The Sympathizer: Winner of the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction Winner of the 2016 Edgar Award for Best First Novel Winner of the 2016 Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction Winner of the 2016 Dayton Literary Peace Prize for Fiction Winner of the 2015 Center for Fiction First Novel Prize Winner of the 2015-2016 Asian/Pacific American Award for Literature (Adult Fiction) Winner of the 2016 California Book Award for First Fiction Winner of the 2017 Association for Asian American Studies Award for Best Book in Creative Writing (Prose) Finalist for the 2016 PEN/Faulkner Award Finalist for the 2016 PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for Debut Fiction Finalist for the 2016 Medici Book Club Prize Finalist for the 2015 Los Angeles Times Book Prize (Mystery/Thriller) Finalist for the 2016 ABA Indies Choice/E.B. White Read-Aloud Award (Book of the Year, Adult Fiction) Shortlisted for the 2017 International Dublin Literary Award Named a Best Book of the Year on more than twenty lists, including the New York Times Book Review, Wall Street Journal, and Washington Post “A layered immigrant tale told in the wry, confessional voice of a ‘man of two minds’—and two countries, Vietnam and the United States.”—Pulitzer Prize Citation “[A] remarkable debut novel . . . [Nguyen] brings a distinctive perspective to the war and its aftermath. His book fills a void in the literature, giving voice to the previously voiceless . . . The nameless protagonist-narrator, a memorable character despite his anonymity, is an Americanized Vietnamese with a divided heart and mind. Nguyen’s skill in portraying this sort of ambivalent personality compares favorably with masters like Conrad, Greene, and le Carré. . . . Both thriller and social satire. . . . In its final chapters, The Sympathizer becomes an absurdist tour de force that might have been written by a Kafka or Genet.”—Philip Caputo, New York Times Book Review (cover review) “This is more than a fresh perspective on a familiar subject. [ The Sympathizer] is intelligent, relentlessly paced and savagely funny . . . The voice of the double-agent narrator, caustic yet disarmingly honest, etches itself on the memory.”— Wall Street Journal (WSJ’s Best Books of 2015) “Nguyen doesn’t shy away from how traumatic the Vietnam War was for everyone involved. Nor does he pass judgment about where his narrator’s loyalties should lie. Most war stories are clear about which side you should root for— The Sympathizer doesn’t let the reader off the hook so easily . . . Despite how dark it is, The Sympathizer is still a fast-paced, entertaining read . . . a much-needed Vietnamese perspective on the war.”—Bill Gates, Gates Notes “Extraordinary . . . Surely a new classic of war fiction. . . . [Nguyen] has wrapped a cerebral thriller around a desperate expat story that confronts the existential dilemmas of our age. . . . Laced with insight on the ways nonwhite people are rendered invisible in the propaganda that passes for our pop culture. . . . I haven’t read anything since Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four that illustrates so palpably how a patient tyrant, unmoored from all humane constraint, can reduce a man’s mind to liquid.”— Washington Post “The great achievement of The Sympathizer is that it gives the Vietnamese a voice and demands that we pay attention. Until now, it’s been largely a one-sided conversation—or at least that’s how it seems in American popular culture . . . We’ve never had a story quite like this one before. . . . [Nguyen] has a great deal to say and a knowing, playful, deeply intelligent voice . . . There are so many passages to admire. Mr. Nguyen is a master of the telling ironic phrase and the biting detail, and the book pulses with Catch-22-style absurdities.”— New York Times “Beautifully written and meaty . . . really compelling. I had that kid-like feeling of being inside the book.”—Claire Messud, Boston Globe “Thrilling in its virtuosity, as in its masterly exploitation of the espionage-thriller genre, The Sympathizer was awarded the Pulitzer Prize, and has come to be considered one of the greatest of Vietnam War novels . . . The book’s (unnamed) narrator speaks in an audaciously postmodernist voice, echoing not only Vladimir Nabokov and Ralph Ellison but the Dostoyevsky of Notes from the Underground.”—Joyce Carol Oates, New Yorker “Gleaming and uproarious, a dark comedy of confession filled with charlatans, delusionists and shameless opportunists . . . The Sympathizer, like Graham Greene’s The Quiet American, examines American intentions, often mixed with hubris, benevolence and ineptitude, that lead the country into conflict.”— Los Angeles Times “Both a riveting spy novel and a study in identity.”— Entertainment Weekly “This debut is a page-turner (read: everybody will finish) that makes you reconsider the Vietnam War (read: everyone will have an opinion) . . . Nguyen’s darkly comic novel offers a point of view about American culture that we’ve rarely seen.”—Oprah.com (Oprah’s Book Club Suggestions) “The novel’s best parts are painful, hilarious exposures of white tone-deafness . . . [the] satire is delicious.”— New Yorker “ The Sympathizer reads as part literary historical fiction, part espionage thriller and part satire. American perceptions of Asians serve as some of the book’s most deliciously tart commentary . . . Nguyen knows of what he writes.”— Los Angeles Times “Sparkling and audacious . . . Unique and startling . . . Nguyen’s prose is often like a feverish, frenzied dream, a profuse and lively stream of images sparking off the page. . . . Nguyen can be wickedly funny. . . . [His] narrator has an incisive take on Asian-American history and what it means to be a nonwhite American. . . . this remarkable, rollicking read by a Vietnamese immigrant heralds an exciting new voice in American literature.”— Seattle Times “Stunned, amazed, impressed. [ The Sympathizer is] so skillfully and brilliantly executed that I cannot believe this is a first novel. (I should add jealous to my emotions.) Upends our notions of the Vietnam novel.”— Chicago Tribune “A very special, important, brilliant novel . . . Amazing . . . I don’t say brilliant about a lot of books, but this is a brilliant book . . . A fabulous book . . . that everyone should read.”—Nancy Pearl, KUOW.org “Dazzling . . . I’ve read scads of Vietnam War books, but The Sympathizer has an exciting quality I haven’t encountered . . . A fascinating exploration of personal identity, cultural identity, and what it means to sympathize with two sides at once.”—John Powers, Fresh Air, NPR (Books I Wish I’d Reviewed) “Powerful and evocative . . . Gripping.”— San Francisco Chronicle “Welcome a unique new voice to the literary chorus. . . . [ The Sympathizer] is, among other things, a character-driven thriller, a political satire, and a biting historical account of colonization and revolution. It dazzles on all fronts.”— Cleveland Plain Dealer “[Nguyen’s] books perform an optic tilt about Vietnam and what America did there as profound as Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man and Toni Morrison’s Beloved were to the legacy of racism and slavery.”—John Freeman, Literary Hub “For those who have been waiting for the great Vietnamese American Vietnam War novel, this is it. More to the point: This is a great American Vietnam War novel. . . . It is the last word (I hope) on the horrors of the Vietnamese re-education camps that our allies were sentenced to when we left them swinging in the wind.”— Vietnam Veterans of America “What a story . . . [An] absorbing, elegantly written book . . . If you are an American, of any culture or color, you will benefit from reading this book which offers, in exquisite thought and phrase, the multi-layered experience of a war most Americans have blotted out of consciousness, suppressed, or willfully ignored. I’ve been waiting to read this book for decades.”—Alice Walker, author of The Color Purple “Magisterial. A disturbing, fascinating and darkly comic take on the fall of Saigon and its aftermath, and a powerful examination of guilt and betrayal. The Sympathizer is destined to become a classic and redefine the way we think about the Vietnam War and what it means to win and to lose.”—T.C. Boyle “Trapped in endless civil war, ‘the man who has two minds’ tortures and is tortured as he tries to meld the halves of his country and of himself. Viet Thanh Nguyen accomplishes this integration in a magnificent feat of storytelling. The Sympathizer is a novel of literary, historical, and political importance.”—Maxine Hong Kingston, author of The Fifth Book of Peace “It is a strong, strange and liberating joy to read this book, feeling with each page that a broken world is being knitted back together, once again whole and complete. As far as I am concerned, Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizer—both a great American novel and a great Vietnamese novel—will close the shelf on the literature of the Vietnam War.”—Bob Shacochis, author of The Woman Who Lost Her Soul “Read this novel with care; it is easy to read, wry, ironic, wise, and captivating, but it could change not only your outlook on the Vietnam War, but your outlook on what you believe about politics and ideology in general. It does what the best of literature does, expands your consciousness beyond the limitations of your body and individual circumstances.”—Karl Marlantes, author of Matterhorn and What It Is Like to Go to War “Not only does Viet Thanh Nguyen bring a rare and authentic voice to the body of American literature generated by the Vietnam War, he has created a book that transcends history and politics and nationality and speaks to the enduring theme of literature: the universal quest for self, for identity. The Sympathizer is a stellar debut by a writer of depth and skill.”—Robert Olen Butler, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain “ The Sympathizer is a remarkable and brilliant book. By turns harrowing, and cut through by shards of unexpected and telling humor, this novel gives us the conflict in Vietnam, and its aftermath, in a way that is deeply truthful, and vitally important.”—Vincent Lam, author of Bloodletting and Miraculous Cures and The Headmaster’s Wager “I think I'd have to go all the way back to Nabokov’s Humbert Humbert to find the last narrative voice that so completely conked me over the head and took me prisoner. Nguyen and his unnamed protagonist certainly have made a name for themselves with one of the smartest, darkest, funniest books you'll read this year.”—David Abrams, author of Fobbit “Audaciously and vividly imagined. A compelling read.”—Andrew X. Pham, author of Catfish and Mandala “Nguyen’s cross-grained protagonist exposes the hidden costs in both countries of America’s tragic Asian misadventure. Nguyen’s probing literary art illuminates how Americans failed in their political and military attempt to remake Vietnam—but then succeeded spectacularly in shrouding their failure in Hollywood distortions. Compelling—and profoundly unsettling.”— Booklist (starred review) “A closely written novel of after-the-war Vietnam, when all that was solid melted into air. As Graham Greene and Robert Stone have taught us, on the streets of Saigon, nothing is as it seems. . . . Think Alan Furst meets Elmore Leonard, and you’ll capture Nguyen at his most surreal . . . Both chilling and funny, and a worthy addition to the library of first-rate novels about the Vietnam War.”— Kirkus Reviews (starred review) “[An] astonishing first novel . . . Nguyen’s novel enlivens debate about history and human nature, and his narrator has a poignant often mindful voice.”— Publishers Weekly (starred, boxed review) “Breathtakingly cynical, the novel has its hilarious moments . . . Ultimately a meditation on war, political movements, America's imperialist role, the CIA, torture, loyalty, and one's personal identity, this is a powerful, thought-provoking work. It's hard to believe this effort . . . is a debut. This is right up there with Denis Johnson's Tree of Smoke."— Library Journal (starred review) “I cannot remember the last time I read a novel whose protagonist I liked so much. Smart, funny, and self-critical, with a keen sense of when to let a story speak for itself (and when to gloss it with commentary). He’s someone I would like to have a beer with, despite the fact that his life’s work is the betrayal of his friends. . . . [Nguyen] proves a gifted and bold satirist.”— Barnes & Noble Review “Riveting . . . The Sympathizer is not only a masterly espionage novel, but also a seminal work of 21st century American fiction. Giving voice to the Vietnamese experience in the United States, Nguyen offers profound insights into the legacy of war and the politically and racially charged atmosphere of the 1970s.”—BookReporter “[A] shimmering debut novel . . . Leaping with lyrical verve, each page turns to a unique and hauntingly familiar voice that refuses to let us forget what people are capable of doing to each other.”—Asian American Writers’ Workshop “Arresting . . . One of the best pieces of fiction about the Vietnam war—and by a Vietnamese. . . . Stunning . . . Could it be that Nguyen has captured the shape of the devolution of war itself, from grand ambition to human ruin? . . . One of the finest novels of the Vietnam War published in recent years.”—The Daily Beast “[An] intriguing confessional . . . [a] tour de force . . . So taken was I by the first quarter of the book that I believed myself to be reading an actual confession . . . The character himself . . . and the quality of the narration seized me, leaving me almost breathless in my pursuit of an ending.”— Sewanee Review “Tremendously funny, with a demanding verbal texture . . . Both tender and a bit of a romp, the book reminded me of how big books can be.”— Guardian (Best Books of 2015) “Astounding . . . [The unnamed narrator] will be compared to the morally exhausted spies, intelligence officers and double agents of Joseph Conrad, Graham Greene, and John le Carré.”— Toronto Star
From time to time, there will be a surge of public arguments over whether the protagonists of novels must be "sympathetic." This term was on my mind as I read Viet Than Nguyen's spectacular debut novel,
The Sympathizer, and not merely because of the title. The narrator, an unnamed North Vietnamese spy, would most likely not be considered sympathetic by many American readers (particularly not by those who prefer their characters sympathetic), and yet I cannot remember the last time I read a novel whose protagonist I liked so much. Smart, funny, and self-critical, with a keen sense of when to let a story speak for itself (and when to gloss it with commentary). He's someone I would like to have a beer with, despite the fact that his life's work is the betrayal of his friends. Taking the form of a confession to a commandant about whom we know nothing until novel's end, The Sympathizer begins with the Fall of Saigon, as South Vietnamese loyalists, whom the United States have encouraged for years to fight the Northern communists at all costs, must beg for admittance to American evacuation transports. (Nguyen's family fled South Vietnam when he was four, eventually settling in San Jose.) The narrator a captain in the South Vietnamese army is very conscious of his status as a despised "Bastard," the product of an illicit union between a French priest and a Vietnamese maid. He's being evacuated along with, among others, the important general to whom he is an aide-de-camp, and Bon, a childhood friend. Unbeknownst to Bon or to anyone else, the narrator reports to Man, the third member of that group of childhood friends, now working as a spymaster for the Northern Communists. The narrator, considering the work of the revolution accomplished, does not want to go to America, but Man insists that he maintain his identity so he can continue reporting on any seditious plans the South Vietnamese develop while exiled in Los Angeles. As the narrator waits to be rescued from Saigon, he indicts the American war with uncompromising insight and wit. In the passage below, waiting to evacuated from Saigon and chatting with some sex workers who cajole American clients into taking them along, the narrator reflects that many of these women were forced into sex work because Americans destroyed their villages. Now am I daring to accuse American strategic planners of deliberately eradicating peasant villages in order to smoke out the girls who would have little choice but to sexually service the same boys who bombed, strafed, torched, pillaged, or merely forcibly evacuated such villages? I am merely noting that the creation of native prostitutes to service foreign privates is an inevitable outcome of a war of occupation, one of those nasty little side effects of defending freedom that all the wives, sisters, girlfriends, mothers, pastors, and politicians in Smallville, USA, pretend to ignore behind waxed and buffed walls of teeth as they welcome their soldiers home, ready to treat any unmentionable afflictions with the penicillin of American goodness. This is sharp, nasty, and so devastating that the reader might be forgiven for silently chanting, as American student antiwar protesters did in the late 1960s, Ho, Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh, NLF is gonna win. But Nguyen is not done, and deftly shows us, two pages later and without breaking voice, how the narrator, so clear-sighted about American evils, is willfully blind to the evils of his own side: "What indeed would happen to girls like them once the revolution was victorious? To this matter I confess that I had not devoted much thought." Though he asserts that he "is able to see any issue from both sides," he is skilled at looking away when he wants to. Arriving in L.A., the South Vietnamese refugees are greeted with willful blindness by an America that would prefer not to have to look at these reminders of its own failure. These refugees do not arrive in vaunted immigrant style, full of big dreams. Once they were high-ranking soldiers; now they work as cashiers or janitors, often paid under the table so that they will still qualify for welfare. The narrator is relatively lucky in his cover identity, finding a clerical job at a college and enjoying a brief affair with a colleague, but even he is forced to smile and nod as a boorish white department chair lectures him about what "Orientals" are like. The refugees devise plots, mostly to distract themselves from the crushing humiliations of their new lives. At one point they suspect a mole in their ranks, obliging the narrator to point a finger at and eventually participate in the murder of a hapless major to deflect suspicion. The narrator insists that the major haunts him in Banquo-like fashion. The extent to which he sympathizes with the major's widow charms us into forgetting to wonder whether agonizing over this particular crime is merely his way of denying or ignoring others. Eventually, the narrator's comrades (read: targets) plan a Bay of Pigs–style invasion of Vietnam from Thailand that sounds even less likely to succeed than the actual Bay of Pigs invasion. For most of the group and particularly for the narrator's old friend Bon the invasion appears to be more of a suicide attempt than a serious effort to retake their lost country. The narrator decides that he is going to do what he can to save Bon, a decision that leads to the novel's breathtaking and terrifying conclusion. Nguyen, a literature scholar steeped in representations of Asians and Asian Americans, proves a gifted and bold satirist. In one extended sequence, the narrator becomes an "authenticity consultant" on an Apocalypse Now–like film, by a grandiose director known only as "The Auteur," that initially includes no speaking roles for Vietnamese characters. A few are added at the narrator's prodding, but all of these are so stereotypical that the narrator succeeds only in making the film even worse. Even sharper is Nguyen's choice for the book that Man and the narrator use to send coded messages: Asian Communism and the Oriental Mode of Destruction, a racist tract by a prominent American foreign-policy intellectual who argues that Asians do not value life as Westerners do and so must be met with overwhelming force. Best of all is the name that Nguyen assigns to the book's author: the hilariously easy-to-crack code Richard Hedd. Nguyen's skill with caricature allows him to poke holes not only in American conceptions of Vietnam but in the narrator's conception of himself. Where Nguyen calls this racist intellectual a dickhead and walks away, the narrator is forced by his own deception to be a sycophant, shamefully backtracking when he suggests in Hedd's presence that perhaps Asians do value life after all. The narrator is constantly supporting what he wants to undermine and undermining what he wants to support not unlike American foreign policy itself. Seeing both sides comes to mean aiding both sides' atrocities. The book opens with an epigraph from Nietzsche about torture, and this book is suffused with an unstated critique not only of America's conduct in Vietnam but of its torture program following 9/11, the Senate's extensive documentation of which is unlikely to lead to repercussions for any of its perpetrators. By making us like his narrator so much, Nguyen reminds us of our own complicity in American war crimes. When he struggles to forget or talk around what he has done, it would be dishonest for us not to sympathize.
Reviewer: David Burr Gerrard
The great achievement of
The Sympathizer is that it gives the Vietnamese a voice and demands that we pay attention. Until now, it's been largely a one-sided conversationor at least that's how it seems in American popular culture…[where] we've heard about the Vietnam War mostly from the point of view of American soldiers, American politicians and American journalists. We've never had a story quite like this one before…[Nguyen] has a great deal to say and a knowing, playful, deeply intelligent voice. His novel is a spy thriller, a philosophical exploration, a coming-of-age tale, the story of what it's like to be an immigrant, to be part-Asian, to be the illegitimate child of a forbidden liaison. It's about being forced to hide yourself under so many layers that you're not sure who you are…There are so many passages to admire. Mr. Nguyen is a master of the telling ironic phrase and the biting detail, and the book pulses with Catch-22-style absurdities…[Nguyen] undercuts horror with humor and then swings it back around…
The New York Times - Sarah Lyall
…remarkable…Nguyen…brings a distinct perspective to the war and its aftermath. His book fills a void in the literature, giving voice to the previously voiceless while it compels the rest of us to look at the events of 40 years ago in a new light. But this tragicomic novel reaches beyond its historical context to illuminate more universal themes: the eternal misconceptions and misunderstandings between East and West, and the moral dilemma faced by people forced to choose not between right and wrong, but right and right. The nameless protagonist-narrator, a memorable character despite his anonymity, is an Americanized Vietnamese with a divided heart and mind. Nguyen's skill in portraying this sort of ambivalent personality compares favorably with masters like Conrad, Greene and le Carré.
The New York Times Book Review - Philip Caputo
This astonishing first novel has at its core a lively, wry first-person narrator called the Captain, and his two school friends Bon and Man, as they navigate the fall of Saigon and the establishment of the Communist regime in Vietnam in 1975. The Captain is a half-Vietnamese double agent; he reports to his Communist minder Man who, unbeknownst to Bon, is a Republican assassin. The Captain and Bon make it on to one of the harrowing last flights out of Saigon as the city is overtaken by the Viet Cong. They travel with the Captain’s superior, the General, and his family, although Bon’s own wife and son are shot making their escape. The Vietnamese exiles settle uncomfortably in an America they believe has abandoned their country, as they are reduced to new roles as janitors, short-order cooks, and deliverymen. The General opens a liquor store, then a restaurant (in which his proud wife cooks the best pho outside Vietnam) as a front to raise money for a counter rebellion. In order to protect his identity as a spy, the Captain is forced to incriminate others, and as lines of loyalty and commitment blur, his values are compromised until they are worthless. Nguyen’s novel enlivens debate about history and human nature, and his narrator has a poignant, often mirthful voice. Agent: Nat Sobel, Sobel Weber. (Apr.)
Written as a postwar confessional, this novel begins with its nameless protagonist, a highly placed young aide to a general in the South Vietnamese army, recalling how he finalized the details of escape before the fall of Saigon. But our hero is a double agent, a communist sympathizer who will continue to feed information to the North even after he makes the harrowing escape with his loyalist friend Bon and the general's family on the last plane out, and becomes part of the Vietnamese refugee community in Southern California. Breathtakingly cynical, the novel has its hilarious moments; the reader will especially enjoy Nguyen's take on 1970s American life. To maintain his cover, our hero must become entangled in the general's underground resistance group, which plots a return to Vietnam through Cambodia, and the tale turns seriously dark. VERDICT Ultimately a meditation on war, political movements, America's imperialist role, the CIA, torture, loyalty, and one's personal identity, this is a powerful, thought-provoking work. It's hard to believe this effort, one of the best recent novels to cover the Vietnamese conflict from an Asian perspective, is a debut. This is right up there with Denis Johnson's Tree of Smoke. [See Prepub Alert, 10/27/14.]—Reba Leiding, emeritus, James Madison Univ. Lib., Harrisonburg, VA
A closely written novel of after-the-war Vietnam, when all that was solid melted into air.As Graham Greene and Robert Stone have taught us, on the streets of Saigon, nothing is as it seems. The racist suppositions of the empires of old helped shape a culture of subterfuge; not for nothing does the hero of Nguyen's (English and American Studies/Univ. of Southern Calif.) debut give a small disquisition on the meaning of being Eurasian or Amerasian ("a small nation could be founded from the tropical offspring of the American GI"), and not for nothing does a book meaningfully called Asian Communism and the Oriental Mode of Destruction play a part in the proceedings. Nguyen's protagonist tells us from the very first, in a call-me-Ishmael moment, that he's a mole: "I am a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces." Two faces, two races, neither wholly trusted. Our hero is attached to the command of a no-nonsense South Vietnamese general who's airlifted out at the fall of Saigon in 1975, protected by dewy Americans "with not a hint of a needle track in the crooks of their arms or a whiff of marijuana in their pressed, jungle-free fatigues"; whisked stateside, where the protagonist once spent time absorbing Americanness, the general is at the center of a potent community of exiles whom the protagonist is charged with spying on—though it turns out he's as much observed as observer. Think Alan Furst meets Elmore Leonard, and you'll capture Nguyen at his most surreal, our hero attempting to impress upon a Hollywood hopeful that American and Vietnamese screams sound different: "I was on my first assignment as a lieutenant," he recalls, "and could not figure out a way to save the man from my captain wrapping a strand of rusted barbed wire around his throat, the necklace tight enough so that each time he swallowed, the wire tickled his Adam's apple." Both chilling and funny, and a worthy addition to the library of first-rate novels about the Vietnam War.