Last Updated September 5, 2023.
Novel Without a Name is intensely concerned with the question of identity, showing how the beliefs and memories we traditionally think of as comprising an identity can be disrupted and upended by conditions such as war. In order to pose these questions, it tracks its protagonists Quan, Bien, and Luong from their original position of innocence through times of trauma and loss.
Each character responds uniquely to their experience of the Vietnam War. Luong copes by forming an attachment to the military apparatus, rising quickly through the Vietnamese army's ranks. He also becomes a willing vehicle for propaganda, spreading nationalist sentiments in order to identify with the national bureaucracy. Bien is less successful or certain about his place: the war induces a dysphoria in him which leads to severe mental illness and confinement.
Quan's story is the most introspective and ambivalent of the three. After Luong orders him to free Bien, he treks through Vietnam, responding richly and intensely to the atrocities around him. He develops the attitude of an ironist, internalizing the cognitive dissonance between the praise and celebration with which the army met their enlistment to the devastation of the war's wake. Unlike his friends, he comes to realize that their identities have been claimed by their nation's political powers to be implemented in war as order-following puppets. At the novel's end, Quan realizes that this ideological brainwashing is not endemic to the Vietnamese when he witnesses an American prisoner and sees that he, too, is a victim of his government.