“The Quiet American” is one of those novels that, in order to truly appreciate, you’ve got to read in conjunction with a comprehensive introduction/essay that will give a clear sense of context. This particular edition actually gets the job done pretty well. But I’ll tell you what: read this novel from our current cultural moment, and this just seems like a snobby European narrator who detests America’s rise to international prominence in the 20th century. And, of course, it is that. Definitely. But you’ve got to understand that it’s trying to be that; it’s trying to truly capture the spirit of the times, the post-World-War-II annoyance at American arrogance, something that many current readers are likely unfamiliar with (though we seem to be very aware of the 2000s-era annoyance at American arrogance). So if you decide to check out “The Quiet American,” make sure that you understand the context, or this could prove to be an underwhelming read.
And…well…it will still be an underwhelming read, regardless. To be completely honest, it’s a book that might be integral to literary history (and particularly, British literary history), but feels emotionally detached, and–despite a brilliant use of a first-person retrospective narrator to keep us engaged in the present moment, and in the backstory–a story that seems empty of tension. Even when we are supposed to feel danger, we don’t, because–although we do feel for the tragic character of the American, Pyle–we never really feel much attachment or sympathy for the British narrator. As I mentioned above, he comes across as a snob, as callous, as uncaring, and since we know from the start that he survives the book and Pyle does not, we hope that he’ll either come to a tragic end, also, or that he’ll change. In the end, when he does not, we’re simply left with a narrator that we’ve never cared about…and so we’re absolutely fine with putting “The Quiet American” back onto the bookshelf, and never really touching it again.