image from atlantaima.org
The Jaipur Literature Festival is coming to Boulder in September. I will be there -- you betcha!
I decided to read some of the presenters who will be at the JLF in Boulder. Viet Thanh Nguyen, whose debut novel The Sympathizer won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Best Fiction will be one of the presenters. During Terry Gross' interview with him on NPR, he was thoughtful, articulate, and thought provoking. He discussed his experiences in the Vietnamese community in California.
He told of his parents warning him and his brother not to open their door to unknown Vietnamese because they were afraid of home invasions by Vietnamese gangs. Ms. Gross asked why people who had fled war torn Vietnam would engage in violence here against their fellow countrymen. His eye-opening explanation was that they did come from that same war torn Vietnam. A country that taught them to stash their money and valuables in their homes. A country that taught them not to trust the police who, in Vietnam, were too often as likely to harm them as the 'criminals.' A country caught in a generation-long civil war that taught Vietnamese to attack Vietnamese.
That concept can be applied to why anyone victimizes someone like themselves. Not because they necessarily share a background of civil war, but because they do share a common background and know their victim's habits and fears. That familiarity gives the criminal an advantage they would not have with someone whose circumstances they knew less well.
Past debut novels that won Pulitzers include Gone with the Wind and To Kill a Mockingbird, two of my all-time favorites.
I was ready for a good read.
It's in first person. I don't particularly like first person. But Barbara Kingsolver's The Poisonwood Bible is in first person. (Read my April 13, 2015 review) Not just first person, but first person from five points of view. An unusual structure for a novel. An amazingly difficult bit of literary art to successfully pull off. Which the author did. Admirably. It is a great read.
So I willing overlooked The Sympathizer's first person narrative. It could be good.
Nguyen doesn't use standard punctuation. Anathema to an old English Major. But Cormac McCarthy doesn't use standard punctuation. When I started his Border Trilogy (All the Pretty Horses, The Crossing, and Cities of the Plain. See my December 3, 2014 review.) I was particularly distressed about McCarthy's failure to use quote marks and attributions in the dialogue. I was afraid I wouldn't be able to follow who was saying what. But he wrote his characters' speech patterns so skillfully that I had no problem.
Failure to use standard punctuation need not be a deal breaker.
Stories whose plots unfold slowly featuring main characters who lack charisma don't necessarily put me off. (See my recent review of the movie The Lady in the Van.)
So I believed that if I read assiduously for as long as it might take, the book would get better.
After reading off and on for a week I'd only gotten to page 180 -- more off than on. But I felt I should give it a chance. I take the stand that stopping a book you've started is immoral. It is judgmental, ungracious, and downright disdainful of a fellow writer who has worked long and hard and done the best they could.
Then a writer friend Sabrina Fish shared a question from The Writer's Circle -- "You wake up stranded on an island with the main character of the last book you read. How does that work out for you?"
And you know what? I stopped reading The Sympathizer. I could not face the prospect of being stranded in a plodding plot with Nguyen's main character in first person. Never knowing if it was dialogue or the main character's thoughts or the author's thoughts.
Quick! Quick! Choose another JLF presenter. Done.
I chose William Dalrymple's White Mughals: Love and Betrayal in 18th-century India. Mr. Dalrymple is a Scottish historian. Even his footnotes are interesting.