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Lonely Ghosts: Absence as Somethingness in the Works of Viet Thanh Nguyen

Updated: Sep 24, 2021

by Dorothy Reno

Nothing Ever Dies, by Viet Thanh Nguyen (Harvard University Press, 2016)

The climactic chapter of Viet Thanh Nguyen’s Pulitzer winning novel, The Sympathizer, features a torture sequence of epic dimensions. The captain is a spy embedded in the southern Vietnamese army by the communists. When Saigon falls in April of 1975, his orders are to flee to America and inform on the refugees. Like many spies of the literary genre, the captain is turbulent and complex. His mixed heritage, French and Vietnamese, renders him a perpetual outsider (people often call him a bastard), which lends a unique ability: he can see any issue from two sides.

The captain will eventually have to pay the price for his powers of perception. When he returns to Vietnam on a special mission, he’s captured and reeducated by his own forces. “The only cure for being a bastard,” the commandant tells him shortly before he’s wired up for electric shocks and deprived of sleep, “is to take a side.”

In Nothing Ever Dies, a work of nonfiction about war and memory, Nguyen develops a theory of Just Memory that, if taken up, would make perceptive bastards of us all. He’s speaking here of remembering wars, not just from our own side, but from the other side as well — a theory that would be obvious if it weren’t so radical and seldom practiced.

It’s no surprise, given Nguyen’s Vietnamese heritage, that he wants his fellow Americans to hear Vietnamese perspectives on the war. This is particularly so in the case of the south Vietnamese, his community, whose experiences of the war are muted in both of his countries. Still, Nguyen isn’t only for his own side. He softens the ground for perspectivism by reminding readers the war isn’t called The Vietnam War in Vietnam, but rather The American War. (Its official name is “The Resistance War Against America to Save the Nation.”)

It also isn’t surprising that Nguyen, who came to America as a four-year-old refugee, was traumatized in his youth watching war movies about the American experience in his birth country. Seeing Vietnamese as silent extras whose main purpose was to die or get abused was naturally alienating for him, stirring questions early on about representation. That the movies were said to be critical of the war made little difference; Nguyen recognized these sagas were really about the anxiety of interventionism, a drama he terms “the civil war in the American soul.”

Perhaps it is a little surprising, then, that In Nothing Ever Dies, Nguyen expands his perspective on the war to include Cambodia and Laos. He travels to these two countries where he remembers their part (and their suffering) in the conflict, an analysis that doesn’t stop where Americans dropped bombs, or where the Khmer Rouge took power. Nguyen puts part of his own identity on the hot seat when he speaks about historical Vietnamese conquest in Cambodia. It’s not enough to see the other side as human. In Nothing Ever Dies, Nguyen argues the importance of learning to see ourselves, our side, as inhuman.

“To see oneself only as a victim simplifies power and excuses the victim from the obligations of ethical behavior in politics, warfare, love, and art…. Ethics forces us to examine the harm we ourselves do, the dilemma that when one acts or speaks…one can be victimizer and victim, guilty and innocent.” In other words, the “bastard” captain from The Sympathizer, self-described as “a spy, a sleeper, a spook,” (this line itself a reference to Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man) won’t be parting with his double consciousness anytime soon, torture be damned.

I keep coming back to the chronology of Nguyen’s work, which seems out of order with the development of his thought. His first book, an academic nonfiction work called Race and Resistance: Literature and Politics in Asian America was published in 2002. It reads like an adapted version of a PhD thesis and bears little resemblance to his later work but for two points. Like his more contemporary books, there’s an emphasis on being embodied. The other consistency is Nguyen’s desire to trouble fixed categories: To question them, to move between them, and, when possible, to blend them together.

His second published book was The Sympathizer (2015) followed by Nothing Ever Dies (2016) and The Refugees (2017). But to better grasp the development of Nguyen’s ideas, I mentally reordered his work like this: Race and Resistance as a first try, followed by his major theoretical work in Nothing Ever Dies, which must have been written concurrently with The Refugees, a collection of short stories and a fictional companion to Nguyen’s philosophical concepts. The Sympathizer, then, came later in his evolution. It brought with it Nguyen’s two-sided vision, but it also bore the marks of a different era; one where the literary culture was heating up and becoming more open to confrontation.

Aside from publishing realities that dodge certain types of books until the author is already famous, there’s something that draws my eye to the chain links of Nguyen’s ideas. Nothing Ever Dies is the wrong title for a book that should have rightly been called Just Remembering or An Ethics of Memory.

That is, until one looks back. The “Nothing” part of Nothing Ever Dies, (a valentine to Toni Morrison’s singular novel, Beloved), shows up again at the end of The Sympathizer, becoming the most important steppingstone from Nothing Ever Dies to The Sympathizer: “Nothing” is the turning point of the captain’s torture scene and the entire novel.

The captain has history with his torturer, whose name is Man. Once schoolmates and childhood blood brothers, and later, fellow comrades in the communist struggle, the captain reports to Man in the hierarchy and defies orders not to return to Vietnam. This, along with other factors (such as the captain’s Americanization), lands him in reeducation. The captain is tortured until he can answer the question that presumably will unlock both his cell and his existential condition of being a bastard.

Paraphrasing Ho Chi Minh’s most famous speech, Man asks the captain over and over: “What is more precious than independence and freedom?” The answer, of course, is “Nothing.” “Nothing is more precious than independence and freedom.” It takes the captain a while to get it, because the “Nothing” Man wants to elicit is not quite the same as Ho Chi Minh’s nothing. Here, in the torture chamber, between two brother-enemies, it’s a double-entendre that expresses Man’s secret knowledge of the revolution’s failure (Nothing!), while at the same time, being a code word that will put the captain back on the right footing with the regime:

How could I forget that every truth meant at least two things, that slogans were empty suits draped on the corpse of an idea? The suits depend on how one wore them, and this suit was worn out. I was mad but not insane, although I was not going to disabuse the commandant [not Man, but another comrade involved in the torture]. He saw only one meaning in nothing—the negative, the absence, as in there’s nothing there. The positive meaning eluded him, the paradoxical fact that nothing is, indeed, something.

Later, in The Committed (2021), “Nothing” (nothingness) serves as the captain’s mantra and new philosophy. He cuts ties with the communists and relocates to France under an assumed name: Vo Danh (translation: No Name, a.k.a., you guessed it, Nothing).

Here are some riddles: What do Toni Morrison and Ho Chi Minh have in common? What does double consciousness in Ralph Ellison’s 1952 novel The Invisible Man share with Nguyen’s Just Memory theory? (Get it? Just memory? As in, “fair memory”, but also as in it’s only a memory so you can just forget about it.) Or better yet, what is the major preoccupation that runs through all of Nguyen’s works?

His central theme, expressed through “Nothing” and its double meaning, is, at a base, an exercise in dialectics. Dialectics, in part, is a method of inquiry where truth gets sussed out through the push and pull of opposing sides. It’s Hegel’s dialectics, though, that best capture the forces at play in Nguyen’s work. This is particularly so with two of Hegel’s laws: 1) The interpenetration of opposites; and 2) the negation of the negation, as in a Nothing/Nothingness that is cycling between being an absence (nothing at all) and a presence (the principle of Nothingness or the Void).

It’s this absence as presence that defines Nguyen’s oeuvre. He expresses it with different narrative techniques and storylines but he’s at his most culturally rich and empathetic when he explores absence as presence by writing about ghosts.

In “Black-Eyed Women”, a short story from The Refugees, the narrator’s dead brother appears twenty-five years after he’s murdered at sea. The narrator is a thirty-eight-year-old woman, a ghost writer for survivors of tragedy, who lives with her widowed mother. Initially, it’s the mother who sees the ghost of her fifteen-year-old son, while the narrator has to wait, with trepidation, for her brother to come back from the dead.

When the knocking woke me, it was dark outside. My watch said 6:35 in the evening. The knock came again, gentle, tentative. Despite myself, I knew who it was. I had locked the door just in case, and now I pulled the covers over my head, my heart beating fast. I willed him to go away, but when he started rattling the doorknob, I knew I had no choice but to rise. The fine hairs of my body stood at attention with me as I watched the doorknob tremble with the pressure of his grip. I reminded myself he had given up his life for me. The least I could do was open the door.

This chilling passage touches on all the classic horror tropes: It’s dark, and the doorknob is rattling. Even the terrified narrator’s body-hairs stand obediently on end. The only thing missing is the stormy night, which comes earlier in the story. Using a cliché setup, Nguyen is purposefully priming the reader for a new twist in horror: It’s the living who haunt the dead. The ghost brother is shy and fearful of the narrator. He has come to her, but it’s she who initiates conversation. He avoids her eyes and makes her turn around while he changes clothes, rendering himself more mundane than menacing. Except for his wet, unblinking eyes, (which are off-putting rather than scary), he’s one of literature’s milder ghouls.

The living, on the other hand, are downright frightening. In the opening scene, the narrator’s mom threatens her with a story about a reporter who gets arrested, jailed, and is never seen again. Victor, the plane crash survivor for whom the narrator is ghost-writing, appears on talk shows. Or at least, “What was left of him”, which sounds like he’s been disfigured from the crash, but no: “his body [was] there but not much else.” There’s something so hideous about Victor that the narrator describes him without using pronouns: “The voice was soft and monotone, and the eyes, on the occasions when they looked up, seemed to hold within them the silhouettes of mournful people.” Even the youth who once roamed outside the narrator’s family home are “creatures” who “lurk”, while the narrator herself is described as having an “unnatural nature” by her own mother.

“The dead move on,” Victors tells the narrator, “But the living, we just stay here.” In our world, it’s the living who are supposed to move on, and lonely ghosts that linger. In Viet Thanh Nguyen’s absence as presence, the ghosts of the living haunt the ghosts of the dead and in doing so, they try on Hegel’s dialectics for size, “interpenetrating” with their so-called opposite by changing into each other; living and dead, human into inhuman, and back again. The real terror is the terror of the one who survives to tell the story.

After the captain is called on to assassinate two men in The Sympathizer, their ghosts appear and remain with him throughout the novel and its sequel, inflaming the captain’s already culpable psyche. “I did not need to confess to a God I did not believe in, but I did need to appease the soul of ghost whose face even now gazed at me from the altar on the side of the table.” His victims, the crapulent major and Sonny, follow the captain around, whispering to him and each other, even appearing above his bed as he rests, “I tried to fall asleep but could not, kept awake by the blare of horns and the unnerving sight of Sonny and the crapulent major lying on the ceiling above me, behaving as if they always spent their time thus.” Sometimes the crapulent major and Sonny scare the captain by acting like traditional ghosts, sometimes they taunt and threaten him. Mostly, their absent presence keeps alive the pain of his inhuman transgressions. After the captain suffers a fractured mind from reeducation, he begins speaking in first person plural as “we.” His ghosts respond by fusing together as one and speaking in unison, showing themselves to be a negation of the negation; not nothing, but an uncanny somethingness that becomes yet another alter ego for this man of two minds.

In The Committed, relations with the ghost pair improve. The captain, now relocated to Paris and named Vo Danh (No Name) but better known as “Crazy Bastard” (because he cries all the time and talks to himself) has all but made friends with the crapulent major and Sonny. ‘“Don’t worry,”’ the crapulent major tells Crazy Bastard after he fears killing two men in self-defense, ‘“They’re not dead.”’

‘“If they were, Sonny added, they’d already be here with us.”’ For the first time since being haunted, Crazy Bastard responds to his ghosts. ‘“So you haven’t seen them on your side?”’ What follows is a little comedy routine, not unusual in Nguyen’s novels, where the crapulent major and Sonny tease Crazy Bastard about how the afterlife works, and about how busy they’ve been — sightseeing — since arriving in Paris. Talking back to his ghosts, Crazy Bastard diffuses his fear of them. By the time he gets kidnapped by gangsters who want revenge for the stabbings, his ghosts are practically giving him advice. ‘“I’m so sorry,”’ Crazy Bastard tells them, wondering why he’d never thought of begging their forgiveness until now.

My fascination with Vietnam and the American War started back in 80s with the same movies that traumatized and impressed Nguyen. I was six years old when Platoon (1986) was released. I watched it a few years later with my elder brothers in our basement rec room back in Canada. I remember some of the other “Vietnam” movies too — Full Metal Jacket (1987), Hamburger Hill (1987), all of them, really, except Apocalypse Now (1979) which I can’t recall seeing.

Two scenes still haunt me after more than thirty years. In one shot, a woman walks across a railroad bridge suspended over a chasm. She’s been raped. She’s crying and unsteady on her feet, as soldiers take aim at her from the embankment. My memory of this, I think, is fused with Phan Thi Kim Phuc, “Napalm Girl” running naked toward the eye of the camera as her skin curls away from her body. The other scene that never leaves me is when American soldiers go to a Hamlet and kill a disabled teenager by crushing his skull with the butt of their guns, all while his mother watches. From which movie these two scenes derive, I cannot say (maybe Platoon?). They’ve blurred together in my mind, and as grateful as I am for their antiwar message, I’ve never been able to watch any of these films again.

Like Nguyen, my brothers and I were too young for this content. But unlike Nguyen, I never perceived the Vietnamese people in these films as objects. Nguyen, I think, got painfully jammed in the slamming doors of his dual American and Vietnamese identities, having to grapple with the uncomfortable realities of his two cultures at violent odds. I suspect part of what he suffered originated in his “seeing” these films from his American perspective, which was natural and comfortable, until the point where that American perspective started killing his other perspective, the Vietnamese. From my own point of view, it was the soldiers who were inhuman and therefore the objects of the movies. The American-male-warrior perspectives featured so prominently in these films were already too far beyond my reach, Americans being the resented “Other” in my native Canada. I didn’t know it at the time, but this unsettling experience of identifying with the women and children in these movies planted seeds of sadness, empathy, and curiosity that would one day coax me to Vietnam.

But first, I moved to America where I learned about the humanity of the American soldiers. It was hard not to, with America’s ongoing preoccupation over this particular war, whose presence I felt all the time, everywhere, and not just at Maya Lin’s black-granite wall in Washington, D.C. In addition to hearing stories from veterans (only one of whom had been able to move on), the richest opportunity to take on their perspectives came from reading Tim O’Brien’s collection of stories The Things They Carried. Everything about this book left me both vulnerable and sympathetic to the grasp that Vietnam (the war, and the nation) had on Americans. What was it about this Southeast Asian country that had so transfixed and frozen part of the American psyche? I too, became obsessed. But something was missing. What did Vietnamese people think about all this?

If I had looked harder, I would have uncovered Bao Ninh’s The Sorrow of War or maybe Duong Thu Huong’s Paradise of the Blind and No Man’s Land. I could have found, with minimal research, Dang Thuy Tram’s Last Night I Dreamed of Peace (she died in the war, leaving her diary behind), and Vietnamese American author Andrew X. Pham (Catfish and Mandala, The Eaves of Heaven) among many others. Like Le Luu’s A Time Far Past, or my fellow Canadian, Vincent Lam’s The Headmaster’s Wager. The one book I should have started with is The General Retires and Other Stories by Vietnam’s most important author, Nguyen Huy Thiep.

Instead, I moved to Vietnam, where, in a full circle moment, I discovered Nguyen’s work on a podcast from the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. (And I would discover all the above books and more here in Vietnam, despite most of them being censored.) As for my own growing “memory” of the war, limited as it is to movies, literature, museums, and conversations, it hasn’t found traction here. From my North American perspective, the northern Vietnamese are among the most practical and forward-looking people I’ve encountered. Asking them how they feel about the American war elicits the same reaction you might get from asking me how I feel about the War of 1812. The most upsetting anecdotes I’ve heard are from people who remember hearing bombs as children and getting excited because they thought it was fireworks for Tet.

The present absence here, is a lack of feeling victimized, something we Westerners of all ethnicities find hard to understand, given our cultural investment in woundedness, which can convey meaning, identity, and power. I have a strong suspicion, though, that there are different stories in the south of Vietnam, just as I predict collective and individual memory surrounding the war will be revisited and revised as the political landscape evolves.

My fellow bookclub friend, who goes by the name ‘Nancy’ (since we non-Vietnamese sadly fail to say her name properly), thinks Nguyen’s ghosts are too Western. “If you read Bao Ninh’s The Sorrow of War,” she tells me, you’ll understand Vietnamese ghosts. They aren’t so rational or talkative.” I did read The Sorrow of War, I tell her. And it felt loose and impressionistic. And devastating. “That’s right,” she says. “Our ghosts are loose. And Impressionistic.” With this, I realize I haven’t been successful in seeing Nguyen’s work from two sides. Although I find his ideas, his convictions, even his resentments intensely American, the aspect of his work that feels most Vietnamese to me are his ghosts.

Regardless of their cultural origins, Nguyen’s ghosts guide readers back to his central ideas on memory. What is the difference between a memory and ghost, considering both have the power to haunt? In The Sympathizer, the captain bemoans that his mother’s ghost never visits, while the crapulent major and Sonny hardly leave his side. But this isn’t quite true. The captain’s mother is as much a present absence as the ghosts are an absent presence. She comes to him through memory, and the scenes with his mother are among the most powerful in The Sympathizer and The Committed. In response to concerns over his mixed origins, his mother says, “Remember, you’re not half of anything, you’re twice of everything.” It’s these memories of his mother, her feeding him, carrying him, holding him while he cries, that eventually allow Crazy Bastard to express remorse to his ghosts.

The bulk of Nguyen’s ghost stories in The Refugees might be described as non-gothic tales of possession. Here, the ghosts aren’t literal, and the memories that haunt aren’t always direct. Still, the absent presence/present absence dialectical is palpable. In the short story, “I’d Love You to Want Me” Mrs. Khanh, an aging married woman, cares for her husband, “the professor” who’s suffering from Alzheimer’s. When he starts to call her by another woman’s name (Yen), Mrs. Khanh searches her memories and questions what she really knows about her husband. The story, in a sense, is a haunting by proxy: Mrs. Khanh is tormented by her husband’s memories of the one woman he can’t forget. In the end, when the professor is no longer able to recognize Mrs. Khanh, she assumes Yen’s identity. The professors’ memory of Yen has “possessed” her completely.

Even material possessions can be possessing. In The Transplant, the fake designer goods in Arthur Arellano’s garage, stored as a favor for his business-minded friend, Louis Vu, keep Arthur awake at night. “Their presence made Arthur uneasy, and so it was…Arthur found himself slipping out of his rented house at odd hours…to ponder the goods in which he was now living so intimately. The figurative ghosts and haunting memories here are multifaceted. Arthur is haunted by the absence of the man whose kidney he received via transplant. That man, Men Vu, is supposedly Louis Vu’s deceased father. But the counterfeit goods in Arthur’s garage — made afterhours in factories by “ghost workers”— are a flashing clue that Louis might not be who he says he is. Yet, in the end, it’s the reader who feels haunted when Arthur rejects Louis, his only real friend and supporter. If a little slick and self-serving, Louis’ friendship turns out to be, strangely, “better than genuine.”

Fatherland, the final story in the collection, traces a more shattering picture of originals and fakes. After Mr. Ly is released from reeducation and discovers his wife and three children have fled south Vietnam for America, he remarries and has three more children, giving them the same names as his first set. When Mr. Ly’s eldest (now American) daughter returns to Vietnam, it’s as if she’s coming back from the dead. He tells her, in front of her “substitute” sister, “I knew you’d come back to see the one I named after you.” Funny how this line gives me chills, the same chills I get when reading straight-forward horror. In fact, straight-forward horror seems almost tame compared to Nguyen’s realist depictions of psychological and physical warfare; how both modes have the potential to bring forth the ghosts in all of us.

Short stories are notoriously hard to master because they require subtlety and a deft hand. To put it in Nguyenian vernacular, one must have a touch of the bastard to write them. For stories to work, there shouldn’t be too much of an overt agenda, unless that agenda is being simultaneously subverted. At the very least, story writers should be comfortable with absence in the dialectical sense—Nothing!— in order for that nothingness, the space and the silences, to speak as loudly as what’s present on the page.

In interviews, Nguyen has spoken of how difficult it was to write the stories in The Refugees. Seventeen years to complete this collection, whereas The Sympathizer was only two years in the making. Nguyen is candid about which form he prefers: The sprawling, philosophical, (often repetitive), epic novel is the clear winner for him. I wonder, then, how his work will evolve as he writes more novels that will be, by definition, increasingly difficult to square with his early theories about Just Memory and the human/inhuman dialectic. Nguyen’s theory and praxis come alive so beautifully in The Refugees, where, over the course of multiple stories, he represents panoramic views and experiences of the war and its fallout. In a collection of eight stories, there isn’t one that’s poorly written, nor a single sour note in over two-hundred pages. One of the collection’s most complex stories is from the point of view of an American veteran (a bomber pilot) who comes back to Vietnam — another living ghost. Nguyen adds some extra intersections by writing the character as African American, a task he handles with tremendous care and skill.

The Refugees' final and, perhaps, best story is from the point of the view of a young Vietnamese woman living in Saigon (Ho Chi Minh city). Why is the feminine point of view, here, and in Nguyen’s other short stories, so transcendently pitch-perfect, when most of the female characters in The Sympathizer and The Committed are two-dimensional? To Nguyen’s credit, he knows he has a problem with women in his novels, and cleverly writes that limitation into his plots.

The Sympathizer was so successful in wresting the war narrative from non-Asian perspectives, that Nguyen has become the spokesperson for Vietnamese experiences in the United States, an honor he mostly takes up with grace and humor. While both The Sympathizer and The Committed practice Just Payback and Just Anger, The Sympathizer pulls it off a little more artfully than The Committed, whose turning-of-the-cultural-tables is merited but sometimes a little strained. The Committed tries to broaden alliances between Vietnamese, North Africans, and Senegalese, to the point of stretching credulity, even within the hyperbolic atmosphere of satire. As Nguyen’s oeuvre gathers steam at the peak of the culture wars — which he participates in on Twitter, sometimes dampening his message of double-sight, sometimes forgetting to remember his own (in)humanity, and occasionally making himself sound like the wrong kind of bastard to a moderate like me — I hope he’ll come back to the illuminating humility of his principles in Nothing Ever Dies and The Refugees. The most soaring, soulful line in The Committed remembers those roots very well:

“The reason I can forgive you…is because what you did to me, I have done to others. I am no better than you and possibly far, far worse.”

Dorothy Reno is a classic books columnist at the Washington Independent Review of Books. Some of her short fiction has been published in Canada and the United States. She grew up in Canada and lives in Hanoi, Vietnam.

Copy editors: Nancy He, Nina Zhang

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1 Comment

Thank you so much for introducing me to a writer about whom I knew almost nothing. What a brilliant essay.

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