It always amazes me, although I know it shouldn't be such a surprise, that I can often tell I'm reading a great book from the very beginning. There's something about the language and flow that grabs hold of me and won't let go.
I AM A SPY, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces. Perhaps not surprisingly, I am also a man of two minds. I am not some misunderstood mutant from a comic book or a horror movie, although some have treated me as such. I am simply able to see any issue from both sides. Sometimes I flatter myself that this is a talent, and although it is admittedly one of a minor nature, it is perhaps also the sole talent I possess. At other times, when I reflect on how I cannot help but observe the world in such a fashion, I wonder if what I have should even be called talent. After all, a talent is something you use, not something that uses you. The talent you cannot not use, the talent that possesses you—that is a hazard, I must confess. But in the month when this confession begins, my way of seeing the world still seemed more of a virtue than a danger, which is how some dangers first appear.So begins the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen. It isn't often I will comment on a book I have barely started, but this one was an instant and powerful hook. (Well, doh, it is this year's Pulitzer Prize winner!)
Every literature professor and critic knows the way to build a story. Very few writers can do it masterfully. For example there is a slow release of information, unveiled bit by bit. A line piques your curiosity wondering what the connection is. A hint of few words about "my father" plants a seed- or is it a time bomb- that you are on guard to find out.
But above all, there is the language and the ability to tell you more in a few words than I could tell you in a whole chapter (or a whole sermon, for that matter.) Here are three that grabbed me and wouldn't let me go in the first chapter:
“Amid short tempers, Claude stayed cool, having lived here so long he barely perspired in the tropical humidity. He could sneak up on you in the dark, but he could never be invisible ”This is clearly a book to savor, rich in language, style, substance and story. It is clearly not a book to be taken lightly. I am already aware that there is going to be much to learn and experience about the human condition in this book. But I must not rush through it. It must be read with caution of its power and at a pace which allows it to become part of me.
“I finished the whiskey, then drove the General home through a storm, the amniotic water bursting over the city a hint of the forthcoming season.”
“We were smoking a final cigarette at the mouth of the dank, dripping alley that was the beer garden’s exit when a trio of hydrocephalic marines stumbled out of the vaginal darkness. ”
All excerpts From:Viet Thanh Nguyen. “The Sympathizer.”
As a writer such books make me cringe at my own verbosity here or in any of my sermons over the years. They also force me to look at the world around me in different ways than I may ever have before. This is the kind of book that affirms for me that fiction can be far more powerful in telling the truth than many a set of facts. Like any great book this one may have been conceived in the mind of the writer, but it is not false or fake.
Read, listen, and learn.