The Committed – Much Ado About Nothing

The Committed is Viet Thanh Nguyen’s sequel to the Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Sympathizer. And while there is much to like, the book is unlikely to garner Mr. Nguyen a second Pulitzer – though we do expect it to land on several “Best Books of the Year, Dammit” lists.

The book picks up where The Sympathizer left off – at the end of the Vietnamese civil war in the 1970s. The narrator, Vo Danh (meaning nameless), and Bon (meaning good) have been released from a Vietnamese reeducation camp, where they have been tortured by Man (meaning man). Man is literally faceless, so Vo Danh does not realize he is being tortured by his blood brother, until Man finally reveals his true identity. Vo Danh never tells Bon, the third blood brother in this sexless three-way (truly, the worst kind of three-way), about Man’s true identity. Why? As we learn, the answer to that question is always “why not” or, better yet, “why the hell not.” So, Vo Danh is nameless; Man is faceless; and Bon is good – at killing people. There, we are all caught up.

Vo Danh and Bon land in France in the early 1980s. “Like most refugees we barely had any material belongings, even if our bags were packed with dreams and fantasies, trauma and pain, sorrow and loss, and, of course, ghosts. Since ghosts were weightless, we could carry an infinite number of them.” And Vo Danh does. Having no prospects, they join a gang that sells Heaven (drugs and prostitutes) to the French elite. Before long, Man shows up in Paris. Why? Why the hell not! Bon plans to kill him. And Vo Danh is caught in the middle – leaving him no choice but to snort tons of cocaine.

The Committed works well on many levels. It is a drug-fueled page turner filled with gangland violence and narrow escapes. It is a Candide-like satire that eviscerates European colonialism and any pretense that white people brought civilization and culture to anyone. At its best, it is a political/philosophical treatise on the folly of believing in anything that ends with an “ism” – such as capitalism, communism, socialism, Catholicism, and idealism. The only thing worth believing in is nothing. Just as, the only thing more powerful than words is silence. In this book, nothing is more powerful than nothing. In fact, nothing is sacred.

The Committed suffers from the same problems that afflict many sequels. All of the primary characters already appeared in The Sympathizer, which is a brilliant decimation of American culture and its “civilizing” effects. These characters were new and interesting in that book. Like my neighbors when I first moved into my neighborhood. Now they are familiar and less interesting. Like my neighbors now. They don’t have much to say that is new. Additionally, The Committed re-hashes many of the same themes, such as “nothing is more important than nothing.” But it is still an enjoyable read. It is humorous and serious and sad. It is intellectual and grotesque. It is full of contradictions. But as Mr. Nguyen says at the beginning – “Ah, contradiction! The perpetual body odor of humanity!”

Alison Wonderland, Chief Editor and Adjunct Professor for Student Loans

A Tiny Voice

   Yes, of course, 
   we, too, care about 
   a neglected rose struggling to survive
   among the scattered bricks
   of a crumbling house,
   but we've already done
   all we can.

   Remember
   a child has a tiny voice
   and no money -
   hardly the sturdy platform
   on which to make demands.

   Yet here she stands
   with her small voice,
   empty pockets, and
   accusing eyes,
   while we continue to tell her
   to trust the spider
   who swears
   he wouldn't hurt a fly.

   Luvgood Carp, Editor-in-Chief and Adjunct Professor for Student Loans

First published in The Broadkill Review

Pickleball

We recently joined the Block Island League of Players Playing Pickleball, and it’s terrific. We love pickleball so much we wrote a poem about it.

My Grandfather's Defense of Pickleball:
The Pudding of Sports

   Hey, wise ass!
   What's wrong with pickleball?
   It's the fastest growing sport
   played by the slowest moving people.
   It's beloved by thousands
   with thick wrinkles and thin bones.

   Someday you'll have heavy titanium knees.
   And sadistic doctors will screw you
   in more places than you can count.
   Then, you'll enjoy the light slap
   of lazy plastic balls.

   I suppose you young guys like it
   when big inflated balls
   rapidly smack you in the face.

   And pudding is soft and delicious.
   So suck it!

   Luvgood Carp, Editor-in-Chief and Adjunct Professor for Student Loans

We are All Guests on Earth

Lee Smith’s Guests on Earth purports to be about that most Gatsbyesque of couples, Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald. But that’s only a superficial reading, because the novel is narrated by Evalina Toussaint, who early on asks and answers the most essential question in story telling. “Is any story not always the narrator’s story, in the end?” That’s undeniable. And in Guests on Earth, it’s fortunate because Evalina is a delight.

The book opens with a newspaper clipping about a fire in 1948 that destroyed Highland Hospital, a mental clinic in Asheville, North Carolina. Then the story jumps back to the 1930s in New Orleans where the reader is introduced to Evalina when she was a young girl. But, still, the reader knows that inferno awaits.

Evalina’s mother is larger than life with a string of lovers that seem to support her until each relationship ends. When her mother commits suicide, the last of these lovers, Mr. Graves, rashly takes Evalina home with him – begging her to forgive him as he says God has forgiven him. But instead, Evalina just loses all respect for God. Like we said, she’s a delight.

No one is happy that Mr. Graves has brought Evalina home. Not Evalina. And certainly not Mrs. Graves and her children. Sensing that the house is a grave (it is Mr. Graves’ house, after all), Evalina stops eating. Soon she is shipped to Highland Hospital. The year is 1936, and Evalina is 13. She spends much of the next 12 years at the hospital inching towards that fire.

Evalina meets Zelda Fitzgerald, another patient, who early on advises her that it is “far better to be dead than a princess in a tower.” That’s bitter medicine, but we gather Zelda knows what she’s talking about. At times Zelda is kind and generous. At other times, she is remote and cruel. At one point Zelda grabs a salamander from a child’s hand and throws it into a fire (there’s that motif, again) – much to the horror of the surrounding children. But Zelda claims she did not harm the salamander, because salamanders live in fire. She tells the children that she, also, is a salamander. Time will tell.

The hospital provides Evalina with a window on the world – where life is a kaleidoscope forcing her to continually adjust to new patterns. She also witnesses and at times experiences love’s many variations. She comes to understand that love, like life, is impossible to predict. It is A Midsummer Night’s Dream, where a lover enters the forest with one person but come out with someone else.

Guests on Earth has much to say about the harsh treatment of girls and women, who either can’t or won’t conform to societal norms, during the 1930s and 1940s. This is the book’s great strength. Surprisingly, it has little to say about the rabid racial discrimination throughout society. This is the book’s weakness, and it is rather glaring.

Ms. Smith’s research is meticulous. And though the book is fiction, we believe she has captured the true character of the people who actually lived – especially Zelda and Scott. The title comes from a letter Scott wrote to his daughter, in which he states the “insane are always mere guests on earth, eternal strangers carrying around broken decalogues that they cannot read.” For once, Fitzgerald’s imagination fails him, because it isn’t just the “insane” who are mere guests on earth.

Alison Wonderland, Editor-in-Chief and Adjunct Professor for Student Loans

A Prayer for Less Love

   I've heard what you say in the name of love
   and your favorite word is no.

   I've seen what you do in the name of love
   because the purple bruises still show.

   You say you're a man of love
   but that sounds dangerous to me,

   so bring me no more love
   and show me simple courtesy.

   Luvgood Carp, Editor-in-Chief and Adjunct Professor for Student Loans

   First published in Ariel Chart