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[LITERATURE] Katherine Min's "Secondhand World"

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  • madchinaman
    Katherine Min s Secondhand World A fractured snapshot of the American dream By Deborah Vankin Deborah Vankin is a writer and editor living in Los Angeles.
    Message 1 of 1 , Nov 28, 2006
      Katherine Min's 'Secondhand World'
      A fractured snapshot of the American dream
      By Deborah Vankin
      Deborah Vankin is a writer and editor living in Los Angeles.

      IF there is such a thing as a "pretty novel," Katherine Min's
      debut, "Secondhand World," could be mistaken for one — an easy,
      flowing story told in achingly evocative prose that lingers in your
      consciousness during idle moments, while you're waiting at a traffic
      light or standing in line at the market. A pretty novel is not so
      ambitious that it alters the reader's perception of reality in any
      measurable way; the story may even be familiar. Rather, it's
      beguiling in a simple and accessible manner, like a young woman
      crossing the street who might turn your head. A pretty novel offers
      well-drawn, vulnerable characters who resonate, and it may be shot
      through with sentences so perfectly told that you may find yourself
      flipping back through the pages to experience, again, how the words
      rock inside your ear and roll off your inner tongue. A pretty novel
      with something to say? That's an accomplishment.

      "Secondhand World" is about many things: immigrant alienation,
      marital rifts, war, vanity, murder and guilt. But at its core, the
      novel — told from the perspective of a young Korean American woman
      looking back on her troubled childhood — is a meditation on the
      sometimes punishing nature of memory. Because sometimes the past is
      more vibrant and alive than the everyday grind, and the present
      merely secondhand.

      In this way, 18-year-old Isadora Myung Hee Sohn, a.k.a. "Isa," is
      surrounded by ghosts. It is 1976 and Isa is narrating from her
      sickbed in the burn unit of an Albany hospital. She's the sole
      survivor of a household fire that one of her parents intentionally
      set — a murder-suicide. But the ghosts were there with Isa long
      before her parents died. As she recalls in short, impressionistic
      snapshots, her childhood in suburban upstate New York was a lonely
      one. Isa's parents, traditional Korean immigrants, achieved a slice
      of the American dream — two children; a split-level gray clapboard
      house; a full-time university teaching position for her father, an
      emotionally distant scientist; and a coveted dishwasher for her
      mother, a beautiful but vain woman obsessed with arranging an
      operation for Isa to "fix" her eyelids. Isa watches them "laying down
      roots to gain desperate purchase in pale, inhospitable soil." Despite
      the middle-class achievements, the Sohn household is emotionally
      vacant. Isa's parents float from one kimchi and miyeok-guk (seaweed
      soup) meal to another, socially isolated from their surroundings and
      struggling to connect not just with their adopted culture, but also
      with each other.

      After the sudden death of Isa's 4-year-old brother, Stephen, her
      parents retreat even further, preoccupied with grief over the loss of
      their only son. The here and now is transparent to them. Their more
      immediate lives are their private ones, which are rich with vivid
      memories, inspiration and affection. Late at night, Isa's father pads
      downstairs in his slippers, sips whisky and stares off into
      nothingness, alternately haunted by the Korean War (he fought for the
      South) and dreaming of his beloved homeland. Isa's mother
      methodically prepares dinner and washes dishes, but afterward she
      slips out to poetry classes at the local college, where she is having
      an affair with her professor. Amid this fractured, hollow existence,
      Isa sort of grows up by accident. It's not until she uncovers her
      mother's affair that things ignite — quite literally.

      If all this sounds like your typical dysfunctional 1970s family, it
      is. More specifically, it's Rick Moody's "The Ice Storm" meets a
      vintage version of "Crash." The Sohn family battles blatant racism
      and cultural displacement, and their quiet if frigid suburban
      existence is studded with more universal familial problems like
      infidelity and the death of a child. So theirs is very much at once
      an immigrant story and an utterly American one.

      Raw, emotionally urgent and peppered with acute detail, "Secondhand
      World" feels like a childhood memoir, but it's crafted with the
      seasoned hand of an older author who writes with insight and polish.
      Isa is a feisty, deeply sensitive teen struggling to make sense of
      the alienation she feels from both her peers and her parents. As a
      young child, she imagines herself a "triangle among circles, an apple
      among pears," and she is taunted by other children at school, who
      call her a "chink." In high school, she runs away with an albino boy
      named Hero and her best friend, Rachel, who taught her to masturbate
      during a sleepover. So the novel — layered with first loves, sexual
      awakenings, issues of identity and independence — is also a classic
      coming-of-age story.

      Such a vast prism of perspective, however, is ultimately the book's
      biggest flaw. It's simply about too much. Each florid anecdote could
      stand to be fleshed out, and the plot is a little too disjointed. As
      Isa's narration lurches forward, portraying seminal points in her
      life, the external situations feel somewhat forced. But the journey
      is nonetheless worthwhile, if just to tag along with the
      idiosyncratic, inquisitive Isa, a language-loving kid "hoarding words
      like 'cat's-eye marbles,' 'Indian-head nickels,' or other such
      childhood treasure."

      Interestingly — and tragically — Min's novel is also somewhat timely.
      A recent cover story in The Times' West Magazine featured Bin Na Kim,
      16, a Korean American girl whose father shot and killed family
      members in a murder-suicide. Bin Na, like Isa, was the sole survivor
      of tragedy. And Bin Na, like the orphaned Isa, found strength through
      forgiveness. It's through such forgiveness that, once the story winds
      its way back to the Albany burn ward, Isa is able to reconcile and
      quiet the ghosts that haunt her. In the end, she weeps. "Not for self-
      pity, or remorse, or even sadness. But in gratitude." Because she
      realizes that, even completely alone, the immediate world isn't such
      a bad place to be after all. •
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