Monday, August 12, 2013

Balance ("Snow Hunters" by Paul Yoon)

There's a John Updike story called "Delicate Wives" that I remember reading when I was 18 and obsessed with the idea of becoming a New Yorker-type writer. In the story, a wife on the cusp of her thirtieth birthday is stung by a bee and goes into anaphylactic shock; it is only because her husband rushes her to the local hospital that she survives. But the story doesn't concern her so much as the man with whom she'd had an affair the summer before--Les, who learns of the emergency through the gossiping of neighborhood wives and is struck by pangs of jealousy. Veronica is the woman's name, and he wonders what would've happened had she been stung during their affair, and if he would've been calm and knowledgeable enough to be her savior...or if the panic of the moment would've meant the end of her life. The story moves forward through the years, tracing both Veronica's inability to recover and Les' desire for a rekindled affair as parallels, until Les' wife finds a lump in her breast, and the story ends with him connecting both the bee sting and his wife's possible cancer in his mind. And in that one moment--a short, closing paragraph--Updike's story is fulfilled and, at the same time, falls apart. He has revealed the inner workings of his story like a magician telling us just how he performed the trick, and the story is suddenly meaningless and flat. We see through the mirrors and magic words and realize Updike has sold us a wooden box; the characters are cliched, the dialogue is poorly written, and even without the closing giveaway the attempts at complexity and dimension would still be lazy and shallow.

Most authors spend their entire careers trying to perfect what John Updike fails to do in "Delicate Wives":  balance an interesting and well-written story with deeper meaning. It's a balance that takes exceptional skill. If an author builds his literary house on the foundation of Deeper Meaning, the entire structure becomes a secondary consideration, something even the most naive and untrained of readers can take apart with a five-dollar hammer and reduce to nothing; all that remains is the foundation, a slab of perfectly poured concrete that is now little more than an altar to kindling.* At the same time, if an author eschews all meaning whatsoever and writes pure plot, they are deep-sea fishermen choosing to cast their nets across a wide and lifeless puddle. Yes, the story will be interesting, but a half-hour after its last words are read it will be forgotten--one more throwaway potboiler destined for its place along the 49-cent shelves at Goodwill.**

Every so often, though, an author manages to not only strike that balance but make it seem almost effortless. What strikes you first about Paul Yoon's Snow Hunters is its brevity:  in your hands, the novel is scant, almost like a children's book, and at less than 200 pages it's a quick read. (I finished the entire book in one ninety-minute sitting.) There is very little exposition, and most of the characters have proper names but are referred to--and remembered--by what they are:  sailors, the tailor, a boy and girl. There's also very little dialogue. The protagonist, for example, speaks no more than a dozen words throughout the entire novel, though his silence is understandable--he's a Korean refugee living in Brazil, and he isn't fluent in Portuguese. The man he lives with--a Japanese tailor--doesn't say much, either, though both men seem content with this arrangement. Later, we will learn that he's a survivor of Japanese internment, just asYohan, the silent protagonist, is a survivor of a POW camp. And in this relationship we begin to understand just how connected this shy, almost reclusive expatriate is to the strangers around him.

In fact, if Yoon's novel has one discernible foundation--a Deeper Meaning--it's the idea that no matter how far from home we may be, no matter the hells through which we've crossed and the languages we speak, there are still those with whom we can connect. Throughout the novel, we're offered flashbacks of Yohan's time in Korea, when he and a friend named Peng lose touch and then, in the middle of war, find one another again; even after Peng goes blind, they stay together and survive for as long as possible. In Brazil, Yohan finds a connection first in the Japanese tailor who takes him in--they're both quiet survivors who are skilled with the needle and thread--and later when the young girl grows up and returns to town. She is, after all, a poor and homeless wanderer--a member of the small community who live along the shore and survive on fish and the charity of the townspeople. She herself once had a companion of her own--a boy who was not in any way related to her--until the boy left town not long after the tailor passes away.

Normally, novels concerning refugees or immigrants are wide-sweeping in their scope:  the poor shivering individual arrives and is swallowed up whole by his or her new home, dwarfed by the tall buildings and pulsing crowds used as ultimate contrasts by the author. In these stories, the outsider is small and vulnerable, but they have promise--some day, they will be as tall as those buildings and as alive as the crowds. In Yoon's novel, we find the opposite:  an immigrant who does not belong and cannot assimilate easily but doesn't have to. The small Brazilian town absorbs him as though he were always a part of their community; there are no moments of xenophobia or raised noses, and at no time does Yohan collapse in sadness or longing, his thoughts anchoring him to home. Instead, the land to which Yohan arrives is just like the land from which he left, and the connections he forges are as strong and important to him as the ones he had in Korea.

Even without this foundation, Snow Hunters manages to be a beautiful story. Minimalistic in its style, it nevertheless show us the vast world we solitary creatures call home. Yohan--quiet, scarred, alone--survives a war, crosses half the globe, makes friends with sailors, becomes a professional tailor, picnics along the beautiful Brazilian countryside, falls in love, and goes fishing in the ocean. We understand the pains he has felt, his empathy for the old man who mentors him, the simple ecstasy of sitting on a rooftop at twilight, the apprehension that gives way to calm when he dances for the first time. It is a world of balance, where the loss of one companion opens the door to another, where the tragedies of the past are matched by the pleasures of the present, and where someone can find themselves on the other side of the world and still be home.

*See:  Don DeLillo, William Golding, Ian McEwan, Jonathan Franzen, and so on.

**See:  James Patterson, Dan Brown, Clive Cussler, Dean Koontz, Nora Roberts, Nicholas Sparks, and so on.