22 August 2007

Jumping the queue

There's a new book in the house and all of a sudden it's claimed my full attention. I had thought Shantaram would do this, but because of its "inspirational" nature, it's been relegated to rough night/insomnia reading. I feel more than a little chagrin as I type this because of the raw, heartbreaking nature of the story. Roberts depicts the sights, sounds, smells, and tastes of India wonderfully (at least from the perspective of this someone who's never traveled there), and his love for the people is beautiful to read. But it seems that every event becomes some sort of profound life lesson. Is there anything really wrong with this? There shouldn't be--but there is. The open willingness to convert every adventure or misfortune into a mini morality tale robs the book of some of its wonder. I don't want all of my jagged edges smoothed down into inoffensive niceties.

Meanwhile, Free Food for Millionaires has lines like this:
She suddenly hated him for being an American and herself for feeling so foreign when she was with him. She hated his ideals of rugged individualism, self-determination--this vain idea that life was what you made of it--as if it were some sort of paint-by-numbers kit. Only the most selfish person on earth could live that way.
I love it. I can see how this interpretation of things could confound or irritate some readers, but that's the point. The typical U.S. mindset is held up against the values of another culture, and all of a sudden we're seeing ourselves as others see us.

But this novel is no mere critique of America:
Casey was selfish, she knew that, but she had no wish to hurt anyone. If her rotten choices hurt her, well then, she'd be willing to take that wager, but it was hard to think of letting her parents down again and again. But her choices were always hurting her parents, or so they said. Yet Casey was an American, too--she had a strong desire to be happy and to have love, and she'd never considered such wishes to be Korean ones.
There's a deceptive simplicity to all this due to its apparent clarity. But Min Jin Lee is unrelentingly fair to her characters, letting us into their heads and seeing situations as they do. The internal conflict this creates in the reader provides a small glimpse of what may perpetually rattle around inside a U.S.-raised child of immigrants, while exposing the danger of seeing both sides of an issue to such an extent that they cancel each other out, leaving a nondescript neutrality that can cripple one's own identity, even as it's attempting to come into being.

So I will eventually finish Roberts' heartfelt book and Pynchon's sprawling masterpiece (currently on p. 351 with Dally in New York). But for now, I am fascinated and strangely comforted by Lee's portrayal of the paradoxes and complexities that inhabit a young woman who embodies two cultures.

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