I read this early January and waited so long to write a review about it because of how angry it made me, so I could step back and try to be non-partial. Well, this book won’t go away, so here’s my review anyway, because I need to talk about how sexist this book is.
I hated this book. And it still makes me angry. And no matter how much I try to get away from it, it keeps getting brought up. My professor brings it up every day in class, even though it’s been a while since we read it and it’s not relevant to the discussion any more. I keep hearing people praise it. It keeps making me angry.
But before I get into my complaints, I want to give a qualification for one of the reasons (out of many) why I’m so upset by this book.
I was really looking forward to this book. I work in Barnes & Noble so I had seen the book a lot as it was gaining a lot of buzz with its Pulitzer win among the other awards, etc. That by itself made me want to read it, and the story also sounded incredibly interesting (not to mention extremely important, because there are so many problems with representation and that’s something that needs books written about).
But then I signed up for a class called Migrant Fiction, and a couple days before class started the professor emails us adding this book to the syllabus, because Viet Thanh Nguyen was coming to our campus (UC Irvine) and was going to do a talk/signing. So, a book I was really excited for, and not only were we going to read it in an academic setting (which is awesome enough), but the author—a Pulitzer-prize winning author—was coming to campus to talk and sign books! This skyrocketed my excitement (also: Emily St. John Mandel had come to our campus in 2016, who is one of my favorite authors, and had an amazing event, so I was looking forward to a similar experience).
But this book utterly failed in every way, shape, and form. And I don’t say that lightly or as some sort of gimmick. I hope it’s clear how much I wanted to like this book—how amazing I hoped it would be—because that’s honestly true, and perhaps my high expectations were a factor of how much I disliked it. But it wasn’t just that I disliked the book, for its writing or something like that—that would have disappointed me, sure, because of how excited I was for it, but this book made me angry (and still does).
Let’s begin with just how completely misogynistic and sexist it is. Every single female character is completely objectified—often sexually, but still objectified in some manner. In fact, during one of our classes, the entire class tried to find a single female character who wasn’t objectified. Several were brought up—particularly ones that were barely in the novel, so one would expect they wouldn’t’ve had time to be objectified—but in the end, someone else would always refute them, pointing out a moment where they were, indeed, objectified. Every one (granted, I didn’t go back through the book underlining every female character or anything, but I think the fact that the whole class ultimately couldn’t find one says something). Now, this could be written off as being due to the novel having a sexist narrator, but the problem is the book itself is sexist.
There are two female characters who seem to be strong characters—to the extent that my professor goes aha! See, not sexist!—except the way they’re represented is still extremely sexist, and not just because the main character is sexist. They’re written incredibly flat, and are always used to benefit the main character. The novel has the ability to use its characters to combat sexism (and the sexist narrator) especially the sexism of the time, but doesn’t. Instead it just amplifies the issue by using the potentially-strong characters in sexist ways.
And that’s the biggest problem with this novel. It claims to be a novel about representation. In fact, Nguyen has stated as much—it’s a book about the poor representation of Asians, specifically in American films taking place in an Asian country (a la Apocalypse Now), where the film is always from the American perspective, and slanted toward Americans heavily. Which of course is an extremely important and relevant issue, and a huge problem that needs to be talked about.
The problem is, Nguyen completely ignores half of the entire world—he cares about the representation of Vietnamese men, but doesn’t seem to care about Vietnamese women; he only legitimizes the male Vietnamese voice, not the female.
Again, Nguyen has mentioned in interviews (and the event on campus) about how he didn’t want to translate Vietnamese culture to Americans, as it would be giving into a power structure. But only for men? So he’s okay with subjugating women to the power structure of patriarchy.
I guess I just expect more from a novel like this, written at this time. Women have been subjugated and objectified and ignored—it’s not okay for that to still happen in a novel written in recent years. Yes, sexism existed/exists where he’s writing about, but it’s not okay for the novel to be sexist.
Now, the main character isn’t supposed to necessarily be likable or a stand-up guy or anything, and a lot of the objectification does come from him simply because it’s all from his gaze. He has his own issues, and does other bad things, but that’s not the problem. Again, the problem is that the book itself is sexist, not just the main character. There’s a stark difference between having a misogynistic character and the book itself being misogynistic. The former could possibly be used in a way that makes an important point; the latter is simply a problem.
And that completely undermines his entire argument about representation.
It’s its biggest flaw. It’s trying so hard to be a novel with an important message, but one that completely falls short because of how sexist it is. And there is no excuse for that.
Which also, the sympathizer himself, from the very first lines of the novel, is supposed to be someone who can see both sides of every issue, can sympathize with different viewpoints, etc.—except, apparently, women.
As I said, if he had taken all of that sexism and used it to make a strong point combating sexism, it could’ve been great (ignoring all the other problems with the novel, anyway—but in terms of its message it could’ve been good or at least not horrible). Instead it squandered every opportunity by its horrible representation of women, only ever caring about the male voice.
I could go on (in fact, I did in an essay for the class, as I wrote entirely on just a single scene of sexism—one of the hundreds of scenes of sexism), but in short, the novel talks
about representation while representing women horribly, which isn’t okay. All of the dog-eared pages in the picture to the right are “big” instances of sexism. I would have had to dog-ear nearly every page for any sexism, but these are big instances I specifically wanted to talk about in my essay.
Take the recent musical Hamilton. Again, a piece of history that had a lot of sexism (among other problems, of course). Is Hamilton, the play itself as a whole, sexist? No. It gives voices to the women of the time, it creates fully-rounded female characters. It makes important conversation and raises important points.
So it’s possible. I don’t think it’s an unfair thing to ask that something not be sexist in itself—there’s a way to do it, there’s a way to talk about the problems without perpetrating them. But The Sympathizer doesn’t do that.
The problems don’t stop there, though. Even if you ignore the sexism (which is impossible), the book otherwise still just doesn’t work, in my opinion. It might not be offensive then, which would be great, but the book itself still wouldn’t work.
To start with, it just screams that it wants to win the Pulitzer Prize. It’s trying to be so “literary.” He doesn’t use any quotation marks for dialogue—why? To be “cool”? And there’s the whole convoluted way of storytelling where it’s the main character writing a confession, and flipping back and forth between the past and present, though not done
well, just convolutedly. I love books that are written “weirdly” and interestingly, using different storylines and layers of story and whatnot, but they have to be done well. It just seemed like the reason for doing it here was to win the Pulitzer.
Which I guess worked. I’ve been really excited to read so many Pulitzer Prize novels, but now I’m questioning that—are they all horrible novels that don’t deserve it? Should I still read All the Light We Cannot See, The Goldfinch, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, The Road, etc.? I mean, To Kill a Mockingbird is amazing, but that was years and years ago—perhaps now they just choose the book that wants to be win it most?
I don’t know, but it makes me sad. I guess it shouldn’t matter this much, but I’m just (obviously) super obsessed with books, and I’ve always thought the Pulitzer Prize was so cool because it’s “the” award for great novels, etc. Of course, this thinking comes from only knowing books like TKAM or Beloved or The Color Purple, etc. I haven’t read any of the recent winners, and so I just had this idea of what the Pulitzer Prize is from knowing these books—books that are, truly, great; books that are important and deserve to be read.
Not books like this.
Though again, this is coming from someone who hasn’t read many books that actually won. But I equate the Pulitzer Prize as the Oscars of Literature, and if that’s what it is, then I don’t see this book as deserving. It fails on every level—the message/argument is incredibly flawed, it perpetrates sexism, and I don’t feel like the “technical” aspects of the book worked either.
This probably shouldn’t matter this much, and I acknowledge I’m probably overreacting to this winning a Pulitzer. But no book has affected me so negatively before. This book made me physically sick time and again, and the Pulitzer as a concept is important to me as a booknerd.
But going back to how the book is trying so hard to be cool, it seems like Nguyen is also trying so, so hard to be Chuck Palahniuk. The problem is, he doesn’t do it well. Palahniuk creates fascinating character studies in each of his novels—despicable, horrible characters, but fascinating—and uses explicit language and situations to go toward the study of the character. Nguyen doesn’t do that.
I guess this goes back to my point of the misogyny without trying to make a point about it—all of the “Palahniuk” way of writing/scenes has no purpose. I’m not even a huge Palahniuk fan, but each of his novels are, at the very least, very well-written and fascinating character studies, even if I don’t like all of his work (I hated Choke, personally), and even if his characters are despicable.
For more on the writing, there was one scene toward the end, when a group of people were attacked, that I thought was well-written, but otherwise the writing itself never captured me (except the first couple sentences, which I thought presented an interesting story/premise, but nothing else in the novel delivered on what I thought was promised with those). The novel has a great synopsis (someone writing his confession to his captor, all the while dealing with issues of representation), but what was actually given wasn’t at all interesting, nor did it ever hold my interest.
To speak on the book signing/discussion, I was hoping it would perhaps make the novel a little more interesting, or would help me understand why it was written, or would somehow make up for it in some way, but instead didn’t and just solidified my views on the novel, as I touched on before.
I didn’t get my book signed, and I’m glad I didn’t—it’s just not a book I really want signed, as all the signed books I have have all been meaningful and important to me, not books I’ve hated.
Overall I am just again really disappointed. I’m angry. I did have extremely high hopes for it. I was hoping it’d make a great point. I was hoping it’d be amazing, and I was ready for it to be. But it just wasn’t. I don’t understand why this is so widely praised, because there was nothing about it that I thought was good or interesting. It’s not okay for a book written in the 21st century to perpetrate sexism, especially when it’s making a point about representation.