Backstory: when do you include it? Waiting until a question has been raised to which only an earlier scene can provide an answer is a sound way of maintaining psychological tension while dipping away from your ongoing story. In the fifth chapter of his bestselling and Pulitzer-winning novel, The Sympathizer, Viet Thanh Nguyen uses plenty of backstory that addresses no burning questions. He clearly built this chapter for emotional impact alone. Let’s look at it together and learn what we can from his mad skills.
Although the chapter continues fluidly, with only three line breaks, I will divide it eight ways, analyzing its contents with the admittedly nontechnical word “chunk” to show you how it stacks up.
Chunk 1: Suspicion
Perhaps James Bond could slumber peacefully on the bed of nails that was a spy’s life, but I could not.
The South Vietnamese General who has long confided in the Captain (our narrator, a communist sleeper agent) is about to open a liquor store in mid-1970s America, where he and the Captain are refugees after the fall of Saigon. The General summons the Captain to attend the opening, and a friend explains it’s because the General suspects an informer in the ranks. This understandably sets the Captain—and the reader, who is in the know about his dual loyalties—on edge.
Chunk 2: Lust
Although I would not have asked for this favor in September, by April our relationship had taken an unexpected turn.
To attend the opening, the Captain must ask off work from his boss, Ms. Mori. The Captain then takes a couple of sexually charged pages to show how he and Ms. Mori got to the point of the “sweaty, condomless intercourse” in which they are now regularly engaged.
Chunk 3: Hilarity
Ever since my fevered adolescence I had enjoyed myself with athletic diligence, using the same hand with which I crossed myself in mock prayer.
We do not need backstory to understand the Captain’s lust for Ms. Mori. Lust simply is. Yet what comes next, gaining the whiff of shame against his Catholic upbringing, is a detailed depiction of the thirteen-year-old Captain-to-be’s first sexual experience—with a dead squid. With phrases like “my maniacal manhood leaped to attention,” “my cephalopodic bride,” and “from then on no squid was safe from me,” the Captain evokes the universal, urgent hilarity in discovering one’s sexuality, and what lengths he took to cover his tracks knowing that his impoverished mother had carefully counted the squid for dinner.
Chunk 4: Horror
Some will undoubtedly find this episode obscene. Not I! Massacre is obscene. Torture is obscene. Three million dead is obscene. Masturbation, even with an admittedly nonconsensual squid? Not so much.
The way he doubles back with this twist, delivered with epistrophe that shines a spotlight on “obscene”—pow. Even before the smile has left the reader’s face—while in that heightened, giddy state—the Captain skewers home his point. He describes the torture he has witnessed: wire twisted tighter, tighter around a man’s neck during interrogation; “the communist agent with the papier-mâché evidence of her espionage crammed into her mouth, our sour names literally on the tip of her tongue.” These severe consequences of treason weigh on the Captain’s mind when he gets to the grand opening of the liquor store.
Chunk 5: Threat
Have a seat, the General said from behind his desk
Such a simple line, now loaded with such threatening subtext! Next: “The vinyl chairs squeaked obscenely when we moved.” Note the repeat use of “obscene,” previously planted in the reader’s mind with regard to masturbation. The General opens a drawer…like the Captain, we wait breathlessly for him to produce a pistol…but it is cigarettes and scotch he was after.
Chunk 6: Gratitude
You had to get close enough to give a marine a thousand dollars before he’d haul you up.
The next section recaps the desperate flight from fallen Saigon that brought them to this meeting, which makes them feel lucky to still be alive, and reminds us of how the Captain was charged with high-stakes decisions as to who could leave in the General’s plane and who would be left behind.
Chunk 7: Deception and Relief
I had scored a coup, much to my chagrin and purely by accident, throwing the blame onto a blameless man.
When the General says outright that there is an informer, he looks to the Captain for confirmation. We know full well the way the Captain’s stomach is roiling. But when the General names his suspect, it is a major that the Captain chose for evacuation because he had always seemed harmless.
Chunk 8: Unavoidable shame
Do you agree that you must correct your mistake?
Suspicion. Lust. Hilarity. Horror. Threat. Gratitude. Deception and Relief. Unavoidable shame: to save his own life, our relatively peace-loving Captain must murder a man he knows to be innocent. What an emotional roller coaster!
By this point in the novel we have already seen the escape from Saigon. We are already well aware of the Captain’s torn allegiances. Yet this layering of backstory, while not essential to our understanding of the story, builds complex layers into the Captain’s characterization that bonds us to his humanity (yes, I bonded with a communist double agent!), at once heightening our emotional engagement and deepening our understanding of the stakes. Mad skills.
Over to you: What has been your approach to weaving in backstory to create subtext? What do you think of the technique Nguyen uses here? Is it one you can envision using?
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