I was struck by the similarity of the Sympathizer’s experience of almost dying from an explosion with the experience of the Invisible Man at the paint factory. Both suffer damage to their heads and are overtaken by blindness. Both wake-up in a strange hospital, and both loose some part of their minds/memories. In the interview with Nguyen at the back of The Sympathizer, Nguyen says that he was heavily influenced by Ellison’s Invisible Man, but that there were certain points in which he disagreed with him. So, I’m primarily interested in the differences between the Sympathizer’s experience and that of the Invisible Man in the explosion/hospital scenarios. The Sympathizer has a feeling that some procedure has been done on him, yet he has no memory of it. In comparison, we see the operation on the Invisible Man, but we see it through his limited (and therefore confused) point of view. Both receive compensation, but the Sympathizer feels himself to be in such a position to haggle for more, while the Invisible Man does not.
What is the difference in power and position between the Sympathizer and the Invisible Man in these equivalent experiences? What constitutes the Sympathizer’s power as Vietnamese man working on an American movie set in a Filipino hospital? How does he both have and not have power as a “semi-westerner” to the Filipinos yet also a foreigner to the Americans? How does this compare to the Invisible Man’s lack of power as a southern African-American man at a factory hospital staffed by all-White doctors in New York?
Chapter nine opens with the narrator walking to deliver his last letter to a man named Mr. Emerson. Along the way he meets Peter Wheatstraw, a fellow Southerner singing a song that the narrator remembers from his childhood. The narrator’s reaction here is two-toned as he struggles with his concept of his own identity. He is not immediately pleased to hear Peter’s song, saying there is “no escaping” (173) these bits of home that emerge from time to time, which is to say that the narrator feels trapped by his past to some extent. Or more accurately, the narrator is somewhat ashamed of where he comes from and has attempted to distance himself from everything that would remind him. However, the narrator struggles to cling to his conviction; he admits, “I wanted to leave him, and yet I found a certain comfort in walking along beside him” (175). The narrator is at war with himself–when he gives in and speaks more amicably with Peter, he finds himself laughing “despite [himself]” (176). The past he claimed to revile when he first heard Peter’s songs is now something he is nostalgic for, but it’s not entirely a matter of rejecting the false world of academia he has dedicated himself to and re-connecting with his roots; the narrator is split. Even if he wanted to go back, he’s already in a state of transition. Peter’s rhymes are familiar and charming, but he doesn’t quite know how to respond to Peter as he might have at one time–“I’d known the stuff from childhood, but had forgotten it; had learned it back of school…” (176). The depth of the narrator’s struggle here, the manner in which his direct desires conflict with the things that actually bring him joy–things he has already half-forgotten after denying himself so long–makes the narrator seem real.