Friday, May 06, 2016

The Sympathizer and Portnoy's Complaint: One man's squid is another man's liver

The last time the question of literary vs. genre came up, I suggested that if literary has any meaning with respect to crime fiction, it might apply to crime novels that work as something else as well, whatever that something might be. Qiu Xiaolong's Death of a Red Heroine deserved its place on one recent list of "literary" crime novels, as did Hammett's Red Harvest and James Ellroy's White Jazz,  though the novels are not especially similar. (One thing I'm pretty sure literary does not mean, or at least with which it is not synonymous, is written in ravishing prose. That's why I was skeptical of one fellow commenter's suggestion that James Crumley and James Lee Burke belonged on the list.

(The Barnes and Noble nearest to me shelves Ellroy in mystery and Lee Child in fiction and literature. I'll mention that the next time anyone talks about literary and genre.)

Viet Thanh Nguyen's The Sympathizer, winner of this year's Pulitzer Prize for fiction and Edgar Award for best first crime novel, is one current Great Obliterate the Distinction Between Literary and Genre hope, championed as such in a recent piece that hyperventilated more frantically than most without—naturally—offering any definition of literary. If I can find a link to the damned thing, I'll post it here.

I'm about a third of the way through the novel, and here are some reasons I think it might qualify as something in addition to (not more than) a genre book:
1)  It works its way into its genre-like plot, in this case espionage rather than crime, only slowly, telling us much along the way about the narrator/protagonist and his adventures in Saigon and California (if you say either character-driven or plot-driven, I'll shoot you between the eyes.)

2) Its humor is not just funny, but it also sheds entertaining cultural light, Here the protagonist, a native of northern Vietnam, observing a wedding celebration in California:
"Besides the simple yet elegant cha-cha, the twist was the favorite dance of the southern people, requiring as it did no coordination."

3) It pays tribute to, or at least echoes, another novel of American ethnicity, Portnoy's Complaint, using a squid where Philip Roth used liver.
Read an interview with Viet Thanh Nguyen.

© Peter Rozovsky 2016

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Blogger seana graham said...

I think in the end there is no pure distinction between fiction and genre fiction, just between how much the writer is interested in new uses of language and interested in good old-fashioned storytelling. I see constant rifts and barriers between these two preferences, but in reality it's just a spectrum and you find the writers that suit you somewhere along it. There is great writing at either end and at all the points in between.

May 07, 2016  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I wonder when people first started talking about "literary" fiction. The one entertaining piece of writing I read on the subject had the writer offering tongue-in-cheek praise for a fictional novel that transcended the conventions of literary fiction.

May 07, 2016  
Blogger seana graham said...

That's hilarious. But for every person I know who is really into literary fiction and disdains genre, there is another person I know who won't read literary fiction because they think it is pretentious and boring. I try to just read what intrigues me in the moment and not think about it all too much.

May 07, 2016  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

So you need to sell your friend on some novel (this one, perhaps), that does defies the stale conventions of literary fiction.

I remember one crime story in an anthology by a publisher that prides itself on its diversity both human and literary, on going beyond genre conventions, on finding new "voices" and all such stuff. The author in question was, to judge by his name, of non-European descent, and the story was a perfect, dreary, well-formed New Yorker story in which a well-off person comes to a somber and sobering realization, except that the well-off person in question happened to be a gangster. The story eschewed one set of conventions only to embrace another even more tightly.

May 07, 2016  
Blogger Di said...

What do you think about this book? I'm rather curious about it, though I probably won't read it any time soon.

May 08, 2016  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I'm finding the book highly enjoyable. I'm not sure out's the first book I'd choose if I wanted a crime novel, but it's finny and pointed and written well.

May 08, 2016  

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