The Sympathizer

There’s this thing called “content brain” that you get when you write online.

Thomas Bevan explains:

You develop content-brain as each day you spend you peak creative energy feeding the algorithm the bite sized chunks of easily digestible nonsense that it craves.

You degenerate from essays and paragraphs down to fortune cookies and quotations.

[Kris: the mechanism conjures the still-fresh-on-my-mind reading of Amusing Ourselves To Death]

Rather than actually writing you merely write about writing. You become a commentator rather than a practitioner.

I’m as guilty as anyone. And if you want to give me lashes, I’ll even provide the whip — see my old post The Literary Version Of A Chart Crime.

Despite the justifiable negative characterization, “content brain” is also a filter. Its most refined expression in financial writing is story-mining history to explain some evergreen concept in a memorable way. At the same time there’s a dangling sense that you can see the string suspending the magician’s levitation act. The more skillful the writer the less visible the string.

While I was in Vietnam I had to suppress many urges to intellectualize the experience for the purpose of talking about it here. And then several people told me they look forward to me writing about it.

Well, I’m going to disappoint them.


  1. I actively didn’t want to be in my head. I told myself I didn’t want to “find the insights” in the experience. I just x’d out the FindInsight.exe window that auto-boots when I do something novel. Partly in the name of being present but mostly because I don’t have the chops to give Vietnam and its people the words they deserve.
  2. I read Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizer (Khe texted me to recommend it when he noticed I was in Saigon). You are better off reading 1 sentence from Nguyen than a blog article from me.

So to that end:

For the theatrically inclined:

Here’s the trailer for the 2024 release of a series of the show on HBO MAX. Robert Downey is one of the stars. I’ll take the liberty of making one connection here — in The Sympathizer there’s a theme of “representation” and the book’s protagonist is cast in a dilemma of how to influence a film made about the Vietnam War, an unsubtle reference to Apocalypse Now, and its choice of actors for Vietnamese roles.

In the tongue-in-cheek film Tropic Thunder, Downey’s character does the blackface thing in the name of method-acting but the movie is in on the self-skewering joke. In the series adaptation of The Sympathizer, Downey does the Eddie-Murphy-plays-lots-of-chacters-thing.

I willfully decided this is not an accident. I’m giving Downey massive props for commitment to a highly meta display of satire that breaks the container from a single film and lands an impressively drawn-out professional wink.

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