Saturday, June 4, 2016

Pulitzer Prize Smackdown: The Sympathizer vs. The Orphan Master's Son

I was really taken with Viet Than Nguyen's The Sympathizer.  Winning a Pulitzer and an Edgar was enough to make me check it out.  The Sympathizer is a fresh look at the Vietnam War, told from a Vietnamese perspective. The book opens with the fall of Saigon and the escape of a cadre of South Vietnamese military to America with their families.  Amidst that crew is our narrator, a North Vietnamese spy who has been embedded amongst this military group. The book jumps between scenes of atrocity in Vietnam, and the narrator's time spent in America, where he is keeping tabs on the South Vietnamese exiles who are plotting to take back their country by organizing a military insurgency from the Laotian border.The Sympathizer, however, is more than just a war story. It’s a book about immigrants, refugees and minorities making their way in America and in the world. The narrator, born of French father and Vietnamese mother, was never wholly accepted in Vietnam, viewed as a bastard.  As a supporter of the communist North Vietnamese, yet living amongst the South, he's a figure constantly torn between two worlds. Once he arrives in America, he fully becomes the "other".  Nguyen's insights into identity politics and the plight of the "other" are the moments when the book really sings.  The standout scene may be when he is brought in to consult on a Hollywood film about the Vietnam War.  He's given a script where the Vietnamese do nothing more than merely scream in pain. Though the film is ostensibly about their war, they get no lines.  This passage is a brilliant condemnation of the white washing of Hollywood, of the entertainment universe systematically removing the voice of minorities.  Though the book is firmly planted in the Vietnam and post-Vietnam years, The Sympathizer seems fresh.  Given all the race baiting happening in this country right now, given the fear of minorities, and given the plight of millions of people seeking refuge from a war they didn't create, The Sympathizer is a timely read. 

I can't say the same for another Pulitzer Prize Winner, Adam Johnson's The Orphan Master's Son.  I found this to be a pretty tedious read.  I read it a couple month's back, so excuse me if my memory is a bit foggy.  The book is a satirical look at navigating the politics and day-to-day living in Kim Jong Il’s North Korea. The book follows the travails of an orphan and his unlikely journey into the upper echelons of the North Korean political spectrum. Alas, the satire is so broad, I had trouble getting a sense of what really goes on in North Korea.  So many of the scenarios seemed so absurd, that the book never seems grounded.  It ultimately comes across as silly rather than biting.  It had its moments that could suck you in for a spell, but my attention and level of caring wandered throughout.  Pretty sure he was going for a Joseph Heller or Vladimir Voinovich vibe. Alas, without being familiar of the reality of life in North Korea, the satire falls short.

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