Monday, April 18, 2016

Something New

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We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.

“THIS IS WHERE THE WORLD ENDS” by Amy Zhang (Harper-Collins, $NZ22:99) ; “IN ORDER TO LIVE – A North Korean Girl’s Journey to Freedom” by Yeonmi Park (Penguin-Random House, $NZ37)

            This week I am looking at two books by young women of Asian ethnicity. Apart from this fact, the two books have nothing in common and are of completely different genres and intent. The first is a work of fiction, the second a personal memoir. Call this the serendipity moment in reviewing, when different books happen to come my way at the same time.

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            Okay, I admit it. In reading Amy Zhang’s This Is Where The World Ends, I was stepping outside my usual interest area. Chinese-born, but American resident and completely American in outlook, Amy Zhang is a young woman, only about 20 years old, still in college and just a year or two away from high school. Her first novel, Falling into Place (which I have not read) was apparently a “Young Adult” novel – that is, one aimed at teenagers. It was a big seller. This Is Where The World Ends has thriller elements, but with its senior high-school characters it too seems aimed mainly at adolescents.
What interests me is how and why it is intended to appeal to them and what, if anything, it says about the state of current teen lit and of American teens.
Micah Carter and Janie Vivian are in their last year at high school in a non-descript town called Waldo in the Midwest.  Micah and Janie narrate alternate chapters, in the first person and in the present tense – which seems de rigueur in books aimed at teenagers. Micah is badly injured somehow and in hospital and his memory is impaired, so that he cannot fully recall something very bad that has happened. The chapters he narrates are called “After”, obviously meaning after the aforesaid bad thing. In conversation with his friend Dewey, Micah tries to reconstruct what has happened to him. But Dewey is not very helpful. In fact Micah describes him thus:
Dewey is an asshole. Some people are musicians or dreamers; Dewey is an asshole. He smokes a pack of cigarettes a day and wears his collars popped up and he does shit like play video games with the volume all the way up while you’re in the hospital. He’s my best friend because we are the only two inhabitants of the ninth circle of social hell. We didn’t have options.” (p.5)
The chapters Janie narrates are set a few months earlier and are called “Before”. They are about Janie’s relationship with her parents, and her soul-mateship with Micah. The two of them are loners, would-be artists, haters of high school and of jock culture. They have special places they go together to brood and drink alcohol and play games of dare. Their most special place is a pile of pebbles, which they call “The Metaphor”, on the shore of an old abandoned and flooded quarry. Many people have drowned in the quarry. Janie likes to quote Virginia Woolf, and when we remember how Virginia Woolf died, we have a clue about where this novel is going. The respective families and parents of Janie and Micah are shadowy figures who barely enter the story, but they are somehow malign or uncaring (especially Janie’s).
We know from early in the novel that there has been a big fire connected with a teen party, that the cops are asking questions and that, in the “After” sections, Janie has disappeared, leaving Micah wondering if she really has gone of on that trip to Nepal she was talking about. Far be it from me to provide “spoilers”, because many bad things happen to these two teens before the novel is over; and it is, after all, supposed to be a big climax when Micah at last remembers what has happened. But I can say that at least part of the trouble has to do with Janie being sexually attracted to a big and brutish jock called Ander Cameron, despite her professed preference for arty and nerdy types. This leaves Micah thinking he has been “used” and Janie buying a lot of trouble for herself.
I should note that the “Before” and “After” chapters are not the only mode of narration in this novel. We are also given extracts from Janie’s creative-writing journal, in which she recasts herself as a princess in a fairy tale, and all those mean and troublesome adults and jocks as the ogres and witches.
In one early soliloquy by Janie, we can see that there is a mixture of feyness and paranoia to this troubled teen:
            Like I said, the world isn’t always fair and sometimes we have to help it along. Bad things should happen to bad people… It’s easier like this to see how beautiful the earth and life and we are. We are stars and the purple-red-blue sky is the background. We are streamers and ribbons tied to trees and balloons that dance in the wind….” (p.22)
            There are the pretty streamers, ribbons and balloons, but there is also the conviction that bad things should happen to bad people  - and Janie is going to “help this along”.
So how is this intended to appeal to teenagers and what does it say about the state of current teen lit and of American teens?
There’s star-crossed love, of course – always a popular theme. Micah’s feeling for Janie isn’t requited. Janie’s attraction for the jock goes horribly wrong. There’s the conviction that adults and parents are up to no good. There’s the creation of a fantasy world as a refuge from the real world of adulthood that is encroaching. (Janie’s fairy-tale journal reminded me of nothing so much as the fantasy world that the matricidal Hulme and Parker invented for themselves). And yet there is some ambiguity to the way Amy Zhang plays all this. Teenagers might be attracted to all the above, but Zhang leaves it open for us to see, first that Janie’s fantasy world is unrealistic, and then that Janie might genuinely be mentally unbalanced. After many travails, Janie herself draws the sour moral:
We fall asleep to fairy tales, and the world rotates and revolves and time passes, and we grow up and we understand that they are false. There are no heroes and princesses and villains. It’s not that easy. But I think I unlearned that too well. There are no wicked queens or vengeful sorcerers, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t bad people. There are. There are some truly, truly shitty people out there.” (pp. 226-227)
Later, it is clear that this fey, poetic, soulful, abused teenage girl is vindictive and has been highly manipulative of Micah. On the moral compass, it is interesting that the young woman who wrote the novel is far harsher on her main female character than on her main male character.
How does it reflect American teens? Of course there is a lot of self-absorption. There’s also a lot of effing and blinding in the dialogue, like Dewey’s typical reaction when Micah throws an apple at him: “Oh fuck it, Micah they were right about you. Goddam, goddam, you actual fucking ass, what the hell? You’re going goddam crazy, man. You’re one seriously fucked-up little son of a bitch, and – screw you, Micah….” (p.116)  Etc. Etc. Etc. Okay, teens do swear and I’m not saying that this is an inauthentic depiction of some teenspeak, but a lot of this sort of thing does become tiresome in a novel. And then of course there is the promiscuous sex indulged in and the vast quantities of beer and vodka and whisky consumed and the general impression that these are affluent kids who don’t know how to fill in their time meaningfully.
Oops. I’m getting grandfatherly and old codger-ish and reproving. I suppose all I’m really saying is that this is a book for which I am not the intended audience. Or could it be that I’m ahead of the kids who will read it because (in my former life as a film reviewer) I’ve seen all the teen movies that it resembles? Remember that 1980s hymn to teen self-pity, John Hughes’ The Breakfast Club, in which a jock and a nerd and a kook and a party girl get together and decide that grown-ups just don’t understand? Or remember that 1995 Drew Barrymore vehicle Mad Love, in which the straight guy is at first beguiled and intrigued by the playful, whimsical, kooky, rebellious girl until he realizes that she is literally insane and in need of psychiatric help? Yep, This Is Where The World Ends is somewhere in that territory.
Gosh, I feel old.

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            In America, some teenagers have the leisure to build fantasy worlds, engage in considerable self-pity, drink, screw around etc.
            Then there are teenagers who have to live in North Korea.
Okay, that’s a low blow. It’s unfair to compare two books which have such different purposes as Amy Zhang’s This Is Where The World Ends and Yeonmi Park’s memoir In Order to Live. Still, reading them one after the other did give me the odd ironic jolt. Far be it from me to belittle the angst of American teenagers, but the phrase “First World Problems” did keep surfacing in my mind when I considered Amy Zhang’s effort.
Briefly, In Order to Live is Yeonmi Park’s account of growing up as a child in North Korea, escaping with her mother across the Yalu River into China when she was a young teenager, and eventually making it to South Korea, via Mongolia, after many horrific experiences. She states clearly her present situation in her introduction:
Like tens of thousands of North Koreans, I escaped my homeland and settled in South Korea, where we are still considered citizens, as if a sealed border and nearly seventy years of conflict and tension never divided us. North and South Koreans have the same ethnic backgrounds, and we speak the same language – except in the North where there are no words for things like ‘shopping malls’, ‘liberty’, or even ‘love’, at least as the rest of the world knows it. The only true love we can express is worship for the Kims, a dynasty of dictators who have ruled North Korea for three generations. The regime blocks all outside information, all videos and movies, and jams radio signals. There is no World Wide Web and no Wikipedia. The only books are propaganda telling us that we live in the greatest country in the world, even though at least half of North Koreans live in extreme poverty and many are chronically malnourished. My former country doesn’t even call itself North Korea – it claims to be Chosun, the true Korea, a perfect socialist paradise where 25 million people live only to serve the Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un. Many of us who have escaped call ourselves “defectors” because by refusing to accept our fate and die for the Leader, we have deserted our duty. The regime calls us traitors. If I tried to return, I would be executed.” (pp.3-4)
Yeonmi Park, born in 1993, is only 22. She explains:
The country I grew up in was not like the one my parents had known as children in the 1960s and 1970s. When they were young, the state took care of everyone’s basic needs: clothes, medical care, food. After the Cold War ended, the Communist countries that had been propping up the North Korean regime all but abandoned it, and our state-controlled economy collapsed.” (p.15)
The 1990s were therefore the years of famine, disguised by the pervasive propaganda of the state. The propaganda is so relentless that “my mother…. sincerely believed that North Korea was the centre of the universe and that Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il had supernatural powers.” (p.34) We are told of the relentless surveillance by the bo-wi-bu (“National Security Agency”). We are told of the starvation and official brutality. We are told of the young Yeonmi Park’s appendectomy in a North Korean hospital where corpses are piled for days in the courtyard until there are enough for the removal men to cart away. But - despite the surveillance – we are also told of a thriving black market and of corrupt officials who will turn a blind eye to people smuggling.
When Yeonmi is 13, her big sister Eunmi disappears, having apparently escaped to China. When Yeonmi’s father is convicted of smuggling and his family is victimised, Yeonmi and her mother make their escape. At first China seems a big improvement on North Korea. Spartan though the lives of Chinese peasants are, at least they have food and are not in danger of starving. But China is no paradise. As Yeonmi notes:
Virtually all defectors in China live in constant fear. The men who manage to get across often hire themselves to farmers for slave wages. They don’t dare complain because all the farmer has to do is notify the police and they will be arrested and repatriated. The Chinese government doesn’t want a flood of immigrants, nor does it want to upset the leadership in Pyongyang. Not only is North Korea a trading partner, but it’s a nuclear power perched right on its border, and an important buffer between China and the American presence in the South. Beijing refuses to grant refugee status to escapees from North Korea, instead labelling them ‘economic migrants’ and sipping them home.” (p.131)
Many North Korean women refugees in China end up in the sex trade. Some are sold as “wives” to peasant farmers. Yeonmi’s mother is twice raped by a people smuggler and Yeonmi is almost enticed to work in a brothel. She and her mother spend some time working for a gangster in a video-linked “chat room” for men who want to talk dirty. Yeonmi also does not disguise the fact that (still aged 14, remember) she at one time helped to groom other girls for this trade.
Finally, the lives of mother and daughter are turned around when they meet Han Chinese Christian evangelists, who help to smuggle them across the Gobi Desert and into Mongolia whence, after some delays, they are finally able to fly to South Korea. There Yeonmi Park now lives. The book does not end with a yelp of triumph. Though grateful to now be living in a free society, Yeonmi does note some of the difficulties of integrating as a Northerner into the South, and some of the snobberies of South Koreans towards the (massively less-educated and less worldly-aware) North Koreans.
Yeonmi now conducts a television show for refugees in South Korean, and she does some globe-trotting advocating human rights are various forums. She has, indeed, become a celebrity, and you may easily go on Youtube and see her, with her halting English, delivering speeches, including one very tearful one at a Youth Summit in Dublin.
Now how do I review a book like this?
As I noted once before on this blog, personal memoirs have to be read as testimonies. We are in the author’s hands and we have to trust the author to be telling us the truth. Some of the usual critical faculties have to be suspended. This work is confessional, so to judge it is in some sense to judge the author’s life and veracity. (I also note that this work was written with the help of a professional journalist, who doubtless polished up Yeonmi’s English).
I do not think that any reasonable person can doubt that Yeonmi Park’s general portrayal of North Korea - the closed, paranoid, totalitarian “hermit state” - is an accurate one. Her accounts of its privations and its mistreatment of its people can be confirmed from many other sources. There have, however, been some quibbles about the accuracy of Yeonmi’s personal story. Some inconsistencies have been found in various versions of herself and her family that she has given in interviews. (You can easily find such quibbling articles on the internet). Of course North Korean media have denounced the author, but that was to be expected. It is the scepticism of a few Western readers that is more troubling. Are we reading a truthful account or a fabrication?
I think I will go along with Yeonmi Park’s own statement that there may be a few things that she has misremembered, and a few incidents that she has not reported accurately, but that these do not compromise the truthfulness of her general account.

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