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