Pachinko, Min Jin Lee
So many novelists who work on Min Jin Lee’s themes would be making a comment — social or political — often a very predictable comment. Their work would be called urgent, relevant, and, God bless them, important. Alas, novelists so often have predictable beliefs. Not Lee. She’s a church-going, Bible-reading, Korean-American Christian, who was a corporate lawyer before she quit to spend eleven years learning how to write fiction while living with chronic liver disease. She calls herself a late bloomer. Her first novel, Free Food for Millionaires, was published when she was thirty-six. That title, in the context of the modern arts scene, sounds like the usual left-wing stuff. Not so.
I was making the ironic comment, “Why do we give millionaires free food? Why do the rich get all the goodies?” But the real thing that I was trying to argue was that we’re all really millionaires because we are given this grace, this unmerited favor of gifts and talents. So every character has a kind of extraordinary gift. Nobody’s actually poor if you really know what your gifts are, and that’s a life’s journey, right?
How Biblical! How very Gospel of Matthew! How un-ironic! As she said, ‘Not all writing is political. It’s not. In fact, it’s quite easy to dodge politics if you’re a skilled writer.’ And boy is she skilled. It is not for nothing that the advice Lee most valued was: ‘“Choose the important over the urgent.”’ It should not be so surprising to discover that one of the bestselling novelists today can be better appreciated if you have at least a passing knowledge of the Bible. (The same is true of Margaret Atwood, another low-predictability writer.) But somehow this feels counter-intuitive. Virginia Woolf scorned T.S. Eliot when he became an Anglican — she simply couldn’t understand anyone being so ridiculous — and we haven’t made much progress since then. Lee tells this story:
I was at a Christmas party, a very literary party. It was kind of one of those drop-in things, and they said, “Well, where are you going now?” And I said, “I’m going to go to church,” because I was going to some evening service. They couldn’t believe it. They started laughing, and they didn’t mean to laugh, but they thought it was so preposterous that I was going to church.
There is a theory of artistic development called small-group theory, which states that for radical innovations in the arts small groups of three to six people must be formed. These groups have to come about when the individual members are ready for them — typically when they are rejected by the establishment. The group dynamics serve to inspire new ideas, new works, new experiments. In this manner was Impressionism created, for example. (Collaborative Circles is an excellent study of several of these groups.) Such groups can be used for a wide range of personal developments and are very well-documented in the research literature.
Many writers, though, do not emerge from small groups of this sort. Lee went to many writing groups and classes, and was taught by people such as Jhumpa Lahiri. But she was never in a collaborative circle of the sort the Impressionists formed. Instead, like Frank Lloyd Wright, Malcolm X, Penelope Fitzgerald, and countless other geniuses, she is a true individual, a solo artist, who drew on many sources, but was ultimately guided by the god within. She was not isolationist — she was joining the tradition of novelists, and studied fiction; she was writing about Koreans in Japan, and interviewed many of them; she was inspired by the Bible, and reads it daily; she was learning the techniques of writing, and went to many classes and groups — but she was self-directed. This is a fine and difficult balance to achieve and no doubt accounts for her astonishing accomplishments. In many of these characteristics, Lee resembles her characters, notably the noble Isak.
I finished Pachinko late in the evening. I woke up still feeling a mix of sadness and amazement about the ending. The feeling stayed with me for days and days. It is one of the most absorbing works of fiction I have read. It will live with the books I think about most. It distracts me from my life. You may find it useful to know that it is a multi-generational story of a family of Koreans who move to Japan, partly as a result of Japan’s colonial oppression; they start poor but do not end so. It is an excellent novel about status, wealth, Christianity, illness, the changing position of women in society, immigrant families and changing family dynamics across generations, the difficulty of being honest, what it takes to be a good person, violent oppression, small business owners, black markets, academia, the place of the unaccepted immigrant, Japan, Korea, corporate life, the wheel of fortune, and so much more. Indeed, Lee has scope. None of those things are quite the reason why you should read Lee, though her story is remarkably under-told. How few novelists can claim that. Zadie Smith might be a good comparison. I was reminded of On Beauty (Smith’s best novel) multiple times, especially in the depiction of teenage boys and of characters who struggle to assimilate their bookish intelligence with the facts of the world. They both write careful, beautifully precise prose.
Critics compare Lee to the great Victorian novelists (who Lee reads and cites admiringly) but this is slightly lazy. Of course, she writes long, detailed realism. Her characters are vivid and ‘there’ and precise. (The one who affected me most was Noa. Oh Noa! Noa!) She is concerned with deep social and philosophical issues. But she is not some George Eliot tribute act. Pachinko is a strange book to compare to Tolstoy — what, because it is long and historical? It has more in common with Doctor Zhivago, perhaps… But like the plethora of exciting words splurged across the cover — captivating, powerful, a fable for our times, luminous, an instant classic, God I get bored just typing these things — this sort of comparison has surface value only. Anyone who writes a realistic social comedy about middle class is the ‘new Jane Austen’ and these critical responses are all as worthless as each other. Don’t use them to choose your fiction and don’t read Pachinko because of it either. Fiction blurbs are mostly bollocks.
As Frank Kermode said about E.M. Forster, reading Lee I feel like I learned something. Not just something about the history of Korea and Japan. The huge amount of research Lee puts into her writing — interviews, books, academic papers — is assimilated into propulsive, character-based fiction. All novelists do research; not all of them do it, or use it, properly. That’s something else she has in common with Margaret Atwood. Like Atwood, she is writing about the world, not just about herself, and about how history affects us now. Like Forster, she kills her characters without warning. Unlike Forster, she’s remarkably good at it. And like Scott Fitzgerald, she can make a character tell through a very few words of dialogue or a few items of clothes. She is expert at describing gesture and activity. She is a good novelist of minor action.
Most of all, what she really does share with the great writers of the past is that she is an original.
My next salon, on May 31st, is called The Biography Conundrum – Was Boswell smarter than Johnson? It’s about what makes the Life of Johnson great. Is it the subject Samuel Johnson, pioneering lexicographer, poet, essayist, pillar of morality, and Latin scholar—or the author James Boswell, failed lawyer, frequenter of prostitutes, sycophant, and a drunk? Join me to discuss that and more!
Tours of London
New dates for my tours of London have been released.
Thanks for reading. If you’re enjoying The Common Reader, let your interesting friends know what you think. Or leave a comment at the bottom.
If you don’t subscribe to The Common Reader, but you enjoy reading whatever’s interesting, whenever it was written, sign up now.