Nguyen's political thriller is about a Vietnamese spy living in Los Angeles in the years following the end of the American War in South East Asia. It has gotten a significant amount of attention, making the New York Times 100 Notable Books of 2015, being short-listed for the Pen/Faulkner Award in Fiction, and winning the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction and the Center For Fiction's First Novel Prize. It was also #9 on the prediction list put together by the Pulitzer Prize First Edition Guide, once again showing that the statistical model used is pretty effective.
All that said, this was a surprise. In a year dominated by debates about A Little Life and accolades for The Sellout, Nguyen's book quietly went about its business and sneaked in to take the big prize.
Despite being a bit sad that A Little Life did not win I am relatively pleased with this year's award. The last two winners The Goldfinch and All The Light We Cannot See were huge commercial hits and did not really need this award. In contrast, Nguyen is a little known author and academic, whose writing will now receive significant attention. Nguyen left a little note on his website that I found touching and made me even more eager to pick the novel up:
I got the news at around 3:15 thanks to my Twitter and Facebook feed. I sat around shocked, stunned, fielding phone calls from my publicist and doing news interviews and trying to reply to as many emails, tweets, and Facebook comments and messages as I could. I called my wonderful partner, Lan Duong. I felt queasy and struck by literary lightning. I went to do a book talk at Harvard Bookstore and was so pleased to have a conversation with so many people. I just want to say to all of you who are reading this what I’ve tried to say to the press. Of course it’s wonderful for me to get this prize. But within minutes of getting it, I knew that I owed tremendous thanks to everyone who has gone before me in the great, ongoing struggle for social justice, for peace, for genuine equality, for representation for all at every level of every society. I think of the enormous debts I owe to everyone who fought for civil rights, for radical power, for economic equity, and how all these issues are inseparable from justice in the literary world. No minority writer, no writer of color, can claim that he or she accomplished anything purely on their own merit. We all owe so much to the collective struggles and activists that preceded us, that laid the foundations for our individual achievement, to everyone lucky enough to be remembered and so many who have been forgotten. Great love to Asian American Studies, to Ethnic Studies, to UC Berkeley, my alma mater that made me into the person that I am, to all who fight the good fight and who will never, ever believe that they are only individuals. All your messages to me registering the pride you feel in my accomplishment as a friend, as a fellow scholar or writer, as an Asian American/ist, as a Vietnamese or Vietnamese American–all of this affirms to me that we who wish to be are part of a movement, of movements, for love, peace, justice, and not least of all great literature. I will respond to all of you over the next few days, but for now, thanks so much for your kind words.
Fantastic year in fiction ending with a shocker. The 2016 literary awards will begin soon in earnest, with the Booker long list coming out in July. I will try to keep up with my regular reviews.