...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. Startlingly insightful and perilously candid ... The contemporary relevance of [the] devastating final section can’t be ignored, but The Sympathizer is too great a novel to feel bound to our current soul-searching about the morality of torture. And it’s even more than a thoughtful reflection about our misguided errand in Southeast Asia. Transcending these historical moments, Nguyen plumbs the loneliness of human life, the costs of fraternity and the tragic limits of our sympathy.
The great achievement of The Sympathizer is that it gives the Vietnamese a voice and demands that we pay attention ... 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.
...this impressive debut contains a Whitman-like multiplicity. The Sympathizer can be read as a spy novel, a war novel, an immigrant novel, a novel of ideas, a political novel, a campus novel, a novel about the movies, and a novel, yes, about other novels. This overreaching mixture leads to occasional missteps that matter little set against the greater result: a bold, artful and globally minded reimagining of the Vietnam war and its interwoven private and public legacies. Indeed, this book reads like the absolute opposite of Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, the clipped, cool fragmentary narrative that has long served as the canonical US literary account of that divisive conflict and its ongoing aftermath.
[Nguyen's] 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.
Black humor seeps through these pages, as does a deepening sense of despair. In the brutal finale, when the narrator has returned to Vietnam only to be 'rehabilitated' by his supposed comrades, he has been so poisoned by dirty work that he has lost all conviction. Seeing things from two sides has simply meant that he has seen twice as many lies.
The novel’s best parts are painful, hilarious exposures of white tone-deafness, from an Oriental-studies professor who calls his Japanese-American secretary 'Miss Butterfly' to a buffoonish Hollywood director—inspired, Nguyen’s acknowledgments note, by Francis Ford Coppola—who hires the narrator as a consultant for a cumbersome melodrama. The ending, which involves scenes of torture and a dystopian epiphany, feels out of keeping with the rest of the book, but the preceding satire is delicious.
There have been many superb books set against the backdrop of the Vietnam War, but none as extraordinary and unique as The Sympathizer ... [a] complex and beautifully written novel, an instant American classic.
Between plot peaks, Nguyen roams wildly, the better to explore many fascinating tangents. Nguyen’s prose is often like a feverish, frenzied dream, a profuse and lively stream of images sparking off the page ... this remarkable, rollicking read by a Vietnamese immigrant heralds an exciting new voice in American literature.
Though the novel begins with an emergency evacuation and the fall of Saigon, much of its action takes place on American soil. Yet Americans deliberately appear mostly as backdrop characters. By deliberately transforming the American characters into 'the Others' and subjecting them and their assumptions to cross examination, Nguyen is subverting the idea of 'the Other' ... Nguyen’s novel works to disorient, or reorient, audiences who have identified with a master narrative that has long gone unquestioned or disputed.
The Sympathizer exceeds its two nearest relations in concept and form, Chang-Rae Lee’s Native Speaker and Hari Kunzru’s The Impressionist, through Nguyen’s confrontation with these layered types, which comprise his protagonist’s fraught persona. In creating a character for whom individuality from cause is both unimaginable and inevitable, Nguyen deftly dodges the lazy, familiar ’Nam tropes to answer the unanswerable question of the decimated, resilient self in a story that’s biting, funny, and painful. As for the sympathizer himself, as Nguyen ably shows, he never had a choice in the first place. When words fail, his continued existence asserts itself, continuing the story.
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 ... Nguyen wields a wicked sense of humor. He riffs on the infamous meat scene in Portnoy's Complaint, substituting a squid, and delivers a devastating satire of Apocalypse Now. His one fault may be too much ambition, as he aims to deliver the whole of the Vietnamese experience, pre- and postwar, as well as its impact on the American psyche.
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 ... 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.