Viet Thanh Nguyen Packs Plenty of Action and Outrage Into ‘The Committed’
Overwriting in this novel rarely bothered me. More often I was reminded of George Balanchin’s comment that if his dancers didn’t occasionally fall on stage, they weren’t really going for it, and John Coltrane’s emotionally “A Love Supreme.”
The second part of this book is shaggy, shaggy, shaggy. If it is not a total breakdown, then it is somewhat close. A man of two minds becomes a drug dealer. Thanks to a French Vietnamese woman he calls his aunt, who works in publishing, he has access to leftist French intellectuals who have a strong taste for their products. Payback has its own distinct form for infecting France with Eastern medicines.
This is a book novel. It is the kind in which a bouncer reads voltaire in a brothel. The narrator’s own reading, along with the introduction of these French intellectuals, allows him to learn about the revolutionary ideas of Frantz Fanon, Aime Cesaire, Marx, Sartre and others. In these articles, the walking dogs of capitalism are kept on an intellectual lease for a long time.
The second half of this novel is a strange mix of tragedy and comedy. Nguyen can be very funny. For example, his “aunt” has sex, for example, he is pretty sure she is “GOOAAAAALLLLL!”
The narrator gets involved in gang violence. Gangster movies, Morris Dickstein reminded us, are immigrant fables. Nguyen takes Robert Warshaw’s remark to heart that if a gangster film tells us anything, it is that being alone is dangerous.
Nguyen starred his characters in a series of frenzied, far-flung scenarios. Melee feed mayhem. There are several extended torture scenes in the back of this book that do not work at all. (“You can’t torture me,” the narrator says, erroneously. “I’m living through education again.”)
Nguyen does not find a tone for these scenes. They are terrible in their own way – there are rubber hoses and electrodes placed on the nipples – but they are hard to take seriously. He has a superb James Bond quality. The torturers take away their time, the persecutors may be saved. The doors are kicking open with a bang; Guns explode. You get the sense that the author, instead of expanding his subjects, tried to keep the plot spinning.