Polonius Reviews Your Goodreads Review of The Sympathizer
A wise man once said, “Give every man thine ear, but few thy voice; Take each man's censure, but reserve thy judgment.” That man was me, of course, and that tasty morsel of advice was given by me, lo these many years, to my dear son Laertes as he readied himself for a victorious return to university.
You may remember the scene.
Ah, those were the days of glory, full of courtly pomp and weighty circumstance, when kings were really kings (or at least kings’ brothers, if you know what I’m getting at) and princes could mope about the castle at all hours and no one would give them a second thought (excepting myself, of course, always alert for such immoderacies), and when ghosts may or may not have been portentous and armored and altogether morose (not that modern ghosts aren’t morose, no, I’m not saying that, but there was a certain . . . grave weight to ghosts back then, you see? In these later days, ghosts are all drowned little girls with stringy hair and inky eyes [and here, I must pause to remember by dear Ophelia] . . . creepy, to be sure, but without the solemnity and sober severity of those Shakespearean ghosts). Those were the days of courtly intrigue and feigned insanity and actual insanity and spies and sword fights and all the rest. Oh, I mourn for those chivalrous ages lost!
Now, where was I?
Oh, yes. Laertes.
I counselled him to reserve judgement, and I might give you the same advice, Goodreads user Wanda. What I’m referring to here, as you may have guessed, is your inadequate review of Viet Thanh Nguyen’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel, The Sympathizer. Indeed, I read your review, curious to see why you gave a mere two stars to Mr. Nguyen’s extraordinary exploration of the effects of allegiance and violence and race (and racism) on identity.
Spoiler alert: I found your review to be lacking in wit or insight.
Why Your Goodreads Review is Terrible, Wanda
I knew we were in trouble from your very first line, in which you claim not to have finished the book! If anything, dear Goodreads user Wanda, we reviewers must honor our noble and ancient craft (and the craft of the art we review) by actually finishing the entire novel, even if we do not enjoy it. I daresay, especially if we do not enjoy it. Consider it an artistic sacrifice. For instance, I read your entire Goodreads review before writing this review of your review, and I must say, it was a trial of Sisyphean proportions.
After you admit to not reading the final 60 pages of the novel, you make an attempt to repair your credibility with this little zinger: “I was excited to pick this [novel] up, also because I believe I have a certain knowledge about the Vietnam War (in Vietnam, it is called American War, not Vietnam War, think about that, there are always many sides to a story).” Well, isn’t that impressive. You are aware of the fact that the people in Vietnam have a different name for what Americans call the Vietnam War. There are always many sides to a story. I’m not sure it would be possible to fit any more obvious clichés into one run-on sentence.
Goodreads user Wanda, I’m certain that you are a nice person, and intelligent too, but perhaps reviewing books isn’t your calling.
Your Complaints are Unfounded, Wanda
Well, we have a duty to fulfill here, so let’s get on with it. You have two central criticisms of the novel, which I will attempt to summarize here (note the spelling of “summarize” by the way, which you happened to misspell in your review). First, you claim that the plot was not obvious enough for your liking (or is this an unfair characterization of your argument?), noting that you “felt like it was going nowhere even when the author tried to put some events in.” That kills me, acknowledging that the author “tried to put some events in.” As if Mr. Nguyen was sitting there with a random collection of words and said to himself, “Hey, what if I also added some events!” Anyway, I would argue that for a literary novel, this happens to have a fairly thrilling story line, including a variety of twists and turns that, in the interest of saving potential readers from any “spoilers,” I will not here recount. I will say this, though: when a novel is about identity, the plot must serve that purpose, not its own. It is not a plot built off of formula (like a genre-novel might be) or a plot built for maximum entertainment value or a plot made to fit Joseph Campbell’s 23 stages (or however many there are) of the hero’s journey (although, come to think of it, there are similarities here to the hero’s journey . . . maybe that is the germ of another essay). Suffice it to say, the plot is not nothing, but in the end, “Nothing” has a lot to do with it (wink wink to those who have actually read the novel).
Your second complaint is that the writing style is redundant and that you are unable to summarize (note, again, the spelling) the main character “in a couple of words.” I’m not sure what you mean about the redundancy of the style redundancy (see what I did there?). You don’t provide any examples of this supposed stylistic faux pas, but I assume you mean that the first-person narrator can get a bit verbose. I, personally, find that to be a great strength, ahem, as you surely can tell from this review. As for your own writing style, might I suggest eliminating the pseudo-word “Urgh” from your vocabulary? Twice you finish paragraphs with it, and I must say that I find it to be less than insightful.
Finally, considering the complexity of the protagonist, I would argue (quite easily, I might add) that any protagonist who can be summarized in a couple of words is not worthy of anchoring a novel. I think that not much else needs be said about that. Well, not much else needs be said, but more can be said. For instance, isn’t it fascinating how Nguyen’s protagonist moves from a man of no identity to a man of collective identity. Another way of saying it is that he is two men and he is one man and he everyone and he is no one.
Goodreads user Wanda, go back and finish that book. Read it again. Spend some long nights thinking about it. Or reserve your judgement.