I recently enjoyed two new novels, The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen and Innocents and Others by Dana Spiotta, that left me thinking about the shimmering surfaces of everyday life, and the interwoven meshes of secrecy and guilt that ripple beneath. One novel is about a clever and bookish Vietnamese refugee college student in California who is really a Communist spy. The other is about a lifelong friendship between two filmmakers, one of them more commercial than the other. I recommend both for anyone in search of existential summer reading.
Nguyen’s smart tour de force is one of the hot books of the past year, and it has many sharp edges with which to hook us in. It’s a classic 1970s spy yarn, narrated by a brilliant aide de camp to a well-funded and famous North Vietnamese general exiled to America after the fall of Saigon. But our narrator is actually sneaking secrets back to the Communists in Vietnam. The Sympathizer is also a Conrad-esque psychological study of a tormented soul, because this narrator is not only half refugee and half spy but also half Asian and half European, which makes him a figure of shame in Vietnam and a target for bigoted stupidity in America.This duality is the position from which the entire novel is narrated, and part of the thrill of reading Nguyen’s book is to admire the acrobatic skill with which he precariously balances the narrative precisely between all these contradictory worlds.
Nguyen’s young spy, whose name we never learn, is in a tight group of three lifelong friends, along with Bon and Man. They live a fast, fashionable life as adventurous young captains of the South Vietnam military/loyalist elite — but the terrible twist to this joyful friendship, which we learn in the book’s opening pages, is that Man is also a spy for Ho Chi Minh’s Vietnam, while Bon is a true believer in the lost cause of anti-Communist South Vietnam, and an eager participant in a botched and badly misguided attempt to invade Vietnam and take it back.
What is terrible here is that three lifelong friends — three musketeers, three bros — could be divided by such an invisible fault line, which must render every moment of trust and brotherly camaraderie between them empty and false. This core fact of gut-level dishonesty ultimately rots the narrator of The Sympathizer into a state of moral hopelessness, especially after the weak geopolitical structures that held the three friends together begin to spin apart like a centrifuge. The sad narrator seems to feel himself disintegrating too, and the book takes the form of a confession (to a lordly Communist commandant) in which our self-divided hero realizes he has nothing left of himself.
Dana Spiotta’s Innocents and Others is also about a lifelong friendship. Meadow and Carrie meet in high school and rise in the film industry together. Meadow becomes a contrarian counter-culture gadfly, throwing her heart into documentary experiments that challenge and disturb their audiences. Carrie directs easygoing chick comedies, which means that Carrie becomes much more successful than Meadow. This seems to bother Carrie more than it bothers Meadow — especially after Meadow fails to even acknowledge her breakthrough success, which probably indicates that it actually bothers Meadow more than it bothers Carrie, but that Meadow will never admit it.
A lively sense of friendly competition energizes this brisk story. Meadow is the brainier and more confident of the two friends, but despite her cool diffident personality she is eager to help her less seasoned friend and admirer. As teenagers they make goofy films together, and when Meadow acts out a comedy bit that works surprisingly well on film, Carrie complains that Meadow is funnier than she can ever be. Meadow generously turns the compliment around, reminding Carrie that Meadow had only been the actress in front of the camera when this funny moment went down; Carrie was the one who directed it.
Innocents and Others proceeds skippingly through decades, with the same fast, glancing narrative fingerplay that has been Dana Spiotta’s specialty in her excellent previous novels Eat the Document and Stone Arabia. We dive deep as Meadow engineers one wickedly subversive documentary film project after another, getting herself deeper into trouble with each new milestone. She may be a genius, and her early experiments put her on a promising track, but then her luck begins to run out. A film portrait of an imprisoned young mother turns sickeningly tragic. In the novel’s central story within a story, we meet a beguiling, troubled, lonely and unattractive woman named Jelly who uses her soothing voice and her skill at reaching the emotional needs and pressure points of lonely adult men to construct elaborate fake identities on the telephone. She does this for no good reason, other than the feeling (or illusion) of companionship and love that it gives her, and perhaps she also believes it helps the men she speaks with to believe they have fallen in love as well. But then Meadow the documentary film-maker enters Jelly’s life and arranges to expose her fragile game.
Nguyen’s The Sympathizer is also very much a book about film, and this author’s sense of humor about the mythos of classic Hollywood is no less ironic than Spiotta’s. Just as her unreliable narrator Meadow cold-opens Innocents and Others with an obviously phony story about a love relationship with an aging Orson Welles, The Sympathizer‘s well-spoken narrator stumbles into a job as an advisor to a 1970s film auteur who very much resembles Francis Ford Coppola and is about to direct a massive Hollywood epic about the Vietnam War that very much resembles Apocalypse Now. In these middle sections of Nguyen’s novel, we feel the narrator’s rage at the cheap sentimentality behind this major Hollywood production, which pretends to represent a counterculture anti-war point of view, but actually amounts to a symbolic return to and conquest of Vietnam. (Nguyen’s novel doesn’t even mention Sylvester Stallone, who could perhaps be the symbolic subject of a sequel to Sympathizer, but Stallone’s Rambo series were also a symbolic denial of the bitter truth that we lost the Vietnam War.)
It’s not only because Sympathizer and Innocents both gleam with the reflective postmodern magic dust of Hollywood that these two novels read so well as a matched pair. But neither, of course, are perfect. The Sympathizer really packs far too much frenetic activity into one novel, and would be well-served by an HBO series that could give the story and its self-divided hero room to breathe. Meanwhile, Innocents and Others is a worthy novel marred by a mawkish, boring title that must have been imposed upon it by somebody in Marketing, because I can’t believe that the novelist who came up with Lightning Fields, Eat the Document and Stone Arabla would ever think that Innocents and Others is a good title.
it’s also a title that makes no sense. Nobody in Innocents and Others is innocent — at least not innocent of much. Nobody in The Sympathizer is either, for that matter.