BookBrowse Reviews The Committed by Viet Thanh Nguyen

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The Committed

by Viet Thanh Nguyen

The Committed by Viet Thanh Nguyen X
The Committed by Viet Thanh Nguyen
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     Not Yet Rated
  • First Published:
    Mar 2021, 400 pages

    Mar 2022, 384 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Jennifer Hon Khalaf
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About this Book



The Committed follows our hero (or antihero) from Viet Thanh Nguyen's 2016 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Sympathizer as he begins his life as a drug-dealing refugee in 1980s Paris.

The Committed, the sequel to Viet Thanh Nguyen's 2016 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Sympathizer, picks up right where its predecessor ends, with an underlying message of communal and hopeful empowerment. It is a simple and epic scene subverting the norms in which refugees are typically viewed. But then very quickly we return to the complicated real world as the protagonist reaches his fatherland, France. It's the 1980s, and he is finally given a name, Vo Danh, which is actually a non-name, as it means "nameless" in Vietnamese. This is the second saga in which we join Vo Danh as he attempts to find his identity and the core of his true self and humanity, in spite of all the cyclical abuses of power and legacies of subjugation that have plagued his history as a half-Vietnamese, half-French man who was educated in America. That's a lot of identity to sort through.

The complexity of the characters and plot from The Sympathizer are carried on in The Committed. While Nguyen does provide small explanatory asides about the backgrounds of certain characters, the impact of the sequel cannot be fully appreciated without reading its precursor. The literary devices that Nguyen artfully employs would also be lost.

By repeating threads from the first novel, Nguyen establishes an eerie familiarity — in essence, deja vu. Vo Danh is no longer "a spy or a sleeper" but "most definitely a spook," we are told in words that refer to his previous job as a secret agent, which have been rearranged and reevaluated since we last saw him. With any sequel, there is a delicate balance that must be maintained in which there is a progression of the story, interspersed with enough explanatory references to the original so that we feel comfortable. In The Committed, Nguyen crafts a very taut and skillful presentation of this interplay between progress and continuity. Vo Danh's voice is very strong and clear throughout; there is still the sharp self-referential wit and intellect, but there is something a little bit off about him now that his idealism has been destroyed.

He now knows that "Nothing" is the meaning behind everything — a philosophical puzzle that could only be unlocked after great trauma at the end of The Sympathizer. Now, after this revelation, The Committed follows Vo Danh's exploration of Nothingness as he begins to engage in a life of nihilistic destruction — joining a gang, dealing drugs and frequenting brothels.

Strangely enough, when we are taken along with his life choices, they all seem to make sense. We might feel uncomfortable, but we don't question this new world. After all, the last novel showed us how the old world Vo Danh left behind had disappeared. All of the abstractions and ideals that his fellow countrymen and blood brothers were willing to die, kill, torture and be tortured for had suddenly fallen away to Nothing. So why not be swept away by the capitalist machinations of French society, engaging in gang warfare and becoming complicit in the continuous underlying racism, sexism, exoticism and subjugation? Throughout it all, Vo Danh's strong narrative voice continuously provides justificatory commentary and explores the intellectual underpinnings of all of his actions. Yet, ultimately, they are all just distractions from the Nothingness until the climax of the novel, when he must make a choice about the things that are important in life — friendship, love and connection.

Just like The Sympathizer, The Committed is not a pleasant book, but it is an important book. I wouldn't even really call it an enjoyable book, although it is a joy to read Nguyen's masterful turns of phrase and skillful wordplay. He truly is an exceptional writer and it is this gift, along with the pulpy nature of the storyline, that keeps us reading curiously, pushing through our discomfort to engage with the ideas and philosophies that Nguyen presents. It is in this sense that the sequel furthers the mission that the first book began, by pushing boundaries and confronting difficult truths.

This review was originally published in The BookBrowse Review in March 2021, and has been updated for the March 2022 edition. Click here to go to this issue.

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Beyond the Book:
  The Vietnamese French


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