Tuesday, May 10, 2016

The Sympathizer, Part II: Genre, politics, and genre politics

I've finished reading Viet Thanh Nguyen's Pulitzer- and Edgar-winning novel The Sympathizer, and, while I still don't see how it fits any reasonable definition of crime fiction, I'm still glad Mystery Writers of America gave it the best first novel Edgar Award last month because it's a funny, exciting, and thought-provoking book that I might not have read otherwise.

First, the genre question: Much of The Sympathizer's action is related in the form of a confession written by the narrator-protagonist, but the crimes of which he is accused are political, not criminal. The novel includes two killings of the kind that presumably would have been investigated by local authorities had they happened in the real rather than a fictional California, but there is no such investigation in The Sympathizer. Nor do the protagonist's reaction to and thoughts about those crimes constitute a major component of the narrative. Significant, yes. Thematically dominant, no.

Rather, the novel's generic affinities are from the very first sentence with the espionage novel, which has long led a comfortable co-existence with crime fiction.  Still, I suspect that few readers will regard The Sympathizer as a spy story. Indeed, the subject does not come up in an interview with Nguyen included as an appendix to the Grove Press trade paperback edition of the novel. Rather, the book is a political novel, a novel of immigration, a novel about Vietnam, a novel about the United States, about the perils and exigencies of moving between the two, about the equivocal (at best) nature of revolutions, and, most important, about the illusory nature of binary opposition, whether between American and Vietnamese, European and Asian, communist and its opposite, or what have you.

So how did the book come to the attention of the crime fiction community? One is tempted to imagine genre readers hankering for respectability and grasping a literary novel into their midst, but I think it's at least as likely that publishers and other promoters of "literary" novels grasp at genre labels because they want people to read their books.  I'm not sure that strategy benefits crime readers all the time, but in this case, the result is all to the good, because The Sympathizer is a hell of a book.
Here's Part I of my comments about The Sympathizer. In Part III, I'll tell you why I liked the book, with possibly a quibble or two.

© Peter Rozovsky 2016

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Blogger seana graham said...

I think that, as someone who really doesn't like to be boxed in in my reading, that whether or not it fits the mystery or crime fiction criteria doesn't matter a lot to me. I think a plus for authors is whether they can appeal to genre as much as mainstream.

I look forward to seeing your quibbles.

May 11, 2016  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

The quibbles will be so small as to be almost invisible, so don't look forward to much.

I don;t much care whether a book reads like crime story or any other genre, but the book's consideration for a major crime fiction awards compels the question of genre, I think. I should see if I know any of the people who were on the best-first-novel jury this year. I'd ask them what made them consider the book for a crime award. Once the novel made it that far, I have no quibble with its winning any award.. It's a fine book.

May 11, 2016  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I should add that the review my newspaper published when the novel first appeared regarded it first as a Vietnam War novel. That's a fair assessment, too, though it includes no combat.

May 11, 2016  

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