Although it’s been a contender for major literary awards, winning the ALA’s Andrew Carnegie Medal and was named a best book by most sources, The Sympathizer (Grove Press, April 2015), Viet Thanh Nguyen’s 2016 Pulitzer Prise-winning debut may not be that well-known to general readers (the Guardian‘s headline says it went “from overlooked to Pulitzer winner“). If you’re struggling to describe it to readers, the following reactions to the award announcement may help.
Calling the central character “a wickedly smart double-agent,” the Los Angeles Times, says the novel is “Part thriller, part political satire … sharp-edged fiction.”
The NYT echoes that almost exactly, calling it “Part satire, part espionage thriller and part historical novel,” while The Washington Post describes it as a “cerebral thriller.”
Bustle, which also offers a handy 9 Books To Read If You Loved The Sympathizer list, summaries the start of the novel in atmospheric prose that invites readers to dive in:
“The novel begins in Saigon, a city in complete chaos. Helicopter blades pound as quickly as the hearts of fearful villagers, and communist tanks are just about to roll in. Amidst the chaos, the General of the South Vietnamese army lists off the lucky few individuals who will make it aboard the last flights out of the country. His trusted Captain, the narrator of the novel, is one of the few.”
LitHub lures readers with:
“What begins casually turns murderous and then absurd as the unnamed narrator tries unsuccessfully to separate from his past. He winds up having to participate in assassinations to cover his tracks. He even takes a turn in Hollywood working on a film that sounds an awful lot like Apocalypse Now.”
LitHub goes on to pair the novel with a recent piece of criticism by Nguyen, Nothing Ever Dies (Harvard UP, March 2016) to make the case for understanding the novel’s importance, saying:
“Put together, the two books perform an optic tilt about Vietnam and what America did there as profound as Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man and Toni Morrison’s Beloved were to the legacy of racism and slavery.”
In a good bit of timing, the novel was just release in trade paperback. On news of the award both editions zoomed up Amazon’s rankings: Trade pbk: Sales rank: 18 (was 10,077); Hardcover: Sales rank: 88 (was 23,191).
That’s the highest ranking the novel has reached to date by far, the previous high was #5,938. The Sympathizer was on the ABA IndieBound best seller list for six weeks (at a high of #24) and the L.A. Times best seller list for 2 weeks, but did not crack any other list.
Librarians identified its pleasures, however. It was selected as a 2016 Notable Books title by the RUSA Notable Books Council and then went on to win the Andrew Carnegie Medal.
UPDATE: More Surpises
The General Nonfiction medal did not go to the expected book, Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates (PRH/Spiegel & Grau), but to Black Flags: The Rise of ISIS, by Joby Warrick (PRH/(Doubleday). Coates was named as a finalist.
The Award winner in Criticism caused some consternation, because it did not go to a newspaper writer but to Emily Nussbaum who writes about television for a magazine, the New Yorker. A change in the rules opened both that category and Feature Writing to magazines this year, reflecting the sad fact that newspapers have cut their arts coverage over the years. Thus, in a first, the New Yorker won its first Pulitzers and in two categories.
The Drama award went to a play with book connections, Hamilton. Although, given the acclaim it has arleady received, it was not a surprise, it is the first musical to win in many years.