The crushing of this novel rarely bothered me. More often, I remembered George Balanchine’s comment that if his dancers didn’t occasionally fall on stage, they didn’t really go, and John Coltrane’s emotionally exaggerated notes in “A Love Supreme”.
The second half of this book is shaggy, shaggy, shaggy. If it’s not a total blackout, it’s something close. The Two-Minded Man becomes a drug dealer. Thanks to the French Vietnamese who he calls his aunt, who works in publishing, he has access to French left-wing intellectuals, who have a pronounced taste for his products. Infecting France with drugs from the East is its own form of recovery.
It is a bookish novel. It’s the kind in which a brothel bouncer reads Voltaire. The introduction of these French intellectuals, as well as the reading of the narrator himself, allow him to ruminate on the revolutionary ideas of Frantz Fanon, Aimé Césaire, Marx, Sartre and others. In these writings, the running dogs of capitalism walk on long intellectual leashes.
Tragedy and comedy blend awkwardly in the second half of this novel. Nguyen can be very funny. Hearing his “aunt” making love, for example, he is almost certain that she shouts “GOOAAAAALLLLLL!”
The narrator gets involved in gang violence. Gangster movies, Morris Dickstein reminded us, are immigrant fables. Nguyen seems to take to heart Robert Warshow’s comment that if the gangster movie tells us anything, it’s dangerous to be alone.
Nguyen entrusts his characters to a series of exhausted and far-fetched storylines. Chaos breeds chaos. There are several extended torture scenes in the back half of this book that don’t work at all. (“You cannot torture me,” the narrator says, by mistake. “I went through a re-education camp.”)
Nguyen cannot find a tone for these scenes. They’re horrible in their own way – there are rubber hoses and electrodes attached to the nipples – but they’re hard to take seriously. There is a stupid James Bond quality to them. The torturers waste their time, long enough for the tortured to be rescued. The doors open with a kick; the guns are blazing. You feel the author is trying to spin the plot frantically, rather than elegantly expanding its themes.