Sometimes a sentence stops me for reasons I can’t entirely explain, or even defend. Often it includes a moment of description or metaphor that teases out a personal memory, or plants the seeds of feelings. Almost always they capture the sense of something foreign that feels familiar – and that I struggle to put into words without resorting to cliches. Viet Thanh Nguyen’s 2016 Pulitzer-winning novel “The Sympathizer” does that in layers – revealing the tragedy of the Vietnam War in new dimensions, challenging notions of democracy and loyalty, and woven through with lines like this. Perhaps it’s because I grew up in the Upper Midwest, where the pattern of migratory ducks and geese was a marker of the seasons, as sure as bells of the Catholic church bells were markers that it was time for Mass or to go home for supper; that sense of certainty was even more powerful because I understand the seduction of routine when navigating foreign worlds. The second clause, though, is what I keep returning to. Nguyen sets much of his story in a Los Angeles neighborhood settled by Vietnamese refugees after the fall of Saigon. But no matter where you are from or have traveled, you have seen stretches of weary, depressing apartment blocks. Maybe you’ve lived in one; maybe you’ve just driven by with a brief shudder of gratitude that you don’t. But you know the feeling of them. Nguyen achieves what we wrote about in a Storyboard shop class post about “Learning to see beyond first sight.” He looks at something familiar and describes it in a phrase that is also familiar but totally unexpected in context – and thus fresh with new meaning.
Show comments / Leave a commentHide comments
comments powered by Disqus