One Strange Book
by John Delach
Over lunch, I misconstrued a friend’s comments about a book called, “The Sympathizer,” to be a recommendation. That was my first mistake.
I undertook a due diligence investigation to discover more about this book. “The Sympathizer,” by Viet Thanh Nguyen was the winner of a 2016 Pulitzer and the 2016 Edgar Award. The publisher’s description noted: “A profound, startling and beautifully crafted debut novel. The Sympathizer is the story of a man of two minds, someone whose political beliefs clash with his individual loyalties… A gripping spy novel, an astute exploration of extreme politics and a moving love story.” My second mistake, I bought into the description and acclaim.
I inquired about the novel from the national book wholesaler, Abe Books, who advertised a mint copy for $12 including shipping. On opening the package, I was surprised that I now possessed a brand new first edition. That’s when I realized something may be amiss. However, I had what I thought was a recommendation so I began to read it. One oddity became immediately apparent. Although written in a first person narrative with plenty of dialogue; the author completely ignored the use of quotation marks.
Imagine turning a page believing you are still following the narrative only to realize that someone else has been speaking, in some instances several people. Disconcerting to say the least! Several times I had to return to the point of departure just to understand what was going on.
Finally, I contacted my friend who I believed had recommended the book. “Not at all,” she exclaimed. “In fact, if you can figure out what is going on, would you please explain it to me?”
Too late to quit, I pressed on. I persevered and as I was wrapping it up I asked both of my book-trading buddies, Bill and Geoff, if they were interested. I explained, “It is dense, very dense. It follows a double agent from the fall of Saigon to America and back again. It has touches of “Catch 22” and some good writing but, I repeat, it is 372 pages of dense writing. Yes, it’s a good read but don’t expect to whiz through it.”
Bill declined. Geoff replied: “How on earth did you come across such a celebrated but apparently economically failed thing like that? I do have trouble sleeping at times so it could be Ambien in print.”
I replied, “In fact, I can testify that it is truly a useful tool to ease insomnia.”
Geoff sent his first impressions on April 17: “I began Sympathizer last night. This guy needs an editor more than any writer I’ve ever been exposed to. I found one sentence that was 18 lines long. He has to find out about periods. And he seems not to know about quotation marks…But I’ll plug along to see where it goes.”
Three days later Geoff transmitted the following: “This has to be the most obtuse book I’ve ever tried to read. Sometimes I’m looking at words without even trying to see how they fit in to whatever he was trying to say. It happened last night. He was writing of things he was reminded of by Lana’s (our hero’s love interest) singing…and the list seemed to be getting long. The count of commas and semi-colons grew as well…When I finally came across a period I paused to see if I knew what he meant and of course I had no idea. So I started working backwards to see exactly what he started out trying to explain. I counted lines and found the sentence, if it was a sentence had 25 lines. I decided to count the punctuation marks and there were 25 semi-colons, 6 commas, one colon and finally a period.”
This is a portion of the sentence in question:
We could not forget the caramel flavor of iced coffee with coarse sugar; the bowls of noodle soup eaten while squatting on the sidewalk; the refugees who slept on every sidewalk of every city; the sweetness of a mango plucked fresh from its tree; the streams where we swam naked and laughing; the shadows cast by candlelight on the walls of wattled huts; the stickiness of our situation; and while the list could go on and on and on, the point is this; the most important thing we could never forget was that we could never forget.
Geoff read on and reported on April 22: “… he produced a 37 line sentence, perhaps the modern record for verbosity. He also seems to have forgotten his love affair with semi-colons. This time it was 49 (counted them) commas and a surprisingly but welcome question mark…The mind numbs, at least mine does, trying to capture a thought that is 37 lines long.”
In case you are wondering, dear reader, the book has an open ending with our hero embarking on another long voyage sort of like Yossarian in “Catch 22” paddling off in search of Sweden. He is a man without a country completely rejected as unfit by his communist masters. We end with him adrift at sea.
One last problem the author chooses to ignore much less resolve, that he had our hero commit
two cold-blooded murders while in California so he has two Murder-One raps hanging over his head as the book ends…neat!