FEBRUARY 6, 2012
WAS IT RIGHT TO LEAVE? Was it wrong to stay? Are we better off here, or there? These are the questions that haunt the denizens of Krys Lee’s Drifting House, a short story collection that traces the hard choices faced by Koreans at home and in the United States over the past half-century. From the mother who moves from Seoul to Culver City, California, in search of her lost daughter, to the laid-off South Korean worker who chooses homelessness over returning to his family in shame, to the three starving North Korean children seeking refuge in China, Lee’s characters are forced to make the sorts of impossible decisions that turn regret into an indelible feature of the landscape. Each new indignity or misfortune they face stirs up new doubts: How might life be better if we left this place? Could we have averted this fate if we had never left? Lee returns repeatedly to the question of identity and outsider status, asking what it means to value your home over your personal liberty, or to value opportunity and possibility over belonging. “What if they had been the all-American family who fit into the order of things?” wonders Jenny in “The Believer,” whose family is fractured by an act of violence. “Would her mother have become as sick as she had? Immigrants. Not here nor there, not this or that. Indeterminate and silenced.”
Drifting House grapples with the uneven terrain of compromise, of giving up one thing for the sake of another. Yet thanks to the dexterity of Lee’s prose and her ability to imbue her characters with passion and tenacity, these stories transcend any sort of predictable immigrant-experience template. An efficient storyteller who’s capable of deftly portraying each character with a minimal number of brushstrokes, Lee also indulges in unrepentantly poetic outbursts, drenching readers in the occasional impressionistic downpour. In each story, Lee offers up the inner lives of her protagonists, the sensual details and the tugs of guilt, love, and contempt flowing like avant-garde jazz. Take her description of two girls playing dress-up:
The mirror in Mrs. Lim’s room faithfully reflects misery and magnificence: a pyramid of her dresses, a nest of souvenirs, a portrait of Jesus hanging off a nail. A stopped wristwatch, a body’s impressions still visible on the cotton you spread on the floor, the worn blade of a used razor, a cluster of black ants in the corner, the blood of a crushed mosquito staining the wall, Hana in her frilly bra and panties, and Mina, tottering, perilous in her mother’s yellow platform heels, imagining the world looking at her.
Lee’s description of the life of a female artist married to a wealthy painter, on the other hand, mixes minimalism with wildness:
So this was marriage. With Seongwon, Eunkang had been allowed to be herself. She had thrown occasional chunks of cement at the riot police, she had worn obnoxious colors. While friends strategized for their children’s education and labored under weekly visits to the in-laws, she neglected dirty dishes, and painted with no pressure to sell.
Whatever path she chooses, Lee gets the job done. We understand who her characters are and what they want and what they dream of, and we care about them sooner than we expect to – and sometimes a little more deeply than we’d prefer, considering some of the dark outcomes here.
Lee’s unpredictable, sometimes unrestrained style provides a satisfying counterpoint to the rigidity of her characters, their frequent discomfort with novelty, their reluctance to adjust. There is the protagonist of “The Salaryman,” too proud to return to his wife after he’s laid off, too pragmatic not to accept an alliance with a fellow homeless man whom he detests, too rigid to backtrack and change his mind about any of his bad choices. There is Insu Nam, the Flatbush shop owner of “The Believer,” who loves his murderous wife and longs for their past life together, even though his inability to move forward is destroying his daughter. But there are also characters who bloom under pressure. There is Eunkang of “A Small Sorrow,” the wife of an unfaithful husband, who is drawn to the young object of her husband’s affection. Instead of trying to insult or destroy the girl, she recognizes that she is less envious of her husband’s attention than she is of the girl’s freedom. And there is Gilho Pak of “The Goose Father,” who miraculously finds the courage to overcome decades of self-sacrifice and repression.
Lee’s stories swerve and dart and flicker with melancholy, darkness, and hope, but over the course of the collection, we sink into deepening layers of desperation and are exposed to increasingly virulent strains of heartbreak. The underlying optimism of the first few stories is replaced by a gathering gloom. Many of Lee’s characters are making their last, strained attempts at survival. Or there is a discernible thread of despair woven into their efforts, hinting that they might give up at any second. She seems attracted to moments of reckoning, when a resilient soul who has overcome untold difficulties finally shrugs and accepts that it’s time, at last, to surrender.
In story after story, reality is trumped by each character’s subjective emotional experience. But isn’t that how extreme suffering feels? The neurotic mind continues to fire away, the emotional engine is flooded and then stalls out, and the vertical and the horizontal are no longer under the protagonist’s power. Free will and reasoning feel like artifacts of the distant past. In “Beautiful Women,” Mina, the young girl whose loving African-American father died in Vietnam, compensates for the collapse of her security by creating an imaginary bubble where her mother still belongs to her alone, where the world is still flush with wonder and promise. In “The Believer,” Jenny indulges her grieving father’s delusions in order to delay his inevitable decline a little bit longer. Lee has mastered the terrain of suspended disbelief, of willful, mutual isolation. She’s drawn to artfully constructed illusions designed to seal out further trauma: a boy who loves a goose beyond reason, a lonely man who sips rice wine and plays Ping-Pong into the small hours. However dark their fates might be, Lee blesses her characters with passions forged from the flames of suffering. The survivors of Drifting House are those who dare to find their salvation in small moments of beauty and connection, who have endured great losses, but pick themselves up and keep moving forward.
Lee’s stories can be exhausting, but only because she pushes each tale past the mundane to a place where ugliness and beauty exist side by side, where optimism is always leavened by despair and vice versa. Drifting House reminds us of the illumination that comes from recognizing the shakiness of the ground under our feet. We tell ourselves that we are in control of our stories, but we never are. Lee’s survivors know the truth: Control isn’t possible. Once we accept that, we take our first, small steps toward grace.