Books

Grove Press
Grove Press
Grove Press

The Sympathizer

by Viet Thanh Nguyen

A startling debut novel from a powerful new voice featuring one of the most remarkable narrators of recent fiction: a conflicted subversive and idealist working as a double agent in the aftermath of the Vietnam War.

  • Imprint Grove Paperback
  • Page Count 416
  • Publication Date April 05, 2016
  • ISBN-13 978-0-8021-2494-4
  • Dimensions 5.5" x 8.25"
  • US List Price $16.00
  • Imprint Grove Hardcover
  • Page Count 384
  • Publication Date April 07, 2015
  • ISBN-13 978-0-8021-2345-9
  • Dimensions 6" x 9"
  • US List Price $26.00
  • Imprint Grove Paperback
  • Publication Date April 07, 2015
  • ISBN-13 978-0-8021-9169-4
  • US List Price $16.00

About The Book

Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction

Named a Best Book of the Year by the New York Times Book Review, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Seattle Times, Daily Beast, Kansas City Star, Library Journal, Kirkus Reviews, Publishers Weekly, Booklist, Guardian, National Post, MPR News, Amazon, Slate, Flavorwire, Entropy, Quartz, and Globe and Mail

A profound, startling, and beautifully crafted debut novel, The Sympathizer is the story of a man of two minds, someone whose political beliefs clash with his individual loyalties. In dialogue with but diametrically opposed to the narratives of the Vietnam War that have preceded it, this novel offers an important and unfamiliar new perspective on the war: that of a conflicted communist sympathizer.

It is April 1975, and Saigon is in chaos. At his villa, a general of the South Vietnamese army is drinking whiskey and, with the help of his trusted captain, drawing up a list of those who will be given passage aboard the last flights out of the country. The general and his compatriots start a new life in Los Angeles, unaware that one among their number, the captain, is secretly observing and reporting on the group to a higher-up in the Viet Cong. The Sympathizer is the story of this captain: a man brought up by an absent French father and a poor Vietnamese mother, a man who went to university in America, but returned to Vietnam to fight for the Communist cause. Viet Thanh Nguyen’s astonishing novel takes us inside the mind of this double agent, a man whose lofty ideals necessitate his betrayal of the people closest to him. A gripping spy novel, an astute exploration of extreme politics, and a moving love story, The Sympathizer explores a life between two worlds and examines the legacy of the Vietnam War in literature, film, and the wars we fight today.

Praise

Winner of the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction
Winner of the 2016 Edgar Award for Best First Novel
Winner of the 2016 Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction
Winner of the 2016 Dayton Literary Peace Prize for Fiction
Winner of the 2015 Center for Fiction First Novel Prize
Winner of the 2015-2016 Asian/Pacific American Award for Literature (Adult Fiction)
Winner of the 2016 California Book Award for First Fiction
Winner of the 2017 Association for Asian American Studies Award for Best Book in Creative Writing (Prose)
Finalist for the 2016 PEN/Faulkner Award
Finalist for the 2016 PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for Debut Fiction
Finalist for the 2016 Medici Book Club Prize
Finalist for the 2015 Los Angeles Times Book Prize (Mystery/Thriller)
Finalist for the 2016 ABA Indies Choice/E.B. White Read-Aloud Award (Book of the Year, Adult Fiction)
Shortlisted for the 2017 International Dublin Literary Award
Named a Best Book of the Year on more than twenty lists, including the New York Times Book ReviewWall Street Journal, and Washington Post

“A layered immigrant tale told in the wry, confessional voice of a ‘man of two minds’—and two countries, Vietnam and the United States.”—Pulitzer Prize Citation

“[A] remarkable debut novel . . . [Nguyen] brings a distinctive perspective to the war and its aftermath. His book fills a void in the literature, giving voice to the previously voiceless . . . The nameless protagonist-narrator, a memorable character despite his anonymity, is an Americanized Vietnamese with a divided heart and mind. Nguyen’s skill in portraying this sort of ambivalent personality compares favorably with masters like Conrad, Greene, and le Carré. . . . Both thriller and social satire. . . . In its final chapters, The Sympathizer becomes an absurdist tour de force that might have been written by a Kafka or Genet.”—Philip Caputo, New York Times Book Review (cover review)

“This is more than a fresh perspective on a familiar subject. [The Sympathizer] is intelligent, relentlessly paced and savagely funny . . . The voice of the double-agent narrator, caustic yet disarmingly honest, etches itself on the memory.”—Wall Street Journal (WSJ’s Best Books of 2015)

“Nguyen doesn’t shy away from how traumatic the Vietnam War was for everyone involved. Nor does he pass judgment about where his narrator’s loyalties should lie. Most war stories are clear about which side you should root for—The Sympathizer doesn’t let the reader off the hook so easily . . . Despite how dark it is, The Sympathizer is still a fast-paced, entertaining read . . . a much-needed Vietnamese perspective on the war.”—Bill Gates, Gates Notes

“Extraordinary . . . Surely a new classic of war fiction. . . . [Nguyen] has wrapped a cerebral thriller around a desperate expat story that confronts the existential dilemmas of our age. . . . Laced with insight on the ways nonwhite people are rendered invisible in the propaganda that passes for our pop culture. . . . I haven’t read anything since Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four that illustrates so palpably how a patient tyrant, unmoored from all humane constraint, can reduce a man’s mind to liquid.”—Washington Post

“The great achievement of The Sympathizer is that it gives the Vietnamese a voice and demands that we pay attention. Until now, it’s been largely a one-sided conversation—or at least that’s how it seems in American popular culture . . . We’ve never had a story quite like this one before. . . . [Nguyen] has a great deal to say and a knowing, playful, deeply intelligent voice . . . There are so many passages to admire. Mr. Nguyen is a master of the telling ironic phrase and the biting detail, and the book pulses with Catch-22-style absurdities.”—New York Times

“Beautifully written and meaty . . . really compelling. I had that kid-like feeling of being inside the book.”
—Claire MessudBoston Globe

“Thrilling in its virtuosity, as in its masterly exploitation of the espionage-thriller genre, The Sympathizer was awarded the Pulitzer Prize, and has come to be considered one of the greatest of Vietnam War novels . . . The book’s (unnamed) narrator speaks in an audaciously postmodernist voice, echoing not only Vladimir Nabokov and Ralph Ellison but the Dostoyevsky of Notes from the Underground.”—Joyce Carol Oates, New Yorker

“Gleaming and uproarious, a dark comedy of confession filled with charlatans, delusionists and shameless opportunists . . . The Sympathizer, like Graham Greene’s The Quiet American, examines American intentions, often mixed with hubris, benevolence and ineptitude, that lead the country into conflict.”—Los Angeles Times

“Both a riveting spy novel and a study in identity.”—Entertainment Weekly

“This debut is a page-turner (read: everybody will finish) that makes you reconsider the Vietnam War (read: everyone will have an opinion) . . . Nguyen’s darkly comic novel offers a point of view about American culture that we’ve rarely seen.”—Oprah.com (Oprah’s Book Club Suggestions)

“The novel’s best parts are painful, hilarious exposures of white tone-deafness . . . [the] satire is delicious.”—New Yorker

The Sympathizer reads as part literary historical fiction, part espionage thriller and part satire. American perceptions of Asians serve as some of the book’s most deliciously tart commentary . . . Nguyen knows of what he writes.”—Los Angeles Times

“Sparkling and audacious . . . Unique and startling . . . Nguyen’s prose is often like a feverish, frenzied dream, a profuse and lively stream of images sparking off the page. . . . Nguyen can be wickedly funny. . . . [His] narrator has an incisive take on Asian-American history and what it means to be a nonwhite American. . . . this remarkable, rollicking read by a Vietnamese immigrant heralds an exciting new voice in American literature.”—Seattle Times

“Stunned, amazed, impressed. [The Sympathizer is] so skillfully and brilliantly executed that I cannot believe this is a first novel. (I should add jealous to my emotions.) Upends our notions of the Vietnam novel.”—Chicago Tribune

“A very special, important, brilliant novel . . . Amazing . . . I don’t say brilliant about a lot of books, but this is a brilliant book . . . A fabulous book . . . that everyone should read.”—Nancy Pearl, KUOW.org

“Dazzling . . . I’ve read scads of Vietnam War books, but The Sympathizer has an exciting quality I haven’t encountered . . . A fascinating exploration of personal identity, cultural identity, and what it means to sympathize with two sides at once.”—John Powers, Fresh Air, NPR (Books I Wish I’d Reviewed)

“Powerful and evocative . . . Gripping.”—San Francisco Chronicle

“Welcome a unique new voice to the literary chorus. . . . [The Sympathizer] is, among other things, a character-driven thriller, a political satire, and a biting historical account of colonization and revolution. It dazzles on all fronts.”—Cleveland Plain Dealer

“[Nguyen’s] books perform an optic tilt about Vietnam and what America did there as profound as Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man and Toni Morrison’s Beloved were to the legacy of racism and slavery.”—John Freeman, Literary Hub

“For those who have been waiting for the great Vietnamese American Vietnam War novel, this is it. More to the point: This is a great American Vietnam War novel. . . . It is the last word (I hope) on the horrors of the Vietnamese re-education camps that our allies were sentenced to when we left them swinging in the wind.”—Vietnam Veterans of America

“What a story . . . [An] absorbing, elegantly written book . . . If you are an American, of any culture or color, you will benefit from reading this book which offers, in exquisite thought and phrase, the multi-layered experience of a war most Americans have blotted out of consciousness, suppressed, or willfully ignored. I’ve been waiting to read this book for decades.”—Alice Walker, author of The Color Purple

“Magisterial. A disturbing, fascinating and darkly comic take on the fall of Saigon and its aftermath, and a powerful examination of guilt and betrayal. The Sympathizer is destined to become a classic and redefine the way we think about the Vietnam War and what it means to win and to lose.”—T.C. Boyle

“Trapped in endless civil war, ‘the man who has two minds’ tortures and is tortured as he tries to meld the halves of his country and of himself. Viet Thanh Nguyen accomplishes this integration in a magnificent feat of storytelling. The Sympathizer is a novel of literary, historical, and political importance.”—Maxine Hong Kingston, author of The Fifth Book of Peace

“It is a strong, strange and liberating joy to read this book, feeling with each page that a broken world is being knitted back together, once again whole and complete. As far as I am concerned, Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizer—both a great American novel and a great Vietnamese novel—will close the shelf on the literature of the Vietnam War.”—Bob Shacochis, author of The Woman Who Lost Her Soul

“Read this novel with care; it is easy to read, wry, ironic, wise, and captivating, but it could change not only your outlook on the Vietnam War, but your outlook on what you believe about politics and ideology in general. It does what the best of literature does, expands your consciousness beyond the limitations of your body and individual circumstances.”—Karl Marlantes, author of Matterhorn and What It Is Like to Go to War

“Not only does Viet Thanh Nguyen bring a rare and authentic voice to the body of American literature generated by the Vietnam War, he has created a book that transcends history and politics and nationality and speaks to the enduring theme of literature: the universal quest for self, for identity. The Sympathizer is a stellar debut by a writer of depth and skill.”—Robert Olen Butler, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain

The Sympathizer is a remarkable and brilliant book. By turns harrowing, and cut through by shards of unexpected and telling humor, this novel gives us the conflict in Vietnam, and its aftermath, in a way that is deeply truthful, and vitally important.”—Vincent Lam, author of Bloodletting and Miraculous Cures and The Headmaster’s Wager

“I think I’d have to go all the way back to Nabokov’s Humbert Humbert to find the last narrative voice that so completely conked me over the head and took me prisoner. Nguyen and his unnamed protagonist certainly have made a name for themselves with one of the smartest, darkest, funniest books you’ll read this year.”—David Abrams, author of Fobbit

“Audaciously and vividly imagined. A compelling read.”—Andrew X. Pham, author of Catfish and Mandala

“Nguyen’s cross-grained protagonist exposes the hidden costs in both countries of America’s tragic Asian misadventure. Nguyen’s probing literary art illuminates how Americans failed in their political and military attempt to remake Vietnam—but then succeeded spectacularly in shrouding their failure in Hollywood distortions. Compelling—and profoundly unsettling.”—Booklist (starred review)

“A closely written novel of after-the-war Vietnam, when all that was solid melted into air. As Graham Greene and Robert Stone have taught us, on the streets of Saigon, nothing is as it seems. . . . Think Alan Furst meets Elmore Leonard, and you’ll capture Nguyen at his most surreal . . . Both chilling and funny, and a worthy addition to the library of first-rate novels about the Vietnam War.”—Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

“[An] astonishing first novel . . . Nguyen’s novel enlivens debate about history and human nature, and his narrator has a poignant often mindful voice.”—Publishers Weekly (starred, boxed review)

“Breathtakingly cynical, the novel has its hilarious moments . . . Ultimately a meditation on war, political movements, America’s imperialist role, the CIA, torture, loyalty, and one’s personal identity, this is a powerful, thought-provoking work. It’s hard to believe this effort . . . is a debut. This is right up there with Denis Johnson’s Tree of Smoke.”—Library Journal (starred review)

“I cannot remember the last time I read a novel whose protagonist I liked so much. Smart, funny, and self-critical, with a keen sense of when to let a story speak for itself (and when to gloss it with commentary). He’s someone I would like to have a beer with, despite the fact that his life’s work is the betrayal of his friends. . . . [Nguyen] proves a gifted and bold satirist.”—Barnes & Noble Review

“Riveting . . . The Sympathizer is not only a masterly espionage novel, but also a seminal work of 21st century American fiction. Giving voice to the Vietnamese experience in the United States, Nguyen offers profound insights into the legacy of war and the politically and racially charged atmosphere of the 1970s.”—BookReporter

“[A] shimmering debut novel . . . Leaping with lyrical verve, each page turns to a unique and hauntingly familiar voice that refuses to let us forget what people are capable of doing to each other.”—Asian American Writers’ Workshop

“Arresting . . . One of the best pieces of fiction about the Vietnam war—and by a Vietnamese. . . . Stunning . . . Could it be that Nguyen has captured the shape of the devolution of war itself, from grand ambition to human ruin? . . . One of the finest novels of the Vietnam War published in recent years.”—The Daily Beast

“[An] intriguing confessional . . . [a] tour de force . . . So taken was I by the first quarter of the book that I believed myself to be reading an actual confession . . . The character himself . . . and the quality of the narration seized me, leaving me almost breathless in my pursuit of an ending.”—Sewanee Review

“Tremendously funny, with a demanding verbal texture . . . Both tender and a bit of a romp, the book reminded me of how big books can be.”—Guardian (Best Books of 2015)

“Astounding . . . [The unnamed narrator] will be compared to the morally exhausted spies, intelligence officers and double agents of Joseph Conrad, Graham Greene, and John le Carré.”—Toronto Star

Awards

Winner of the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction
Winner of the 2016 Edgar Award for Best First Novel
Winner of the 2016 Dayton Literary Peace Prize for Fiction
Winner of the 2015 Center for Fiction First Novel Prize
Winner of the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction
Winner of the 2015-2016 Asian/Pacific American Award for Literature (Adult Fiction)
Winner of the 2016 California Book Award for First Fiction
Winner of the 2017 Association for Asian American Studies Award for Best Book in Creative Writing (Prose)
Shortlisted for the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for Debut Fiction
Finalist for the 2016 PEN/Faulkner Award
Finalist for the 2016 ABA Indies Choice/E.B.

White Read-Aloud Award (Book of the Year, Adult Fiction)
Shortlisted for The Medici Book Club Prize
Finalist for the 2015 Los Angeles Times Book Prize (Mystery/Thriller)
Longlisted for the 2017 International DUBLIN Literary Award
A New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice
A New York Times Bestseller
A National Bestseller
An Amazon Best Book of the Month
One of the New York Times 100 Notable Books of 2015
Named a Best Book of the Year by the New York Times Book Review, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Seattle Times, Daily Beast, Kansas City Star, Library Journal, Kirkus Reviews, Publishers Weekly, Booklist, Guardian, National Post, MPR News, Amazon, Slate, Flavorwire, Orlando Weekly, Entropy, Quartz, and Globe and Mail
A Publishers Weekly Debut Fiction Pick
One of Newsday‘s “10 Books Not to Miss in April”
A Library Journal Best Debut of Spring
One of Kirkus Reviews “10 Novels to Lose Yourself In” and a Must-Read for Spring
An Amazon Top 20 Books of the Year (#16)
Pasadena Public Library’s 2017 One City, One Story Selection

Excerpt

I am a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces. Perhaps not surprisingly, I am also a man of two minds. I am not some misunderstood mutant from a comic book or a horror movie, although some have treated me as such. I am simply able to see any issue from both sides. Sometimes I flatter myself that this is a talent, and although it is admittedly one of a minor nature, it is perhaps also the sole talent I possess. At other times, when I reflect on how I cannot help but observe the world in such a fashion, I wonder if what I have should even be called talent. After all, a talent is something you use, not something that uses you. The talent you cannot not use, the talent that possesses you—that is a hazard, I must confess. But in the month when this confession begins, my way of seeing the world still seemed more of a virtue than a danger, which is how all virtues first appear. The month in question was April, the cruelest month.

It was the month in which a war that had run on for a very long time would lose its limbs, as is the way of wars. It was a month that meant everything to all the people in our small part of the world and nothing to most people in the rest of the world. It was a month that was both an end of a war and the beginning of . . . well, “peace” is not the right word, is it, my dear commandant?

Reading Group Guide

1. Discuss the relevance of the title, The Sympathizer. Who do you think the author wants the reader to sympathize with? What are the different ways throughout the book that the author demonstrates sympathetic characters and situations?

2. The novel opens with a quote from Friedrich Nietzsche: “Let us not become gloomy as soon as we hear the word ‘torture’: in this particular case there is plenty to offset and mitigate that word—even something to laugh at.” How is this sentiment explored in The Sympathizer? Discuss this statement as it applies to the characters in the novel and Vietnam.

3. How has the refugee experience in America changed since the Vietnam War? Has it changed much or not at all? Or both?

4. What adjustments has the United States made in how it deals with countries during and after war? What are the lessons learned from the Vietnam War and how have those lessons been applied to current wars?

5. What is the author saying about the effects of war on politics?

6. How are dreams used to discuss duality? What deeper meaning do the dreams represent for the Captain’s already fractured psyche?

7. Why do you think the author included a supernatural element in The Sympathizer? How does the presence of ghosts change the protagonist? What do they represent to the narrator? Are the readers meant to take the presence of the ghosts literally?

8. Guilt is a theme throughout the novel. What is the role of guilt in the lives of the characters? Does it compel them to try and right past wrongs, or make them more culpable? Or both?

9. What is the function of sexuality in the novel? How are sexuality and the war intertwined, according to Nguyen?

10. Mao said: “art and literature were crucial to revolution” what role, if any, does art and literature play in politics? “Movies were America’s way of softening up the rest of the world.” Do you agree or disagree with this assessment? Provide examples of movies you have seen that accomplish this.

11.On page 274, Ms. Mori declares “you must claim America” what does she mean by this? Do you agree or disagree with her? Do you think this is how refugees and immigrants feel once they come to America? Explain your answers.

12. Why is the narrator of The Sympathizer important? Is he a reliable narrator?

13. What affect does the narrator’s arrival in America have on his “two minds?” Discuss the changes in his relationship with Man, Bon, and the General after he becomes a refugee.

14. On page 15, the narrator says about Man and Bon: “These men were better than any real brothers I could have had, for we had chosen each other.” Discuss the role family plays in the lives of the different characters in the novel.

15. The narrator states early in the novel: “If ever circumstances forced us into a situation where death was the price of our brotherhood, I had no doubt that Man and I would pay.” Do you think he is foreshadowing events to come? Why or why not? Why do you think he feels this way about himself and Man but doesn’t include Bon?

16. Throughout the novel Man, Bon, and the narrator are referred to as a group, but let’s take a deeper look at the blood brothers individually—who is Man, Bon, and the narrator? What makes them blood brothers and what sets them apart? Of the three why is the narrator the only one without a name?

17. Why is the Captain more upset by his reaction to being called a bastard than the word itself?

18. There are several compelling female characters: Madame, Ms. Mori, the narrator’s mother, and Lana. Discuss how Nguyen fleshes out the female characters and their roles in the novel.

19. What does the narrator discover about himself when he travels to the Philippines to consult on The Hamlet? What is his greatest challenge there? How are his expectations and memories transformed by this visit? In what way does the Captain identify with the movie extras? How does he set himself apart from them?

20. The Captain describes himself as “morally disorientated” following the death of the crapulent Major, what do you think he means by this? Do you think he discovers something previously unknown about himself? Explain your opinions.

21. At one point Sonny describes love as “being able to talk to someone else without effort, without hiding, and at the same time to feel absolutely comfortable not saying a word.” How do you describe love? Discuss whether you have experienced the kind of love Sonny feels for Ms. Mori.

22. How does Sonny serve as a foil to the narrator? Why do you think the narrator confesses to Sonny? What is the significance of the narrator’s visit to Lana before meeting with Sonny? He also returns to her after the “deed is done,” why do you suppose he does this? What is he hoping to find?

23. What does the female agent mean when she is asked her name and she replies: “My surname is Viet and my given name is Nam?” In that moment, is she meant to represent Vietnam? Who else in the novel could be a substitute for the country? How does Vietnam function as a character in the story?

24. Do you feel the harrowing experience of the female agent was meant to humanize the narrator? What was your initial reaction after he recalls the memory? How did this affect your attitude toward the narrator?

25. At the end of the novel, the narrator “graduates” and is finally allowed to meet the commissar. How does the narrator react when he learns who that is? What was your reaction to the reveal?

26. After everything that the narrator has been through his last words are a passionate celebration of life “We will live!” Why do you think the author chose to end the novel on such an optimistic note? Were you surprised by the ending? What are your thoughts about what is happening in the last chapter?

Reading Group Guide by Keturah Jenkins.

Suggestions for Further Reading:
Beauty Is a Wound by Eka Kurniawan
The Tsar of Love and Techno by Anthony Marra
The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien
She Weeps Each Time You’re Born by Quan Barry
Novel Without a Name by Duong Thu Huong
Fire and Forget: Short Stories from the Long War edited by Matt Gallagher and Roy Scranton, with a foreword by Colum McCann
The Eaves of Heaven: A Life in Three Wars by Andrew X. Pham
The Reeducation of Cherry Truong: A Novel by Aimee Phan
The Sellout by Paul Beatty
Dragonfish by Vu Tran
The Book of Salt by Monique Truong