By Min Jin Lee
All Posts Contain Spoilers
Brace yourself, because I’m about to go on a free-associative ramble for about a thousand words.
I just read ‘Pachinko‘, by Min Jin Lee, which is a sprawling, multi-generational epic about the Korean diaspora in Japan in the first half of the twentieth century. It begins with Sunja, the beloved only daughter of Hoonie, a fisherman born with a club foot, and his wife Yangjin. When Sunja is a teenager, she falls in love with, and is impregnated by, Hansu, a handsome gangster. When she discovers that he has a wife and children back in Japan and that he cannot legally marry her, she refuses to be his kept “local” wife and, instead, marries Isak, a sickly minister who is passing through town. Isak agrees to raise the child as his own, and the young family moves to Isak’s new ministry in Japan
Now, stay with me, because I’m going to swerve here, and, for reasons which I hope will become clear, talk about ‘East of Eden‘, by John Steinbeck.
I’ve probably mentioned this before, but I love ‘East of Eden‘. It might honestly be my favorite novel of all time. ‘East of Eden’ is also a multi-generation epic, about an American family which recapitulates the story of Cain and Abel in each generation. It is about original sin, about the transmission of sin through generations, about whether or not great evil marks a family, and passes from parent to child, twisting and marring their lives despite their best attempts to be good, happy people. It is about whether we can be damned before we are even born.
‘Pachinko‘ is also about the multi-generational consequences of wrong-doing, about the sins of the parent being visited on the child. But in ‘East of Eden‘, the inheritance is of evil, of simple, cinematic evil. The question is whether or not the evil is innate, whether or not we are doomed to succumb to it. In ‘Pachinko’, the inheritance is of something more complicated, more twisted: grief. It is about the ways the deep, life-altering grief of a parent can warp, limit, or destroy the lives of her children, even when she loves those children desperately, even when her entire life has been devoted to their happiness.
I thought about ‘East of Eden‘ a lot while I read ‘Pachinko‘. The books are alike in scope and ambition, but I’m not sure that they are equally successful. Maybe it’s unfair to compare a book, any book, to ‘East of Eden’. It is one of the most profound, most moving, explorations of the human capacity for evil, of the possibility of true goodness, that has ever been written. And I don’t think that ‘Pachinko’ is one of the most profound, most moving explorations of human grief I’ve ever read.
OK, OK, yes: I agree, that is not a fair standard. I need to acknowledge the possibility that ‘Pachinko‘ and ‘East of Eden‘ have different goals, as works of art. ‘East of Eden’ is an essential hopeful work: while it is about the intrinsic human capacity for evil, it is also about the possibility of true goodness which can only exist alongside evil.
‘Pachinko‘ is not a hopeful work. It is imbued with a deep sadness: the sadness of women who face lives of nothing but suffering, work, and loss. Of subject peoples, doomed to cramped lives and arbitrary violence, simply because of their race. Of deep and profound injustice, of lives destroyed because the values of small societies could not accommodate them. Of love lost and never, ever regained. In this way, perhaps, its scope is even greater than ‘East of Eden‘, which was a moral tale and a moral tale alone. ‘Pachinko’, on the other hand, is not only the story of one family’s tragedies – it is also the story of a race, exiled and embattled.
And while the two books are alike in structure, they are quite different in style. ‘Pachinko‘ is written in a prose which is so simple as to be almost brutal. Lee’s sentences are unadorned and unsparing, and I believe that she is a good enough writer that this was done deliberately. Tragedy, I have found, is usually most effective when it is written in prose which is clear, clean, and unflinching. Flourishes, metaphors, long descriptive passages: these things blunt the force of tragic events, distract the reader, give the attention somewhere to hide. It also, almost always, foreshadows the pain, so that the reader can brace himself. Plain language, on the other hand, delivers its news like a blow, and gives you no warning that the blow is coming.
I offer, by way of example, the passage from ‘Pachinko‘ which I found the most effectively devastating, which genuinely shocked and upset me, to the degree that I gasped aloud and put the book down.
Fair warning, it is a very, very spoilerly spoiler. The passage involves the reunion of Sunja with her son Noa. Noa had fled his mother as a young man, when he discovered that he was the son of a gangster and found that he could not endure the shame. He had lived in secret in Japan for decades, passing as Japanese, his Korean identity unknown even to his wife and children. After many years, now an old woman, Sunja located him.
Again, if you do not wish to have major plot points spoiled, don’t read the excerpt.
“Sunja watched her son enter his office building, then tapped the passenger door of Hansu’s car. The driver came out and held the door open for her.
Sunja smiled, feeling light and hopeful.
Hansu looked at her face carefully and frowned.
“You should not have seen him.”
“It went well. He’ll come to Yokohama next week. Mozasu will be so happy.”
Hansu told the driver to go. He listened to her talk about their meeting.
That evening, when Noa did not call her, she realized that she had not given him her home number in Yokohama. In the morning, Hansu phoned her. Noa had shot himself a few minutes after she’d left his office.” (p. 385)
This is not a passage which would have been possible in ‘East of Eden‘, where everything is larded with plenty of description and big events can be seen coming miles away.
And I have enormous regard for this style of prose, when it is successful, which I think it mostly is here. It is true, the subject-verb-object ratatat of the plain language becomes a little arduous over hundreds of pages, but, for the most part, it’s mesmerizing and upsetting, bleak and tough in deliberate evocation of the lives it is describing.
I found, at the end, not that I loved ‘Pachinko‘, but that I had enormous regard for it. I have compared it to ‘East of Eden‘ not so that it would suffer in comparison, but because the comparison helped me understand and appreciate the project of the book. In fact, I think that some of the places in which ‘Pachinko’ is the strongest are places, like it’s language, where it is the most unlike ‘East of Eden’.
But keeping ‘East of Eden‘ in my mind helped me appreciate the intention of this work. It’s one thing to tell the story of a few characters (although even to do this well is very difficult). It is another thing altogether to tell a story through which you try to tell about human evil, or human grief. To weave those grand things into the small lives you are relating takes bravery and skill. ‘East of Eden’ taught me to love the scale, the ambition, of the endeavor, and it is because of ‘East of Eden’ that I recognize that ambition here.