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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.