Doomed to Destiny: On Matthew Salesses’s “The Sense of Wonder”

September 3, 2023   •   By Will Hagle

The Sense of Wonder

Matthew Salesses

“DON’T SAY IT’S like we’re in a K-drama!” a character named K shouts through the phone from Seoul to New York, about a quarter of the way through Matthew Salesses’s medium-agnostic new novel The Sense of Wonder. But of course, given the book’s structure and metafictional bent, this quip confirms that the characters are precisely what K doesn’t want to admit: in a Korean television drama with a complex four-way love story. That is their fate.

The Sense of Wonder uses K-drama as a foundational structure. Salesses doesn’t hide this approach or hint at it in uncertain terms; the prose addresses it head-on. For the bulk of the novel, characters Won and Carrie alternate first-person narration of the main storyline: Won’s sudden NBA success and the effect it has on their relationships with one other and with Powerball!—the superstar Won temporarily supplants—and Robert Sung, a contentious sportswriter who covers the New York Knicks. Midway through the book, and once again toward the end, an unnamed narrator interrupts Won’s and Carrie’s parts to explain to the reader exactly what K-drama is and how it operates. These sections call out the common tropes and themes of Korean television, breaking the fourth wall to add elaborative context while also summarizing the plots of shows Carrie works on.

The book’s main character and primary narrator, Won, draws unsubtle real-life inspiration from a quintessential American drama: the 2012 “Linsanity” phenomenon, when Taiwanese American Harvard graduate Jeremy Lin captivated the hearts of fans worldwide during a brief but impressive stat-stuffing winning streak on the Knicks’ starting squad. Won is not quite Lin. He’s Korean American and played college ball at Princeton. Specifics aside, both are undrafted Asian American Knicks reserve players who seize on an opportunity created by injuries to teammates to propel themselves to superstardom over the course of a few sensational (and sensationalized) months. Won takes the starting job from Powerball!, a popular player with whom Won’s journalist friend Robert Sung has an unhealthy obsession. The media refers to Won’s sudden success as “the Wonder,” and plenty of people with no business discussing the topic wonder what his unexpected rise means for representation.

The Sense of Wonder is a latticework of cross-cultural and cross-medium adaptation, transmuting Linsanity first into a fictionalized docudrama, then into a K-drama, reframing a well-known story—told first by American sports media—in a different cultural tradition. Carrie’s job in the book is to translate popular K-dramas in the United States, for American audiences. Salesses does the same, and vice versa. The book, like its characters, finds meaning in this undefinable space between two worlds. For audiences who are accustomed to consuming sports stories from the perspective of American media, The Sense of Wonder reevaluates the ways such narratives can be told. In K-drama, you know how the story will end from the beginning; those who remember Linsanity can’t forget how it ended. The novel’s plot builds toward an obvious, unavoidable conclusion. The unnamed narrator’s meta explanation and analysis of the K-drama form directs readers beyond the plot to the places where the real meaning lies.

In Craft in the Real World: Rethinking Fiction Writing and Workshopping (2021), his bestselling book that reshaped the approaches of workshop instructors nationwide, Salesses explores in depth the topic of audience. He encourages creative writing instructors to push against terms like “the reader” and to remind students that their personal reactions to a workshopped story do not represent the work’s entire “intended audience.” Audiences are inextricable from racial and social context. Writing is too. MFA programs, which historically have been disproportionately white, tend to shepherd students toward craft choices that appease the expectations of audiences accustomed to Western narrative. Salesses puts into practice in his fiction what he theorizes about in his craft book. The Sense of Wonder, like his previous works Disappear Doppelgänger Disappear (2020) and The Hundred Year Flood (2015), is a self-aware, intentional subversion of audience expectations about storytelling.

For most American readers, the Knicks, and the sports-entertainment apparatus that covers them, may be more familiar than K-drama. Linsanity transcended sports. If the 2012 Knicks season were a Korean television show, it would be referred to as a “National Drama,” which The Sense of Wonder explains is the distinction popular series earn “because of the shared experience” viewers enjoy. People who don’t watch basketball, who couldn’t tell you whether “Lawler’s Law: First to 100 Wins” is an age-old axiom or a real NBA rule, were drawn into the story. It was inescapable. By subverting, for this group of American readers, expectations of how the narrative of Linsanity should be told, The Sense of Wonder pushes that particular audience to rethink both fictional narrative structure and the way we interpret real-life events.

The sections of The Sense of Wonder that point out K-drama conventions during breaks from the primary plotlines show this uninitiated American audience how to understand sources of tension within the novel itself. When the story seems to be about Won popping off against the Lakers, like Lin did, the unnamed narrator appears to remind this audience, in both direct and indirect ways, of the specific uniqueness of this rendition. The K-drama characteristic emphasized most often throughout The Sense of Wonder is fate. Unlike on American television, characters in a K-drama do not have the illusion of free will. What happens must happen. “[T]he tension,” the narrator says, is “between certainty and wonder.” This contrasts with American drama, which tends to derive its tension from conflict, from (at least the appearance of) an uncertain conclusion.

Like Craft in the Real World, or another book that seems too obvious to bring up but is—in the parlance of literary agents or NBA scouts—a “relevant comp,” Charles Yu’s Interior Chinatown (2020), The Sense of Wonder filters a distinctly American story through a narrative structure that is both Western and not. Salesses might not have written his novel for one specific audience, but the book does challenge whatever audience it finds to engage with storytelling styles that do not adhere to their expected standards. This emphasizes how “worldviews” are just that: different ways of humans subjectively interpreting the same objective reality.

American sports media outlets tend to tell stories using what Salesses refers to in Craft in the Real World as a “Western idea of conflict.” A team must either win or lose. The way the media portrayed Linsanity in the moment was a hero’s journey: triumph over insurmountable obstacles. The 2022 documentary 38 at the Garden, which depicts how Lin’s brief superstardom shattered stereotypes and resonated with an underrepresented population, sticks to American cultural values in its retelling. As the film’s title suggests, the climactic moment comes from Lin dropping 38 on Kobe Bryant on the Knicks’ home court at Madison Square Garden.

Salesses doesn’t have to stretch, however, to make a fictionalized version of Linsanity fit into a K-drama template, which does share a few key characteristics with American sports media. The unnamed narrator in The Sense of Wonder says that K-dramas are written in real time, as a series airs. In American sports media, talking heads analyze a game to death, generating irrelevant statistics to create endless narratives on the fly. K-drama binds four characters—almost enough for a basketball squad—to destiny. Will Nikola Jokić, the league’s undeniable most valuable player, bring Denver its first-ever championship? In the 2023 season, this outcome felt certain; the tension came from wondering whether any playoff team could upset them, could tempt fate.

Those who recall how the arc of Jeremy Lin’s National Drama ended can predict what will happen for Won on the court. (The end of that story, after all, was written before it began.) Won’s hot streak ices over. An injury takes him out. The superstar he replaced comes back from the sidelines. The unsuspecting phenom gets cut and sent to a different city, then winds up in an Asian league. Salesses plays with this common American notion that an audience’s knowing the end of the plot from the beginning is detrimental to the effectiveness of the story. Won’s first chapter opens with “I got to know Robert Sung pretty well in the end.” The novel concludes with a directive to go back and read the book again. Won’s fate is predetermined, but a story like this couldn’t possibly be spoiled. It’s not about him beating the Lakers, or battling with the Knicks’ front office, or selling a lot of jerseys, or partying with the team in Los Angeles’s K-town. The tension is between certainty and wonder.

In an interview on author and journalist Mitzi Rapkin’s podcast First Draft: A Dialogue on Writing, Salesses said that he based the book on Linsanity because that is the real-life phenomenon that filled him with the greatest sense of wonder. He talks about using his novel to explore “possibility within the limitations that are put upon us,” which is the storytelling technique that K-dramas tend to employ. That includes an Asian American NBA player for whom American sports media personalities have “no frame of reference,” as well as a book that has an actual, limiting frame of reference to guide its narrative. So The Sense of Wonder—again, a book that exists in multiple worlds at once—manages to remind audiences of how Linsanity represented wonder while also flipping the emphasis away from the obvious and toward its subtler nuances.

Like fate and wonder, love is an oft-emphasized K-drama characteristic that proliferates throughout The Sense of Wonder. As the book develops with the alternating perspectives of Won and Carrie—who have an open, long-distance relationship—it seems as if the story is, in fact, their love story. They are the K-drama’s two primary characters, but the love story weaves in the four-way, webbed relationship between them and two secondary characters. Robert Sung is a journalist who once had NBA aspirations and now is obsessed with Powerball!, the sidelined Knicks superstar threatened by Won’s quick rise to fame. Won has a complex and contentious relationship with both Sung and Powerball!, and the Linsanity inspiration raises issues of race, stereotyping, representation, and fame. Sung uses Won to get closer to Powerball!, who has an affair with Sung’s wife and pressures Won into a sexual experience in Los Angeles. Carrie is dragged into all of this, despite the other characters not understanding the complexity of her relationship with Won. The fates of these four characters are intertwined. They’re doomed to destiny together.

By writing The Sense of Wonder from the perspectives of an athlete and those around him, and by using the loose framework of a love story, Salesses explores another storytelling avenue too often ignored in the dominant form of American sports media: getting off the stat sheet and into the athlete’s head. The novel retells Linsanity not just as a K-drama but also from the point of view of the man at its center, rather than an amazed spectator. This allows audiences to reach depths that even a documentary like 38 at the Garden could not. Salesses doesn’t know what Lin was thinking during his 2012 hot streak, but unlike sports media, his novel at least attempts to dig into those overlooked emotions.

When Jokić fulfilled his destiny this year, his postgame interview clips gained traction online with audiences who otherwise might pay no attention to sports. After winning the title, Jokić infamously said, in his deadpan Serbian accent, “The job is done. We can go home now.” He bemoaned the scheduling of a parade in Denver three days later, and verbally charged through an onslaught of flagrant-fouling, microphone-wielding hands with the slam dunk reminder that one’s job is far from the most important thing in life. (For Jokić, that would seem to be horse racing.)

For now, we laugh. We know how Jokić feels, but we don’t know why he feels that way. He seems to be homesick and ready for a break—from basketball, from this country, from it all—but what if there’s a sick relative he’s not telling us about? Something else going on in his personal life making him want to get home faster?

When it comes to American sports coverage, the standard progression is predictable. Inevitable. Fated. The media ridicules athletes in the moment, then looks back at sensationalized stories years later with an evolved perspective. Companies half-heartedly apologize for their misguided coverage. Maybe we’ll come back to Jokić’s 2023 post-championship interviews a decade from now and laugh again, or maybe we’ll realize we were laughing for the wrong reasons, and our enjoyment came at the expense of a real person’s health and sanity. If the latter, it will be too late.

ESPN, a chief culprit in this ongoing phenomenon, has released multiple historical documentaries that outright acknowledge how the network’s portrayal of certain events has had dramatic consequences on the well-being of individuals. One example is 2014’s 30 for 30 short “Kid Danny.” The episode looks back at the 2001 Little League World Series, where Dominican American pitching phenom Danny Almonte threw a historic perfect game. The media demonized Almonte in the months after the series, as investigators uncovered that he was two years over the competition’s age limit of 12. Sports Illustrated exposed him as a scandalous con artist. Years later, Kid Danny showed that Almonte didn’t maliciously intend to sabotage the sanctity of Little League. His father and coach are implicated, despite their repeated denials. But Almonte makes a good case for his innocence. The damage to Almonte’s psyche from the tabloid coverage of him, however, was done. He may have been “too old,” but he was still a kid.

Almonte is far from the lone example. Because of ESPN’s instant villainization, Steve Bartman—the Cubs fan who in 2003 reached for a foul ball, blocking MLB player Moisés Alou from making an out that would have given Chicago’s lovable losers a chance to win their first World Series in 95 years—was driven out of town, practically into witness protection. Catching Hell, 2011’s full-length production from ESPN Films, acknowledged the company’s culpability in Bartman’s unnecessary psychological torment. Fans reach for foul balls all the time, but because of the drama of the moment, the way Bartman looked with his radio headphones, and Alou’s angry reactive outburst, it made for a good story at the expense of its subject. In 2016, when the Cubs broke their curse and won the World Series, they invited Bartman back to throw an honorary first pitch. He turned the organization down.

These films purport to undo sports media’s wrongs, but they’re simply predatory toward athletes in a new, more nominally self-aware way. In both of the above cases, ESPN is recapitalizing on psychological traumas they inflicted in the first place. Those sorts of public apologies might move the cultural conversation forward, but they do nothing to heal the wounds of the individuals at the center of media spectacles. That damage is irreversible.

Today, society is more conscious of respecting athletes’ personal boundaries. There’s an appetite for broad discussion of mental health issues, whether that’s current Miami Heat player Kevin Love opening up about depression and anxiety in The Players’ Tribune or then-24-year-old tennis professional Naomi Osaka citing similar mental health issues after battling officials over her refusal to speak with the press and ultimately dropping out of the 2021 French Open, Wimbledon, and the Olympics. We’ve gotten better, but only time will tell how badly we’re still messing up. It will take years to see Jokić’s 2023 from a new perspective, just like we’ve needed a decade in order to look at Linsanity in a new light.

Despite The Sense of Wonder being a work of fiction, it gives us an unusually, and at times unnervingly, intimate portrait of a person who is supposedly the object of intense scrutiny. We get an idea of how mischaracterization in the media might affect athletes in the moment. Sung writes an article that references “The Great Wall,” and Carrie says, “They couldn’t even find something Korean to erase you with.” Won thinks, “E-race.” The broader issues that Linsanity raised have a direct impact on the fictionalized version of Lin. The games affect him too—sure. As does his relationship with the Knicks’ front office. But the relationship issues with Carrie, whose sister is dying of cancer, and with Sung and Powerball!, are what impact him most. He experiences universal emotions because he is not just a ballplayer breaking stereotypes. He is a human going through “the Wonder” like everyone else.


Will Hagle is a Los Angeles–based writer of fiction, nonfiction, and sketch comedy. His debut book, Madvillain’s Madvillainy, is out now as part of Bloomsbury’s 33 1/3 series.