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Edward Jae-Suk Lee's The Good Man

I came across Edward Jae-Suk Lee's debut novel The Good Man (Bridge Works Publishing, 2004) at the St. Paul Public Library, and I am very happy to have stumbled across it so unexpectedly. I have never heard of the author or the novel, but the story traces out exactly the kinds of issues I am interested in with respect to language, region, and encounter.

While browsing the fiction shelves at the library, I saw many Korean American novels, and while I will likely get around to reading many of them someday, I was also hoping for different kinds of stories from the standard immigrant-child narrative of acculturation. Lee's novel really seemed to fit the bill, and I was not disappointed.

The narrative centers on a few characters in a rural valley in Montana. The novel begins with Gabriel Guttman, a mysterious, one-eyed white man with a faulty memory, as he returns to the familiar valley of his childhood. We find out quickly that Guttman is a veteran of the Korean War and has difficulty dealing with the trauma of the fighting and his own actions. The other major character is Yahng Yi, the sixteen-year-old mixed-race daughter of the "Chinawoman" who lives in the valley. Yahng's story sketches out the very limited, rural world in which she has grown up. Other important characters include Yahng Yi's mother (never named... always called by the narrative and other characters "Yahng Yi's mother") who was a Korean peasant from a fishing village; Emily Cottage, of a long-standing family in the valley who was Gabe's love before he went off to war; Jihn, Yahng Yi's older brother (a Vietnam vet); Hamm Finn, the landowner and cattle rancher of the valley with the most influence and wealth when Gabriel returns; Jude Finn, Hamm's drunkard, gambling grandson; and Val Rey, a Native American boy who is friends with Jude.

The narrative focuses often on the rural life of the valley, and like other fiction set in such areas of the West, it has some remarkable language about that world. The sheep ranch that Yahng Yi runs, during the time of the novel's present, has a number of pregnant ewes giving birth. This passage describes one such birth:
The lamb's shoulders were out, and the ewe went to the ground, its head reaching back toward her hindquarters to clean the membranes from the lamb's mouth. Yahng Yi went over to the ewe and it blatted softly and reached its head up to meet Yahng Yi's hand. Yahng Yi rubbed it behind the ears, and stroked the soft down around the neck. The lamb was halfway out and breathing normally. The ewe stood and the force of gravity dropped the lamb to the ground. It wobbled on little brown legs, the birth sac still covering its hindquarters, and searched for a teat while its mother licked it. The ewe walked off a little way, the lamb trailing it and rubbing its small black head along the top of the ewe's udder. (37)
This kind of prose might be described as spare, echoing the simplified quality of life that the characters experience and the way they speak as well--if not a more direct kind of speech at least a pared down form of communication.

One of the more provocative aspects of this novel is its focus on Gabriel, the white American veteran of the Korean War, rather than the mother's perspective (though the narrative does provide some of her backstory such as how she and her two sisters left behind the fishing village of their childhood for the mainland only to encounter the war). Gabe suffers from memory loss, linked to the loss of his eye, and the novel slowly unravels his past as he struggles to connect his present self to the snippets of the past that he remembers from the valley. He has lived away from the valley for forty years, having abandoned Yahng Yi's mother (whom he saved in Korea and brought to Montana with him) and Emily Cottage. The novel weaves this memory loss to some extent into a physiological condition--whatever accident that led to the loss of his eye also severed the connection between the right and left halves of his brain, and that severing of the two sides (creative versus analytical) characterizes his inability to make sense of his past and present. The novel traces how Gabe tries to make sense of this particular part of his past that he is able to remember as well as how he comes to grips with the parts that are not available to his conscious mind but plague his nightmares. The novel's focus on a white American veteran of a war in Asia puts it in good company many other novels about the veteran experience (and dealing with psychological trauma), and it would certainly be worth considering how a Korean American author's approach to writing such a character compares to a similar character created by a white veteran author.

Yahng Yi's story is the other central component of the novel, particularly how she deals with a burgeoning sexuality and the claustrophobic quality of her rural life with a mother tethered to a haunted past. Yahng Yi's mother has taken up the shaman tradition practiced by her own mother, and her forays into altered states (brought on by hallucinogenic teas) are a desperate attempt to make her world whole again after the war's dislocation and her abandonment by Gabe. Yahng Yi herself seems precocious in her independence and ability to keep the sheep ranch running on her own. The way she deals with Jude Hamm's bullying presence is also remarkable, and the tensions broughout out by her sexuality and her objectification by men in the valley are crucial components of her coming-of-age story.

In addition to the Montana setting, what caught my eye particularly was the presence of Val Rey, the Native figure of the story who lurks in the background, interested in Yahng Yi but too shy to express his feelings. Towards the end of the novel, Val tells Jude Hamm a coyote trickster story (172), cementing his cultural identity as a Native American (he also eats hallucinogenic mushrooms). The idea of encounter or recognition between Asian/Native characters emerges in the end when Val sees Yahng Yi in a particular way: "Her dark eyes, dark like his and glossy, and the eyelids folded at the inside corners, the epicanthic fold, a trait shared by their ancestors. She is like him in so many ways. Her face, her skin, her hair" (232). This kind of visual cross-identification happens in other works of Asian American and Native American literature (the most famous example perhaps being Tayo's recognition of his relatives' faces in dead Japanese soldiers in Leslie Marmon Silko's novel Ceremony). Of course, it is the setting of the novel that most enables such encounters and recognitions--in this case, the rural West as spaces adjacent to reservations where contact between Indian and white people is the strongest basis of racial difference (rather than white-black). Such spaces incorporate or deal with the anomalous presence of Asian and mixed-race Asian peoples differently than the spaces of urban California or New York where heavy concentrations of Asian communities work to create different understandings of Asian Americans.

It would be interesting to teach or write about The Good Man in the context of Western Literature, war veteran literature, and rural life literature. I can't really think of other Asian American literature that has the same orientation towards these issues except perhaps something like Ruth Ozeki's All Over Creation which is set in Idaho with a protagonist who is the mixed-race daughter of a white American veteran and a Japanese woman (though the tone of that novel is far more playful that that of Lee's novel).

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