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04 September 2012 @ 02:43 pm
Book Review: The Collective by Don Lee  
I've rarely read a book (if ever) that featured Asian characters or the "Asian American experience" and walked away from it feeling like it had much impact on my own ideas of what it means to be Asian American. While Don Lee's latest novel is hardly flawless, I found my mind buzzing with thoughts, feelings, and questions about what I had just read. But one thing that's clear to me is that The Collective is a rare type of a novel. And one I hope that heralds a new dawn for literature by Asian authors.


The novel is largely set in the 1980's when the protagonist, Eric Cho, first enters the fictitious Malchester College in the midwest. A third generation Korean-American, he rapidly becomes friends with Korean-born adoptee, Joshua Yoon and second generation Taiwanese Jessica Tsai, all three whom harbor dreams of going against the grain expected of Asians back then and becoming artists as opposed to something math or science related. The main focus of the novel is the life the three friends end up leading post-college as Eric and Joshua strive to be novelists and Jessica abandons her family's dream of her becoming a doctor to try and make it as a visual artist. The aggressively charismatic Joshua eventually forms the 3AC, an Asian American artists' collective that eventually binds the three of them together that ends up having dire consequences for everyone.

It's safe to say that fiction by authors of Asian descent have come a long way since the days of Amy Tan and her pillaging and pandering to every Asian stereotype in existence. It's not to say that Lee's novel doesn't give us some stereotypes but the beauty of his use of them as opposed to Tan's is that nothing is romanticized. Stereotypes are born of some truth and that never seems to be the problem in Lee's novel. Stereotypes are seemingly never the problem as its casually shown that Jessica is, indeed, talented in science. But her stereotypic aptitude is the least of things to bring her any sort of grief or even pidgeon hole her. It's always the stuff and the ideals that fall outside of the safety of stereotypes that seem to trip up characters like Joshua who is as intelligent as he is fatally narrowminded and blockheadedly stupid when it comes to race relations. Between all the Asian characters who appear in this novel, no Asian American experience, stereotype, or point of view of racism is left unturned. It's fairly exhaustive in that Lee manages to touch upon just about every diverse Asian American out there, which only works to lay in the groundwork of Asian characters being unique characters first and Asians second.

Through Joshua, Jessica, and particularly Eric who narrates the novel, you get three very different characters who perhaps share at least similar fates in regards to how society might view them. What saves this novel from becoming yet another rant against racism is that it can be read as a book about Asian Americans. But it can also be read purely as a book about artists. Or a book about growing up in the 1980's. Or a book about simply learning to relinquish childish dreams. Or all of that. Lee masterfully navigates his work so that you can almost see how the book can star all white characters and still hold most of its insight and narrative. The fact that everyone happens to be Asian merely opens up different avenues and manages to feel relevant but not forced. It's everything I would ever want in a novel that happens to feature Asian characters. Their Asianness is vital and yet irrelevant at the same time. I wouldn't have thought that was possible but Lee manages it with startling eloquence.

This book isn't for everyone as there are long passages purely dedicated to the sort of obnoxious bravado most of us probably had in college. Particularly those of us wanting to become artists post-college. Several characters wallow in their own pretentious ideals about what it means to create art, ideals that are so divorced from reality and lost in a miasma of GRE words that you want to smack them upside the head as soon as coo at them for their precious naviete.

The feeling I got from reading The Collective was similar to when I read Derek Kirk Kim's graphic novel, Same Difference and Other Stories that also featured incidental Asian American characters who lived their lives that were laced with familiar stereotypes but never being defined by them. The cast of The Collective is wonderfully multi-layered as well as sporadically irritating, as are their experiences. They remind me of family members, myself, and my non-Asian friends alike, giving me a novel that I can honestly say (in all its cliched wording) speaks to me and my child and early adulthood.
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