The 2016 Tournament of Books - Quarterfinals, Day One

The 2016 Tournament of Books  -  Quarterfinals, Day One

Bats of the Republic by Zachary Thomas Dodson vs The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen

I loved The Sympathzier and I liked Bats of the Republic. It’s as simple and as complicated a decision as that.

The Sympathizer starts out as a thriller, with the main character and others escaping Saigon as the city is about to fall and then it shifts into a darker mode as it goes on. The main character is something of an everyman - and all the characters are archetypal - but our hero is a great believer and it’s this idealism that keeps us following him, keep us rooting for him, believing that he’ll find a way to get out somehow from both his North Vietnamese handlers and the exiles plotting to return and retake the country.

By contrast Bats of the Republic lacks a character that is so compelling. In both the past and the present, the characters aren’t flat  - I’ve read enough books where the characters are lacking in any and all depth, utterly unbelievable and exist only to advance the plot, and Dodson avoids that, but neither do they ever feel believable. The book is a puzzle and the piece are beautiful and assembling it is exciting, but in the end, the story and the characters which tie it all together, never grabbed me.

I know that this is often the criticism of so much “genre” fiction. The characters are analogues of the writer or they exist to explain things to the audience or to propel the plot. I understand this criticism and I’ve certainly read a lot of books that qualify. (Even though I find the dig at “genre” offensive but that’s a fight for another day)

Books like Bats of the Republic are few and far between but it’s a form that I think we’ll be seeing more of in the years to come. I enjoy them. That should come as no surprise, I read and write a lot about graphic novels so I’m probably less shocked by a book like this than some people. The problem is with a lot of books and other projects like this is that the idea is paramount. Not the characters, not the prose, but the idea. I’m not saying that there’s anything wrong with that. On the one hand, if some of the characters don’t come to life, it could be a killer for the book, but in a book like this, it’s a flaw but not a fatal flaw. It does keep me from loving it, though.

I liked Bats, I respect Bats, I want to read what Dodson will do next, but in the end, the book that kept me thinking about it long after I finished was The Sympathizer.

My Verdict:  The Sympathizer

Over at the Tournament:  Bats of the Republic

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