The Sympathizer by Viet Nguyen
Sometimes a writer just doesn’t speak to you. ‘The Sympathizer’ is a best-selling, critically acclaimed book, that I had to force myself to continue. My rule of thumb is to read 50 pages of a novel before giving up, but my pride forced me to keep going. I kept hoping it would get better, but it never did.
A wonderful novel is an immersing experience. A reader becomes the main characters, sees, feels, smells and lives the life of those characters. This is what I expect from a great novel.
But ‘The Sympathizer’ has barriers to the reader immersing into the story. It has taken some time and thought to understand what those barriers are.
A writer is rightly guided to show, not tell. But ‘The Sympathizer’ is a story told. It is written as a confession by an unnamed protagonist to a superior called Man. The unknown name creates an instant distance, and then the format furthers it. I realized it was akin to sitting beside someone in a bar and having them tell me the story. The bar reference works as the principal character is a drunk.
A drunk, a murderer, a borderline pedophile. He forms no attachment to people, uses and discards people, considers himself above us mere mortals. Unreliable narrators can be fun, but there is no joy in this guy. I am not sure I laughed even once during the 400 some pages. Spending four or five hours with such a humorless person is a chore.
But then the fatal flaw appears. I have a quote on my blog page by Theodore Sturgeon, the science-fiction writer, ‘It doesn’t matter what you write, what you believe will show through.’ And what this writer believes is that he is smarter than you, me, everyone. There is a talking down to the reader that is so off-putting.
What does the character want or need? This is a mental exercise. There is no heart, no emotion, and certainly no love. The writer is not honest enough, cannot get close enough to the character to show us, and so the reader cannot experience his pain. At first I thought, who knows what he wants. Then I thought, who cares. And to read a novel where you don’t care, misses the entire point of reading a novel. I would give it a miss.
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