Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Committed
(Grove Press, 2021)
Is this novel a comedy or a tragedy? It’s a rare page that doesn’t prompt a chuckle, and the plot often tumbles into staples of farce, the rowdy stuff of bed and bathroom. When a sex worker gets down to business, it’s “a heroic labor of erotic integrity.” A different kind of climax, amid the bumptious goings-on, concerns a prodigious shit, “this dead beast of the bowels … the dark matter of your darkest interior.” Yet the outrageous passage echoes two troubling old tropes, stereotypes of a kind of writing once called “Orientalist,” both also the titles of tragic tales: The Beast in the Jungle and Heart of Darkness. So too, this new novel serves up plenty of unhappiness. The primary players are refugees from Vietnam, struggling to catch on in Paris. The threat of fratricide hangs over the whole, the stage is littered with corpses, and a number of deaths are slow and painful. The torture registers with equal vividness in flashback and in the present, always revealing links to the agonies of the former Indochina. Beyond that, the beatings and worse reflect colonial atrocities worldwide.
Such wounds fester everywhere in The Committed, Viet Thanh Nguyen’s more-than-worthy successor to his Pulitzer winner, The Sympathizer⎯the second text in a promised trilogy. In this middle passage, the author picks so assiduously at the scabs of racism and usury, you could also call it a novel of ideas.
A lot of the jokes, like the excrement bearing traces of Conrad and Henry James, toy with cultural reference points. These don’t always take us to the classics, but the resonance usually conveys a chill, as when the nameless protagonist reflects: “We were … what some Americans with their trademark good-natured humor would call Unidentified Fucking Orientals.” Granted, the UFOs of ’50s sci-fi seem a long way from the realism, ca. 1900, of great Dead White Males⎯but that’s the range. My bibliography for The Committed lists 16 authors, from Rousseau (cited by name) to Adrienne Rich (worked in subtly), and I’m sure I missed a few. No one comes up so often as Frantz Fanon, whose works provide all sorts of telling asides, even in scenes with people waving guns around. Still, the borrowing that stings most might come from Sartre: “The European has only been able to become a man through creating slaves and monsters.”
Europe is the preoccupation for Nguyen this time, just as America was previously. In the 2015 novel, the same narrator fled Saigon on one of the last copters out, relocating to LA Work in the film industry made a good fit for his actual job as double agent, a Communist mole in the South Vietnamese army, or what was left of them, in exile and nursing revenge fantasies. The setup allowed for plenty of hijinks, but overall that text felt less uproarious than this second Candide (another reference in The Committed, inevitable really). The mole’s SoCal adventures ended up back across the Pacific, where he suffered double degradation, first “reeducation” in the new Vietnam and then a refugee camp. His only way out was with the boat people, and so the new one begins in those same desperate straits, a few pages of Melvillean sweep, a tour de force: “We were the unwanted, the unneeded, and the unseen….” The quick-cut to the airport in Paris, where he makes nice with an “aunt” and “brother” who aren’t in fact family, hits the novel like its first pie in the face.
Though “no longer … a spy,” our man remains dependent on old alliances and duplicities. The Vietnamese of Paris offer connections both high and low, the aunt in the literary world and the brother in the criminal underbelly. The latter suits the new arrival, because when it comes to hashish and coke, the cultured crowd around his other pseudo-relation offers a solid client base. If this makes the former comrade over as a capitalist⎯a gangster, at that⎯hasn’t his abuse left him “a man of two faces and two minds”? Indeed, Parisian life demands many disguises; once the man starts dealing, he wryly plays his UFO card:
I draped a [borrowed] camera around my neck … wore a small backpack in reverse … a pair of horn-rimmed glasses that lent the illusion of a slant to my eyes that were not slanted, at least not to me, and a little bit of cotton wedged behind my upper lip, to imply something wrong with my teeth.
Who looks twice at a Japanese tourist? Importantly, too, both narrator and author take care with the details. This drama’s laugh-lines wouldn’t land nearly so well if the crew weren’t so scrupulous about costumes and sets. Nguyen notices the most revealing accessories: the watch flourished by a politician in a brothel, the music preferred by a thug in a park. I admired especially how he caught the nuances surrounding a US jazz band in Paris. “All in snazzy, shiny suits, a couple with porkpie hats,” these cats understand the illusion they need to maintain. “No, man,” one whispers to the narrator, “we can’t speak French. I mean, we can speak French, but we don’t speak it here. Or… we speak it badly, like Americans, get me? If we speak good French, they’ll think we’re Africans.”
It’s okay to be POC in Paris, but not if you’re out of the heart of darkness. Last century’s rape of Africa figures more largely as The Committed goes on, and the narrator is far from the only character to open The Wretched of the Earth. Still, Nguyen never loses his eagle eye for contemporary abuses, Coca-Cola imperialism. Once or twice he risks overdoing it, insisting on the global power play behind some innocuous exchange, but those few scenes too eventually won me over. They wowed me, no less: ingenious, aching, bristling.
Even the bookish business achieved terrific animation. Since Nguyen’s dialog does without quotation marks, the citations packed extra punch, like bulletins from another world. A similar vitality imbued the ghost characters, though like the living, most of them lacked a name. Most wore some euphemism, like “the Maoist PhD,” and as for the protagonist, “Crazy Bastard” might be the most accurate of his epithets. He’s supposed to have written this entire ongoing “confession,” after all, and isn’t the text itself a nutty marvel of dubious parentage? A picaresque, for starters, at the same time it’s also a mash-up of the gang-war saga, espionage thriller, PTSD recovery story, sexual roundelay, philosophical investigation, and a good deal else. Ultimately, the question with which I began my all-too-brief appreciation⎯what’ve we got here?⎯could be answered in sedate academic terms; I could call The Committed a distinctive experimental amalgam. But it seems more fitting to say that I never heard Caliban bellow so sweetly.