Pachinko, Min Jin Lee’s novel following multiple generations of a Korean family through most of the 20th Century, has received a lot of positive attention: finalist for the National Book Award, 10 best books of 2017 for the New York Times Book Review, Roxane Gay’s favorite book of the year (according to the Washington Post). And from what I’ve seen, the reviews here at CBR have been universally positive.
So I’m at a bit of a loss, because I really didn’t enjoy it. At all. I was bored, and it took me forever to slog through it. Yet I also didn’t hate it, so I can’t even write a gleeful takedown. I didn’t care about any of the characters, most of them too shallow and one-dimensional to like or dislike, let alone love or hate. Nothing really happens. I mean, stuff happens, but it’s all so mundane that I can’t even be bothered to provide a plot summary.
I watched Hannah Gadsby’s Netflix special Nanette earlier this week, and one of the many things I loved was how she explains how comedy actually works in simple yet incredibly effective terms. It’s her job to create tension by building anticipation or making the audience uncomfortable and then use a punchline or something unexpected to elicit a laugh and break the tension. This is a foundational principle of art — tension and release — and it’s certainly true of storytelling.
That’s what I missed in this novel. Very little happens to create real tension. It’s all very clean and expected. Characters always act within character. Even the supposed elements of organized crime only provide implied danger. One guy beats up a hooker, and I think maybe we’re finally getting somewhere, but then he goes right back to being this ordinary guy who lives to a reasonably old age and only wants to take care of his family. I guess?
Not that many of the background events aren’t horrifying. One of the characters moves to Nagasaki near the end of World War II, not knowing of course that the US would drop an atomic bomb on the city a few months later. He isn’t killed, but he is badly injured and never recovers, wasting away for years and making everyone around him miserable. He didn’t go through any big transformation: he was dour and miserable before his injuries, and he’s dour and miserable afterwards. It’s not that I don’t feel bad for him. It just doesn’t make for interesting reading.
The same goes for the one overarching theme: Japan’s terrible treatment of Koreans in general and Korean immigrants in particular. I’ll admit to being ignorant of this bit of history, and as much as I want to go learn more about it, now I also have to admit that I wasn’t remotely moved by it within the context of this story. Most Japanese characters are consistently cruel, some are indifferent, and a few are consistently good. That’s all.
I’m reminded of my favorite Roger Ebert quotes: “It’s not what a movie is about; it’s how it is about it.” This book is about a lot of interesting history and ideas, but it doesn’t tell a very interesting story about them.