Full disclosure: after finishing The Sympathizer, I decided not to review it. The reason is not because I had no opinions about it—I did—but I worried that my dislike for a book which won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, the Edgar Award for Best First Novel and was named a Best Book of the Year by the New York Times, meant that I was somehow not intelligent enough to appreciate it. However, my friend Vallery, who didn’t care for it either, convinced me to write it up anyway.
I can appreciate the fact that The Sympathizer is an important book, a worthy examination of the Vietnam war and its aftermath. But I found it a real slog to get through. (I read it for my book group, which is why I didn’t toss it aside a couple of chapters in.) For one thing, there are no quotation marks, an affectation I find extremely annoying. The last quarter of the book is an extended depiction of torture. A set piece satirizing the filming of “Apocalypse Now” seems oddly irrelevant to the rest of the plot. And then there’s the writing. For example, we have this lengthy meditation on—let’s be frank—boobs:
While I was critical of many things when it came to so-called Western civilization, cleavage was not one of them. The Chinese might have invented gunpowder and the noodle, but the West had invented cleavage, with profound if underappreciated implications. A man gazing on semi-exposed breasts was not only engaging in simple lasciviousness, he was also meditating, even if unawares, on the visual embodiment of the verb “to cleave,” which meant both to cut apart and to put together. A woman’s cleavage perfectly illustrated this double and contradictory meaning, the breasts two separate entities with one identity. The double meaning was also present in how cleavage separated a woman from a man and yet drew him to her with the irresistible force of sliding down a slippery slope. Men had no equivalent, except, perhaps, for the only kind of male cleavage most women truly cared for, the opening and closing of a well-stuffed billfold. But whereas women could look at us as much as they wanted, and we would appreciate it, we were damned if we looked and hardly less damned if we didn’t. A woman with extraordinary cleavage would reasonably be insulted by a man whose eyes could resist the plunge, so, just to be polite, I cast a tasteful glance while reaching for another cigarette. In between those marvelous breasts bumped a gold crucifix on a gold chain, and for once I wished I were a true Christian so I could be nailed to that cross.
The Sympathizer is the second war novel in a row to win the Pulitzer, following Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See, which is set during WWII. All the Light is one of my top 10 favorite books of the past decade; it’s a big-hearted, beautiful story full of characters I cared deeply about. The Sympathizer, on the other hand, is the sort of book I wanted to keep at arm’s length (consider yourself lucky that I quoted the passage about cleavage and not the part where the narrator defiles a squid). Obviously a lot of people think this is a bona fide Great Book; I’m not among them, and I realize that may say more about me than it does about The Sympathizer.