Tag: Revelation/Unfolding of Character

Hypothetical Construction of History, Memory, and Self

One of the most engrossing sections for our last reading of The Sympathizer was towards the end of Chapter 21 after the narrator finally confesses the details of the gang rape of the communist agent. After remarking, “Yes, memory was sticky” (352) after the policemen empty a bottle of coke into the agent, the narrator slips into a chain of hypotheticals that at first concern him, but soon spirals into ceaseless circles of backtracking through national, political, and religious memory spanning ages in history. In a series of rhetorical questions that arise only to dissipate without any further development or answer, the narrator rambles, “…so if you would please just turn off the lights…if history’s ship had taken a different track…if I had fallen in love with the right woman…if we forgot our resentment, if we forgot revenge, if we acknowledged that we are all puppets in someone else’s play…if you  needed no more revisions, and if I saw no more of these visions, please, could you please just let me sleep?” (353-354). Along the way, the narrator questions everything ranging from the Soviets, labels like “nationalists or communists or capitalists or realists” (353), Buddha, Jesus, the Bible, the Chinese using gunpowder for fireworks and not firearms, Adam and Eve, Mao, the Japanese, his own mother and father, and the concept of history itself. The way that the narrator filters through this immensely disorganized yet somehow coherent list of hypotheticals, and his attempt to thereby construct some meaning out of the series of events, random or planned, fictional or real, that have led him, his nation, and the world to this moment in time, resonate closely with his continuing attempts to construct himself. A gook? A half-gook? French or Vietnamese, Occidental or Oriental? A bastard? A spy, a Communist, a military aide, a movie advisor, an academic assistant, a prisoner, a killer, a traitor, a patriot? What forces led him here, and who has the power to write and revise his history, especially if the narrator’s own memory is simultaneously unreliable and malleable? Which of his many masks would he be donning if a single factor in his past was nudged away, the falling dominoes of construction irrevocably altered? The passage also is reminiscent of the attempted reconstruction of Alison’s father in Fun Home, the entire memoir an attempt to resuscitate him as a character by ruminating upon hypothetical explanations to memories of his words and actions. How much of character construction, and construction of the human narrative, is hypothetical? And does it matter?

Duality and Inverse Unfolding of Character

In Chapter 4, Alison compares the interplay between her narrative arc and her father’s with the ambiguous archetype of the serpent. While quite clearly a phallus, it is also an ancient symbol of femininity and fertility. It is interesting, then, how Alison remarks that “perhaps this undifferentiation, this nonduality, is the point…maybe that’s what’s so unsettling about snakes” (116). She then remarks that “my father’s end was my beginning…the end of his life coincided with the beginning of my truth” (117). This passage precisely captures a question I grapple with in Fun Home: does Alison’s character and her father’s character unfold together throughout the tragicomic? Is this unfolding cyclical, the fleshing out of one character directly feeding back into the development of the other? Or perhaps an inverse duality more accurately characterizes the mapping of the two characters; in attempting to piece together her memories of her father to form a more complete picture of him after his death through this, Alison in fact effectively charts her own character while only further blurring the terrain of her father’s character. Such an inverse relationship can be seen in the horribly static, drawn-out spread (220-221) when Alison’s father, at the crux of a potential moment of true emotional connection and understanding, still resists interpretation, or by the sheer amount of times Alison attempts to fill in the gaps her father left behind and form a more coherent narrative with hypotheticals of “maybe,” “perhaps,” or “what if” throughout her memoir. Do her revelations about herself come at the expense of muddying her memories of her father by creating infinite possibilities, explanations, and justifications for his past actions? Is it possible for a reader’s (and narrator’s) understanding of a character not to expand, but to disintegrate throughout a work of fiction?