07 July 2008

Subway Reading: Suki Kim's The Interpreter

New York City and Moscow are alike in many ways. They are large, diverse cities with energetic intellectual and cultural scenes that host a fair number of freaks of various shapes and sizes. As such, the reverse culture shock has not been too bad over the past few weeks, despite my bizarre culinary yearnings that are better left undiscussed.

The one major difference in my everyday existence is the subway. Gone from my life is the efficient Moscow Metro, with a train zooming through orderly and typically beautiful stations every two minutes. Instead, I now spend a good part of each day in a hot, noisome underground pit, waiting for a train that-- even when there isn’t one of the regular service changes--only comes once every twenty minutes. Add to that the commute time from Sunset Park into the city, and suddenly two hours of my scant twenty-four hour per diem are lost to a pointless time-suck.

“It’s a great time to get reading done, though,” encouraged one of my friends, trying to get me to see the silver lining.

Sorta. Except that the New York subway does not exactly provide perfect conditions for serious academic reading. So every week, I find myself at the dollar rack outside of a bookstore looking for what I think of as “subway reading material,” a category that I imagine few authors aspire to.

My demands are simple: (1) topical subject matter; (2) unobtrusive prose; and (3) a reasonably fast-paced story line. Ideally, the book will consist of short chapters that approximately match my daily combined wait-and-ride times (45-60 minutes).

When I found Suki Kim’s The Interpreter (2003) on the discount shelf outside Westsider Books, it seemed perfect: the story of a Korean-American interpreter who works court cases in New York while she deals with her own cultural and familial issues, all wrapped around the unexplained brutal murder of her parents. Here was a nice “solve-the-mystery-and-you-solve-yourself” piece of ethnic detective literature, jotted out in two hundred and ninety four pages tidily divided into twenty four compact chapters.

Bingo, as we used to sing in kindergarten. I forewent my usual skimming of the first paragraph and a random chapter in the middle (a weird test I developed when encountering unknown, potentially-promising books) and slapped my dollar bill down on the counter as I stuffed the book into my satchel.

But before I made my first transfer from the D to the N train, I hit a problem. That “unobtrusive prose” clause, it turns out, is actually pretty important. And the opening passage of The Interpreter was a little rough, as Kim drops the reader into a South Bronx McDonald’s on a rainy November day:

Morning is full here. Everyone’s in it together, a communal experience, this day, this life. It is not her life, though. She does not know this. She looks up, instead, at a huge sign for the breakfast special across the window. Not much mystery there, food is plenty. Ninte-nine cents for hash browns, an English muffin with microwaved egg yolks, and a miniature Tropicana. Too good to be true, such abundance for barely a dollar. This is a generous neighborhood.
A shiver ran down my spine. Was this entire novel going to be written in the awful, breathy style of 1990s slam poetry? Please, re-read that passage. Feel those horrible pointless pauses, the almost-palpable sighs and ascendant lilt at the end of every sentence for added… meaning? Why put a survivor like me through the trauma of being reminded of that decade-long assault on poetic sensibilities?

Two pages later, and things were not looking any better. Kim describes the glare of a fast-food worker and its impact on the protagonist:

She can sense the man’s disapproval. Bitch, he must think. A cup of coffee for seventy-nine cents when a whole tray comes for a dollar, Miss Too-Good-for-a-Discounted-Meal, Miss Stuck-Up-Coat, Miss Can’t-Hear-for-Shit!

Bitch it is, this 9 a.m. Marlboro high. She needs to sit down, but the place is jam-packed, and no one is leaving anytime soon. But a miracle, it must be.
That shiver was settling down in my stomach and stirring up its contents.

Happily, by the time I was home in Sunset Park, the style had straightened itself out into typical contemporary prose with only the occasional hint of inane pretension. Finally, I could start to pay attention to the protagonist, Suzy Park, a young Manhattan-based interpreter with a lot of issues. Estranged from her family for unknown reasons and alienated from both Korean and American societies, Suzy is a young woman looking for answers. She seeks knowledge from Asian Studies classes at Columbia, but instead finds herself tangled up in an affair with an unavailable older white professor who has orientalizing issues of his own. She seeks solidarity with her gay roommate who offers her solace with witty banter and full glasses of wine. And suddenly, one day she begins a haphazard search for the answer to her parents’ murder after they are mentioned in passing during a deposition she is translating.

Curiously re-assured by Kim’s settling down into the clichés of genre fiction here, I resolved to finish the novel over the course of the next few subway rides. Alas, the author never really commits to the mystery genre, nor does she pay attention to the craft of its plotting. Instead, Kim goes for the easy indulgences of late twentieth-century ethnic fiction—trite observations on the problems of language, formulaic representations of intergenerational misunderstandings, and a certain ambiguous condescending attitude toward both country of origin and country of residence. Which is too bad since she had assembled all the ingredients for a compelling piece of mystery fiction: the setting of immigrant New York in the 1990s with its attendant issues—inter- and intra-ethnic strife, human trafficking, organized crime, corrupt bureaucracy and a heartless outside white world. And at the moments when the style relaxes and it doesn’t seem that Kim is trying to write, her prose is clean and easy.

Unfortunately, youthful pretension got in the way of following this path. I won't spoil the ending, as I'm sure that based on this review, hordes of readers are rushing to stores to pick up a copy. I will say that Kim stays true to her chosen genre. Park solves the mystery of her parents' death but her issues remain. I think we are all supposed to wallow in them while we marvel at the author's refusal to indulge the reader in a happy ending.

In sum, I can't say I look forward to ever reading more about Suzy Park. But I do hope that Kim, with a little more maturity and some editorial guidance, takes a stab at a second novel. And if it ends up on a dollar rack somewhere, I'll probably let it kill another week in the bowels of New York.

Coming soon: more gems from the bargain bins, including Vladimir Kunin’s Intergirl and James T. Farrell’s The Silence of History.


sarah said...

Now that was a great book review!

kg said...

That was a marvelous bit of snake vomit!

kg said...

Also, how is the fur coat for that herring coming along?!

BusterPh.D.Candidate said...

Sarah, Thanks.

And KG, it's a little too early in the morning for your swift allusions, huh?

As for sel'd pod shuboi, no news on that front. I've found a couple of New World variants, but nothing that measures up. I am also lacking a cheburek stand. I was promised that I would find one in Brighton Beach, but nope. No luck. I'll accept any leads on that. Mmmmzhir.

Malathi said...

The one major difference in my everyday existence is the subway. Gone from my life is the efficient Moscow Metro, with a train zooming through orderly and typically beautiful stations every two minutes. Instead, I now spend a good part of each day in a hot, noisome underground pit, waiting for a train that-- even when there isn’t one of the regular service changes--only comes once every twenty minutes.

Yes, isn't it amazing how we miss the efficient metros of the former Soviet countries, even though we live in North America?

Among my circle of friends/aquaintances when I first arrived in the US in the 1990s, those that did not visit the EE countries generally did not believe it was possible for Russia/EE to have done something better than America/parts of west. There was an air of skepticism...