Friday, March 29 marked the first meeting of Wachsman’s “Culture Corner” book club. Our inaugural pick was Viet Thanh Nguyen’s 2016 Pulitzer winner, The Sympathizer. Seven Wachsman employees met in the late afternoon to discuss Nguyen’s tale of divided countries and split loyalties over two bottles of wine and three flavors of cheese.
The group appreciated Nguyen’s profound reevaluation of the classic Vietnam War novel: The Vietnamese people themselves, so often voiceless and anonymous figures who form the background against which American characters act, here receive the centrality they deserve and the dignity that history and literature too often neglect. Although Nguyen rewrites and reframes the Vietnam War in The Sympathizer, he knows the conventional story just as well as the most American-centric tellers of the story do. There’s a reason, after all, that a thinly veiled version of Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now figures into the plot, and there’s a reason why the protagonist completes his college degree with a dissertation on Graham Greene, British author of the prophetic Vietnam novel The Quiet American.
Though everyone admired Nguyen’s novel, not everyone loved it. Account Supervisor Thomas Hannaford looks forward to reading more books by the author; his only regret is that Nguyen has not yet published a second novel. Other readers said they generally prefer nonfiction and that The Sympathizer’s allusive and metaphor-heavy style didn’t work for them as well as they’d hoped. Still, the overall reaction was positive — everyone appreciated the opportunity to read and discuss a previously unfamiliar author, and a few team members discovered a new favorite — and everyone agreed that the first installment of the club was a success.
One important question remained unresolved at the end of the meeting: What would the book club read next? Some suggested Stephen Hawking’s popular science classic A Brief History of Time as our next pick. Others proposed a psychological thriller in the vein of Gone Girl and Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing. As of press time, the office is conducting a vote. Whatever book the group settles on, we’re looking forward to a rewarding discussion next month