper. Such an attitude wasn’t phony armor, she thought, it was a fact that life had no meaning. One simply went on and on, worked on, and did one’s best.

 

Edith’s existential passivity and nullity is at odds with her apparently committed views on politics and social mores. Contemplating her husband’s unmarried elderly hypochondriac uncle, who she ends up caring for alone when Brett abandons her, she angrily wonders why he’d never married:

Edith couldn’t imagine a man thirty-five or so not getting married, if he could afford to, because it was so convenient to have a wife, he wouldn’t be here now, for instance.

Highsmith astutely handles Edith’s incongruous mixed-up thoughts in order to expose the hypocrisies and inequalities in a complacent patriarchal society which Edith lacks the strength or clarity of mind to confront head-on. It’s apparent that the newspaper she co-edits is received with either indifference or contempt in her community, and it becomes as trivial and banal in its editorials as its target audience.

Edith in her diary fabricates an alternative existence in which Cliffie goes to Princeton (he’d flunked all his exams or cheated and been exposed), and becomes a global executive in an elite engineering firm.

As the indolent young man in the nightmare real world becomes a violent alcoholic parasite, ever more antisocial and unhinged, she cranks up the perfection of this imagined world of her diary: she marries him to a trophy Wasp, gives him two adorable children and they all dote on her.

These fantasies serve to heighten the sense of foreboding and horror of what’s really going on under her roof: ‘it was pleasant and reassuring to imagine’, the narrator confides at one point as Edith invents a happy wedding for misfit loner Cliffie.

As the gap between ugly reality and her own delusions widens, Edith becomes as deranged as her obese, monstrous son. Brett had been a leftist journalist, while Edith produced a local free paper in which she could write fervently liberal anti-Vietnam War polemics – but her mental collapse is accompanied by an alarming swing to authoritarian conservatism which alienates her few friends. She loses her job as a result of her increasingly erratic behaviour.

This is an unsettling, meticulously constructed exposure of a dysfunctional family – all of whom are damaged, deluded and self-deceiving in their various ways. They could be seen as a metaphor for the disintegration of fragile liberal American values at the time. I wonder what Highsmith would have made of the present post-truth world.

It’s not possible to say it’s an enjoyable novel, given its uncomfortably disturbing subject matter, explored with unflinching forensic attention by Highsmith. But it’s gripping in a car-crash sort of way.