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.