This book has a lot going on. Chang-Rae Lee is one of those authors who always seems just to be out there waiting for me to read his work. I’ve read his “newer” novel On Such a Full Sea years ago when it first came out and I’ve thought about it a lot since.
This book looks like it’s going to be one type of book and in some ways it is, but then it’s a very very different kind of book throughout. The title of the book and some of the material in the book makes this look like it’s going to be the kind of early to mid 90s, first or second generation immigrant narrative dealing with split identity in the US and how it impacts the specific psychology of a community, family, or character. And it is! All of these things. But the whole novel feels like it’s been filtered through a Don Delillo lens.
So our narrator is a second generation Korean-American (although I think he moved to the US as a child) whose father owns a handful of vegetable stores around the metropolitan New York area. Our narrator is married to a white woman from the US and the couple is dealing with the death of their young son, who suffocated in a freak at-home accident. The narrator has also recently taken work with a local New York Korean-American politician who is trying to figure out how to run as a Korean-American candidate and court both wide and narrow support. This is all set against the background of the LA protests and the tense relations between the Black and Korean communities in LA and other cities around the US.
All this is happening while the narrator is also working as a covert agent. So there’s that too.
Like I said this is a layered book, and an extremely erudite book as well. It’s not so much of a story as a slow unraveling of a complex life situation. It hits all kind of high notes, and both feels like the most 1990s novel ever, and the one about the 1990s from a post-9/11 world.