The unnamed narrator of the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Sympathizer returns. Now a refugee in France with his blood brother Bon, he falls in with a group of left-wing intellectuals, among whom he finds not only stimulation for his mind but also customers for his narcotic merchandise—and perils he has not foreseen.
Equal parts Ellison’s Invisible Man and Chang-rae Lee’s Henry Park, Nguyen’s nameless narrator is a singular literary creation, a complete original ... The Committed indulges in espionage high jinks aplenty, but in truth the author is not as interested in them as a cursory plot summary might indicate. Nguyen is no le Carré and doesn’t wish to be. The novel draws its true enchantment — and its immense power — from the propulsive, wide-ranging intelligence of our narrator as he Virgils us through his latest descent into hell. That he happens to be as funny as he is smart is the best plus of all.
The novel is [...] a homecoming of a particularly volatile sort, a tale of chickens returning to roost, and of a narrator not yet done with the world ... Nguyen [...] is driven to raptures of expression by the obliviousness of the self-satisfied; he relentlessly punctures the self-image of French and American colonizers, of white people generally, of true believers and fanatics of every stripe. This mission drives the rhetorical intensity that makes his novels so electric. It has nothing to do with plot or theme or character ... That voice has made Nguyen a standard-bearer in what seems to be a transformational moment in the history of American literature, a perspectival shift ... It’s a voice that shakes the walls of the old literary comfort zone wherein the narratives of nonwhite 'immigrants' were tasked with proving their shared humanity to a white audience ... May that voice keep running like a purifying venom through the mainstream of our self-regard—through the American dream of distancing ourselves from what we continue to show ourselves to be.
The first 100 pages of The Committed are, to my mind, better than anything in the first novel. The narrator’s voice snaps you up. It’s direct, vain, cranky and slashing — a voice of outraged intelligence. It’s among the more memorable in recent American literature ... subtly draws upon the mythic power France once held for Black Americans ... [Nguyen's] sentences, as they heat, expand. He lets them run riot. Some cover multiple pages, building to towering peaks. When these arias work, they’re ecstatic. When they don’t, one recalls Capote on Kerouac: 'That’s not writing, that’s typing' ... The overwriting in this novel only rarely bothered me. More often I was reminded of George Balanchine’s comment that if his dancers didn’t occasionally fall onstage, they weren’t really going for it ... The second half of this book is shaggy, shaggy, shaggy. If it’s not a total breakdown, it’s something close ... This is a bookish novel. It’s the kind in which a bouncer at a brothel reads Voltaire ... Tragedy and comedy blend awkwardly in this novel’s second half. Nguyen can be very funny ... Nguyen consigns his characters to a series of frazzled, far-fetched scenarios. Mayhem feeds mayhem. There are several extended torture scenes in the back half of this book that don’t work at all ... Nguyen doesn’t find a tone for these scenes. They’re awful in their way — there are rubber hoses and electrodes clamped onto nipples — but they’re hard to take seriously. There’s a daft James Bond quality to them. The torturers fritter their time away, long enough for the tortured to be rescued. Doors are kicked open with a bang; guns blaze. You sense the author trying to keep the plot frantically spinning, rather than elegantly extending his themes ... Nguyen’s cynical humor just saves him ... This novel doesn’t hold together, but it’s more serious and more entertaining than nine-tenths of the novels that do. Its narrator wants redress for the wrongs of history, but he also wants to live in the imperative tense ... As you can tell, I’m of two minds about The Committed. I’ll put my feelings this way, borrowing something the English writer Jonathan Coe said about Fedora, Billy Wilder’s penultimate film: 'Flawed and bonkers, but I like it.'