The setting is the end of the Vietnam war; the main character tells us early on that he belongs to the North, but works under cover with the South.
Presented as a spy novel, it is, but it isn’t the thriller one might expect. It is more an exploration of character, of times, and of the interaction between them. It has philosophical moments that are entirely in character and not intrusive, thoughts on being of two minds, on representation, and on “nothing.” The latter was interesting, but I am not sure how seriously to take it. The former makes me think that if I were still teaching, I might join this book with How to Be Both in a unit.
For me the theme of Who-Gets-to-Represent-Us? enters with the chapters about a movie script and its shooting. However, that was a ways into the novel, so I might reread to see if I missed its actual beginning. When the movie chapters appeared, they seemed an interruption, but gradually they were woven into the whole.
The plot was slow, as character explorations tend to be, slow in a good sense. There were moments where action was faster paced and it was a page turner. There was a nice rhythm between the two. We are told early on that the narration is really a “confession” to a “commandant,” so we keep wondering what the narrator did to get himself into that position. We also expect, and get, some torture scenes. They feel really long while reading them, but don’t take a large percentage of pages.
Some of the characters have names. Some don’t, but rather are identified by position and sometimes affect: “the crapulent major,” “the congressman,” “the affectless lieutenant.” It would be worth a second read to look for a pattern of who gets named and who doesn’t. It isn’t wholly major/minor characters. It doesn’t create stock characters. It may relate to the degree in intimacy with the narrator, but I’m not ready to commit to that.
It is a novel worth reading once to see how it ends; it is worth rereading to ferret out deeper meaning.