“The Sympathizer”, which won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, tells the story of the Vietnam war from a viewpoint we don’t usually get, that of Vietnamese refugees. It was the debut novel of Viet Thanh Nguyen, who was four years old when he came to America as a refugee with his South Vietnamese parents.
America’s allies in a war we lost must sometimes feel we want them to disappear. They remind us of defeat. As I read his illuminating novel, I wondered whether Nguyen had been influenced by Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man.” After I finished, I learned that Nguyen had named his son Ellison and once told an interviewer:
“Ellison’s book traces a similar narrative of someone coming into consciousness, becoming a revolutionary, and then, discovering that the revolution has failed, turns back to individualism. And I was with Ellison all the way up until that point. The ending of (“The Sympathizer”) is my disagreement with Ellison, because even though the revolution fails our protagonist, he doesn’t feel the need to go in the opposite direction and claim that now all that’s left for him is to be the individual. The individual who is nothing might still be more important than the failure of the revolution. And so the individual continues to assert the importance of being revolutionary and practicing solidarity.”
Nguyen’s narrator, nameless like Ellisons’, ends the book like this:
“Thousands more must be staring into darkness like us, gripped by scandalous thoughts, extravagant hopes, and forbidden plots. We lie in wait for the right moment and the just cause, which, at this moment, is simply wanting to live. And even as we write this final sentence, the sentence that will not be revised, we confess to being certain of one and only one thing – we swear to keep, on penalty of death, this one promise:
‘We will live!’”
While Ellison concludes:
“I’m shaking off the old skin and I’ll leave it here in the hole. I’m coming out, no less invisible without it, but coming out nevertheless. And I suppose it’s damn well time. Even hibernations can be overdone, come to think of it. Perhaps that’s my greatest social crime, I’ve overstayed my hibernation, since there’s a possibility that even an invisible man has a socially responsible role to play. ‘Ah,’ I can hear you say, ‘so it was all a build-up to bore us with his buggy jiving. He only wanted us to listen to him rave!’ But only partially true: Being invisible and without substance, a disembodied voice as it were, what else could I do? What else but try to tell you what was really happening when your eyes were looking through? And it is this which frightens me: Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you?”
This is where I disagree with Nguyen. I think Ellison’s ending is just as optimistic, in its sobering way, as Nguyen’s. Both protagonists recognize that solidarity is possible.
And both novels are very American. Ellison seems to have helped Nguyen feel at home in America.
I had years ago read “Invisible Man” as an African-American story. After interviewing a psychiatrist for my book about veterans struggling to feel at home in America after returning from war, I was inspired to re-read Ellison’s novel as one of the many possible stories we need to understand to understand our nation.
The psychiatrist, David Good, had described civilians he has met who fear that a battle-hardened vet trained to use heavy weaponry might at any moment explode into violence. Good, saying fearful people may be projecting their own unresolved volatility onto a stranger, cited Ellison.
Ellison opens his psychological novel with a description of whites who, instead of seeing blacks, see only their own potential for destruction as if in a distorted mirror. Good proposes that those who do not understand mental illness often are grappling with fear and prejudices that have nothing to do with the person they encounter who is suffering from PTSD or some other disorder. It is the unwillingness or inability to see clearly and to empathize that lead to tensions.
Ellison’s protagonist is anguished, alienated and traumatized by a brutality into which society thrust him, then refused to acknowledge. After Dr. Good made the connection for me, I was able to hear the words of Ellison’s fictional character coming from the mouths of very real veterans: “All things were indeed awash in my mind. I longed for home.”