The narrator in Viet Thanh Nguyen’s stunning debut novel, The Sympathizer (Grove, $26) is a double agent, working both sides in the closing days of the Vietnam War. A South Vietnamese Army officer educated in the West, he’s fluent in American English and culture and serves as the perfect guide for this story, noticing the hypocrisy and absurdity of U.S. involvement in Southeast Asia. Later, called upon to be the technical advisor on a film reminiscent of Apocalypse Now, he vainly and hilariously tries to indicate the cultural stereotypes and the dehumanizing racism to the auteur director. When a friend back in Vietnam is threatened, he returns to his country and is forced to tell his long and complicated story—to his own great peril but the delight of readers of the novel.
Anthony Marra announced his presence a couple of years ago with his prize-winning debut novel set in war-ravaged Chechnya, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena. His new book, The Tsar of Love and Techno (Hogarth, $25), returns readers to the former-Soviet region and the lives of people young and old whose experiences are marked by war, crime, and the devastating effects of a totalitarian regime. In Marra’s stories we meet an accomplished ballerina and her granddaughter, an artist who’s tasked with erasing disgraced people from official photographs, petty criminals, and myriad mothers, fathers, sons and daughters all trying to survive, first in the USSR, then in a Russia of chaos and nouveau riche. While each story is full and complete on its own, the links between them resonate in ingenious and surprising ways to create a tremendously satisfying whole.
Thirteen new stories and the contents of three previous books, The Visiting Privilege (Knopf, $30) is a stunning retrospective that shows Joy Williams as a fierce, uncompromising writer and an astute observer from the very first story, where a dying woman’s husband notes that the medication was dispensed “not for his wife but for her blood.” Deftly capturing the intimate impersonality of health care, Williams is equally unforgiving of America in general, where “having a gun was like having a pet or a child,” and where the wild west has become “many thousands of acres of grazing land with not a single creature grazing.” Then there’s Williams’s way with children. One boy envisions god as a magician who hypnotizes people like sheep so they’ll go calmly about their self-destruction. A little girl shows an aptitude for a career as a mortician. Many of these kids have lost a parent, some have stood by and watched—or even caused—deaths. They are wise—or at least startling—beyond their years. Meanwhile, the adults can’t seem to grow up. They have trouble making decisions. Their dogs meet bad ends after suffering canine versions of their owners’ neuroses. Even the “clouds aren’t as pretty as they use to be,” but people go on, looking for consolation, and settling for distraction with road trips, gin, and stories of “spectacular wrecks” they don’t realize they are part of.