"The Collective" by Don Lee
W.W. Norton & Company, $25.95
Published July 16, 2012
What is it about?
In the late 80s, three aspiring Asian American artists arrive at Macalester College, a small, insular school. Jessica Tsai is a beautiful, spunky painter; Eric Cho is a romantic wannabe writer who's lost touch with his Asian roots; Joshua Yoon shares his passions, but is conversely outspoken and melancholic. The three quibble about sex and art, but form a bond after racial slurs are slashed across their classroom. After college, they band together with other Asian Americans to form The 3AC - The Asian American Artists Collective. We follow the trio through middle age, and learn of their artistic and romantic triumphs and shortcomings. One opts out of the starving artist lifestyle to get married; one is ruined by public criticism; another is successfully published.
Why are we talking about it?
We've been following the trend of literary fiction set in college towns, and find this to be a standout example. Also, it raises interesting questions about whether or not minority artists should feel obligated to choose race as a thematic focus.
Who wrote it?
Don Lee has received an O. Henry Award and a Pushcart Prize for his short stories. He's also worked at Ploughshares, which likely served as inspiration for one of the novel's characters, who helps edit a small literary magazine. His previous novel "Wrack and Ruin" was a finalist for the Thurber Prize, and "Country of Origin" won an American Book Award, the Edgar Award for Best First Novel, and a Mixed Media Watch Image Award for Outstanding Fiction.
Who will read it?
Fans of "The Marriage Plot," as this story is also a collegiate love-triangle that concerns art and romance, but focuses more on the former. It will also be of interest to Asian Americans and other minority artists, as well of those nostalgic for the 80s and those who enjoy realist prose.
What do the reviewers say?
Publishers Weekly: "The issues Lee wrestles with are clear: not only the sacrifice one must make to be an artist, but the melancholy burden of unfulfilled dreams. Questions of racial identity permeate every page, but apart from a lot of sex, there is too much telling and not enough showing."
Entertainment Weekly: "Yes, Lee comes with an agenda — an important one — about ethnicity and art, but he also delivers a heartbreaking, sexy, and frequently funny story about fractured friendships."
Kirkus: "A novel undone by Lee’s indecisiveness over how much slack to cut his protagonist, the obnoxious Joshua."
NPR: "Lee explores themes of identity he's contemplated in the past — the allure of the cultural bond, the bristle of the stereotype — but this time through the lens of the college novel. With the pump already primed by recent successes from Jeffrey Eugenides and Chad Harbach, I'm hoping that folks will be ready for this addition to the collegiate canon."
Impress your friends:
The first half of the novel is set at Macalester College, which is also the alma mater of Richard and Walter in Jonathan Franzen's "Freedom." Located in St. Paul and founded in the late 19th century, the school was originally dubbed "Jesus College."
"There's a road in Sudbury, on the outskirts of Boston, called Waterborne."
"I don't know," I said. "I'm starting to think all art is political, whether you intend it to be or not."
"I still say Joshua's full of shit," she told me. "His story, yeah, everything's well done"--I had lent her my copy to read--"but a poor Korean merchant and his kid in postwar Seoul--has Joshua even been to Seoul? He's from Pusan, right? What the hell does he know? He's so assimilated, he's no more Korean than I am now."
"It could be that he's just fucking with us. Maybe he's not serious about any of this. Sometimes I get the feeling he does things just to get a rise out of us."
"It's easy being outrageous. Much harder to offer real meaning."
She wiped the sweat from her forehead and glanced at herself in the mirrors that lined the wall. "Do you think I got fat? Loki told me I got fat."
Clarification: At the time of the book, the city mentioned above was known as Pusan. In 2000, due to a change in the official romanization standards of the Korean alphabet, it was changed to Busan.