Friday, November 9, 2012

The Collective by Don Lee


The Collective
by Don Lee

With a story about artists, writers and generally intelligent people working together to advance their cultural environment, I think I wanted to like The Collective more than I did. Instead, I found myself wanting to hear more from one character and his full-on adult years, rather than the college kid posturing.

Eric Cho attends Macalester College as a creative writing student, and he soon befriends the brash and contrary Joshua Yoon, a fellow writer who is quick to dismiss others and feels a strong responsibility to write about contemporary Asian culture. They live in the same dorm together and soon start spending time with Jessica Tsai, a visual artist who isn't so interested in reciprocating Eric's massive feelings for her. They have many conversations about truth and authenticity, and as they move past school, they find they still want to work together. Through Joshua, they form the 3AC — The Asian American Artists Collective — and are soon hosting meetings at Joshua's Cambridge, Massachusetts house, which he inherited from his white adoptive parents. Joshua has many conflicting feelings about being adopted and therefore how "authentically" Korean he is, but most of the time, he makes others act on the defensive.

However, the very beginning of the book flashes forward to the future, to when Joshua was thirty-eight.

He was running on a stretch of Waterborne where drivers are slingshot out of a curve and accelerate. He heard a car coming, and, rather than keep to the edge of the road, he drifted a few feet onto it.

Did he really mean to do it, to be hit by someone and killed? Could he have been so callous, willing to burden an anonymous driver, through no fault of his own, with a lifetime of trauma?

To this day, I am not sure. I go over and over it, and I still don't know. Maybe Joshua, my old friend, wanted to feel the whoosh and rev of the car as it went by, the inches between death and continuance, how arbitrary the sway can be between the two. Maybe he had yawed drunkenly into the car's path without volition or meditation. Yet the impulse had probably come across Joshua before, more than once, running on that road, to step in front of a speeding car, ending everything right then and there. Whatever the case, there was a witness, a driver approaching from the other direction, who claimed she saw Joshua veer abruptly and unmistakably into the path of the car.

The complexities of Joshua's character are very interesting to me, but The Collective is narrated by Eric instead. I would have even enjoyed narration by Jessica instead, the artist who eventually suffers from carpal tunnel and issues of identity in addition to race, but instead, we get Eric — pining away, wondering away, waiting for someone else to boost him up and give him permission to succeed. In college, he wants a girlfriend because he feels left out. He wants to be a writer, but has trouble actually writing much of anything. He endlessly seeks Joshua and Jessica's validation, though to be fair, Joshua is the sort of commanding personality that might send even more confident people looking for his approval, if for no other reason than to avoid being hassled by him.

The story and the 3AC's mission is a compelling one, but for me, Eric was too passive of a character for me to much care about. He seems to know a lot about everyone else, yet is still perplexed by their behavior. His first girlfriend post-college doesn't drink, and so now all of the sudden he doesn't drink, out of "support." He latches onto her hard, and doesn't quite understand why she feels smothered by it. He also seems to be attracted to people, friendship-wise or romantically, who are notoriously difficult. People walk all over him.

In college, Joshua and I had each made a vow to publish our first books before we hit thirty. We were twenty-eight now. It was still a distinct possibility for him, tapping away up there in the attic. For me, the chances were dubious. I wasn't writing at the moment, just occasionally tinkering with revisions of old stories. The fact was, I hadn't written anything new since grad school. I blamed adjunct teaching and Palaver for waylaying me, but they were poor excuses. There were no excuses, Joshua always said. If you want to write, you write. You find the time. You make the time.

I spent most of my time with Jessica.

(On a side note, let's just have a hearty laugh at two friends both managing to publish their first books before thirty. Oh, we all want to be the young geniuses that make some sort of Hot Writers Under 35 List, but in the back of our heads, we must know to prepare for the long haul.)

I suppose the argument could be made that The Collective is a story about how we can never completely know another person, and that even our closest friends are capable of surprising us. I just wanted to hear about it from someone else. If we could see the inner workings of Joshua, rather than speculate, and juxtapose those thoughts with his outward behavior, I might have enjoyed the novel more.

The thing is, the characters' college-era insecurity follows them into adulthood. They're jealous of others' successes, try to puff themselves up, even if they've made no advancements, and no advancement is always the fault of others. In that way, Joshua is right — The only way you're going to get anything done is by doing it. Otherwise, shut the fuck up.

Joshua's problem though, among many, is that despite his work ethic, he doesn't shut up. And yet, it's hard to believe anything that he says. Moments of honesty and sincerity creep through, and that's especially when I wanted to know what was going on inside his head, why he acted the way he did, rather than hear Eric lament again. So much lamenting. You are twenty-eight years old. Be an adult already.

I understand that creative people are often not the most stable — myself being one of them — and while I sympathized with these characters' causes, I just couldn't quite connect with them. I'm certainly not sorry I read The Collective, but especially now going back through it, I wish the story could have been framed in a more effective way. Like Eric, it has potential, but I wanted better.

Full Disclosure: W.W. Norton sent this book to me as a review copy. I thank them for the gesture and I will continue to be fair with my reviews.

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