You know, Norman,” said Lowell in his fondest voice, “Elizabeth and I really think you’re the finest journalist in America.”
–Norman Mailer, The Armies of the Night (1968)
So declared the prominent poet, Robert Lowell, on behalf too of his wife, the writer Elizabeth Hardwick, when Lowell and Mailer participated in the October 1967 anti-Vietnam march to the Pentagon. Mailer clearly displays in The Armies of the Night more than a little anger at Lowell, for Mailer advertised himself as a major novelist: in his own words, “The most important writer in America.” But by 1968, the early excitement over his first novel, the World War Two naturalistic drama, The Naked and the Dead, had long ago abated; James Jones’s From Here to Eternity had for many set the standard for American World War Two novels; and I am certainly not alone in judging that Mailer’s ensuing eleven novels–such forgettable offerings as Tough Guys Don’t Dance, The Deer Park, Why Are We In Vietnam?, and the turgid mess Ancient Evenings–reveal a writer whose bent obviously is not novel-writing. Perhaps the essential problem for Mailer as novelist was a landlocked imagination; he didn’t ascend to the novelist’s flight. Not surprisingly, as his writing career continued, he found it most comfortable to write books in which he cleaved to immediate and massively popular history–the moon shot, the march on the Pentagon, the execution for murder of Utahan Gary Gilmore, the turbulent Democratic and Machiavellian Republican conventions of 1968, the life of Marilyn Monroe, the imagined childhood of Adolph Hitler–and so forth. All the while, as he asserted about The Armies of the Night, he claimed to be writing “history as a novel and the novel as history.” Here the “novelistic” essentially consisted of Mailer reporting on moments of popular history as an aggresively confessional first-person observer who assumes his personal reactions are (a) important and (b) interesting. The emergent problem is twofold: the rapid fading in memory of, and interest in, pop history; and the low altitude of the pop observer, precluding an Olympian profundity about what novelist Anthony Powell poetically called “A Music to the Dance of Time.” It seems that Robert Lowell, showing the precision of a major poet, was right to call Mailer not even an historian but a journalist. Time is not on Mailer’s side.
American citizen and USC professor Viet Thanh Nguyen’s Pulitzer Prize-awarded debut novel, The Sympathizer, reminds of Mailer, though Nguyen is a better writer than Mailer. The Sympathizer is a searingly brilliant, stamping history from a Vietnamese viewpoint of the Vietnam war essentially covering the period from the fall of Saigon to an early postwar period roughly marked on the one hand by the writhing of down-and-out expatriate Vietnamese in America dreaming of a counter-invasion and on the other hand by the proliferation of brutal Communist re-education camps in Vietnam. It is “history as a novel” through magnificent scenic sketches of moments and subplots in the pivotal and signature experiences in this comparatively brief period. I doubt any other history of those times comes close to the power of Nguyen’s vision. Indeed, emphasize the histories and the sketches. You find yourself caught up in the last days of Saigon and the narrow escape from the airport already under attack; you experience poignantly the suddenly shabby and scuffling life of Vietnamese refugees in Los Angeles; you are showered with Ugly Americans detested by the expatriats, a series of American Types as envisioned by, say, Thomas Nast. White people are unhappily rendered by Nguyen in what is presumably the dominant mindset of the refugees in what jarringly seems an alien land.
Here is Nguyen’s picture of South Vietnamese refugees in Los Angeles in the period following the fall of Saigon:
The constituents, in this case, were old colleagues, followers, soldiers, and friends, a platoon of thirty or so middle-aged men whom I had rarely encountered without their uniforms until our time in the refugee camps on Guam. Seeing them again in mufti, a year later, confirmed the verdict of defeat and showed these men now to be guilty of numerous sartorial misdemeanors. They squeaked around the store in bargain-basement penny loafers and creased budget khakis, or in ill-fitting suits advertised by wholesalers for the price of buy-one-get-one-free…. Many once commanded artillery batteries and infantry battalions, but now they possessed nothing more dangerous than their pride…and their car keys, if they even owned cars…. Most successful was a general infamous for using his crack troops to harvest cinnamon…; now this spice merchant lorded over a pizza parlor. One colonel…was a janitor. A dashing major who flew gunships, now a mechanic. A grizzled captain with a talent for hunting guerrillas, now a short-order cook…. So the list went, a fair percentage collecting both welfare and dust, mouldering in the stale air of subsidized apartments….
There is one history among Nguyen’s several in which he shows great inspiration. The book ends with an horrific sustained drama of the experience of being a captive in a Communist re-education camp, the narrator himself having ended up there after the failed postwar military intervention. The writing is among the most compelling I’ve read. It’s an intense literary accounting. And the experience is one you owe yourself, dire as it is. Nguyen has dramatized throughout The Sympathizer, but especially in his powerful close to the story, the awful contemporary manifestations of man’s inhumanity to man. You will think of “approved interrogation techniques” in a more realistic way than before.
Instead of himself as a Maileresque narrator in this “history as a novel,” Nguyen, a generation removed from the early postwar history of the Vietnam conflict, deploys an unnamed first-person narrator who is clearly a literary creation stretched to serve “history as a novel.” The narrator is half French and half Vietnamese; he is a spy for the North who is an aide to a leading General of the South; he is a nostalgic Vietnamese refugee in America, both “an Occidental and an Oriental,” who both derides and appreciates the New World. He escapes Saigon with the General and entourage; remains the General-in-Exile’s aide in Southern California; carries out assassinations of refugees from the South for the North in spite of grave hesitation; and, ever the spy, ends up returning to Vietnam as part of a nostalgic and foolish army of intervention and feeling realistic misgivings about its prospects.
In plotting and in unity, then, The Sympathizer is not powerfully novelistic. The unnamed narrator, with his elastic psychology, makes decisions based more on what he needs to think and where he needs to be in order to encompass the historical panorama than to follow that timeless novelistic drama, the discovery of the self. In short, as some have noted, the plausibility of the narrator’s psychology and the placement of the causal factors determining the plot are sacrificed to the historical impulse. This is not to say that Nguyen hasn’t given us vivid characters. One superb example is the General’s daughter, Lana, and her adventures in the American culture following her exile from a privileged life in South Vietnam. Another is the General himself.
Nguyen has said The Sympathizer is not an immigrant novel but a refugee novel. As such, The Sympathizer doesn’t have the temporal breadth to fall in with such major dramas of the Old versus New Worlds as rendered in Nabokov’s Lolita and Updike’s Terrorist. The immediate history carries all in Nguyen’s literary universe.
Apropos: A memoir works because its unity–its plotting and scope–are personal and coherent. But with “history as a novel,” the purely literary issue of its implausible stretch–its compromised protagonist–is whether it will have a long lifetime. Perhaps Nguyen’s sheer literary power will prevail.
As to the Pulitzer prize awarded The Sympathizer, I discovered that among the several judges was but one novelist, the wonderful Junot Diaz. Nearly all the others were journalists, pundits, and assorted nonfiction writers with some attention to the journalistic. I rest my case about the perils of “history as a novel.”
But one thing is certain: The Sympathizer is a must read. The history that emerges seems most valid and, most importantly, valuable. You can learn from this book.