Tag: internal logic

Constructing identity against those of others in The Sympathizer

As the narrator of The Sympathizer recalls when he studied in America, he particularly remembers the experience of reading the line by Emerson that “consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” (12) He concentrates on this sentence as describing both America and Vietnam, “where we are nothing if not inconsistent,” (12) but it is also interesting to consider in relation to the broader theme of inconsistency within the novel. The narrator immediately introduces himself as a “man of two faces [and] perhaps not surprisingly … a man of two minds … able to see any issue from both sides.” (1) Both his external (two faces) and internal (two minds) identities are deeply and inherently inconsistent, as a half-French and half-Vietnamese man who must grapple with his roles as immigrant and undercover communist agent, and so it is as though his identity is constituted by its absence. He is defined through his inconsistency — to the extent he is not American or Vietnamese, immigrant or political operative, and instead somewhere in the middle — which is interesting to consider in relation to what we have discussed in regards to fictional characters having consistent interiority and moral codes. The Sympathizer reveals that humans do not have to be consistent, in the sense that our identities depend on more than our stable qualities and motivations. We have the ability to “sympathize” with many different people and ways of thinking — and it is through this process of defining ourselves against others that we fully realize our own identities. How we understand fictional characters then relies on more than how they are constructed as individuals, but to the extent that they are defined in relation to others.

Disintegration of character and controversy in The Crying of Lot 49

“Now here was Oedipa, faced with a metaphor of God knew how many parts; more than two, anyway. WIth coincidences blossoming these days wherever she looked, she had nothing but a sound, a word, Trystero, to hold them together.” (87)

I found this passage very interesting to think about in terms of how the broader narrative of The Crying of Lot 49 and Oedipa herself, as a character, are constructed. Oedipa has traveled to so many strange places (from her home in Kinneret to universities, strip malls, strange theaters, and gay bars, among others) and had so many strange encounters with strange people (Dr. Hilarius and his “bridge,” Metzger and his Strip Botticelli, Nefstasis and his demon), and the only thing to “hold them together” (87) not only for her, but for us, as readers of the novella, is “nothing but a sound, a word, Trystero.” (87) We touched on this in class on Monday when we talked about how we experience the same coincidences and are led into the same controversies as Oedipa, but I think this concept can be further examined in terms of Oedipa as a character.

The same passage later continues:

“Here in San Francisco, away from all tangible assets of that estate, there might still be a chance of getting the whole thing to go away and disintegrate quietly. She had only to drift tonight, at random, and watch nothing happen, to be convinced it was entirely nervous, a little something for her shrink to fix.” (88)

There is an interesting parallel between the word disintegrate, which refers to Trystero, and the phrase drift … at random, which refers to Oedipa. If Trystero, as it increasingly seems, is “perhaps fantasied by Oedipa,” (88) then it is not Trystero that holds Oedipa and more broadly the narrative together, but rather Oedipa herself. The parallel then connects the disintegration of Trystero to the disintegration of Oedipa as the character she has been — a return to the “nervous” housewife she was before anything had happened. A later exchange with Mike Fallopian reflects the tension  that then arises from this tenuous characterization. “Has it every occurred to you, Oedipa, that somebody’s been putting you on? It had occurred to her. But like the thought that someday she would have to die, Oedipa had been steadfastly refusing to look at that possibility directly, or in any but the most accidental of lights.” (138) The “somebody” putting her on is herself, and so Oedipa is hesitant to realize that possibility, in the same way that we avoid thinking of death — for the fear that our lives are meaningless. Her hesitation could perhaps reflect on the reader as well, in that we are also reluctant to dismiss the Trystero controversy and the narrative we have become invested in.