CW: oh boy, galore. Two key ones will be racism of all sorts and violent, on-page sexual assault.
I wonder sometimes who these people are, who’ve blithely existed on the planet wielding the fruits of American citizenship without anything more than an eighth grade hormone-filled trip to D.C.’s worth of awareness of the sins of their forefathers. Your visit to Maya Lin’s monument should be a step along the journey, not the end of it.
Which is humbly to say, from my priviledged seat, Nguyen’s rage (his clear choice of phrase) is clear and obvious. The benefit is that as a result there’s less time that I had to spend getting comfortable with him lambasting my (our) country and more time I could spend utterly immersed in the world he’s created–and the language he uses, which is basically made just for me? Alliteration and parallels and slant rhyme galore, if someone had to pick a list of literary devices that I like and throw them into a book, it would be this one.
The book takes place, timewise, from a point that’s about ~75% of the way through, from when/where the author is narrating the story of his life to that point, as a double agent working for a General of the South Vietnamese forces who’s secretly a revolutionary fighting for the Communist Revolution of the North. There might be some loss of suspense–we know he’s going to make it through, I suppose–but that would imply that there is only one way to lose oneself (i.e., through death). Instead, we watch as the dominos of the War of Aggression spill forwards and backwards through time, coloring every part of the author’s experience. Neither here nor there, he’s forever of two worlds. A man of “two faces,” he introduces himself, co-opting one of the oldest stereotypes of the ~Oriental~.
Nguyen talks about Morrison in a post-book Q&A, and how she refuses to write her novels from a place of explaining Black humanity. How refreshing to read a story where everyone has, in his words, some humanity and inhumanity. There’s no question that the Americans are the villains in this story–there’s not a version of Vietnamese history in which that role can be avoided–but there are no heros, not in the way we’d like to see in a book of war. There’s no one to hang your hat on, just the author who’s story we’re inextricably tied to if we want to hear more of the tale (which, to be clear, we absolutely do).
Nguyen speaks a bit too about the use of female characters, both by Hollywood/Vietnamese culture, but I’m not sure I’m willing to absolve him of so-so use by virtue of acknowledging flaws. Can you both note the trope of “women being assaulted as the worst crime of war” and then, in the next breath, use it as an example of the depravity of war? Longtime readers know where I stand. In the words of our former don’t-care-about-refugees First Lady, next time, be best Nguyen.