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Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Pachinko Isn't Too Long, But This Title Is

But a God that did everything we thought was right and good wouldn't be the creator of the universe. He would be our puppet. He wouldn't be God. There's more to everything than we can know. - Min Jin Lee, Pachinko
Pachinko, by Min Jin Li is a huge book, which sometimes makes me resentful. This is another weird side effect to writing this blog. Long books still just get one blog post. So then I'm thinking I could have read two books in the time it took to read one and get two posts and that means I would earn twice the money that I earn from this blog. Which is still zero dollars.

Obviously it's a bad argument, but it's also true about me that I avoid long books. I do this for the same reason I don't watch movies that last longer than two hours. It's not that my time is so much more valuable than the next guy's. It's because I love the power of editing. Readers of this blog will no doubt go into convulsions of mirth at this statement, but I maintain that one can love something not because they are good at it but precisely because it's something they are terrible at. Nobody watches athletes more intently than unathletic men and nobody likes to watch humans type more than cats.

It's also a bad argument because I read Pachinko in like 3 days. It was fall break and I took a couple of days off to "be with the kids." What this translated to was one day where I was very much engaged and we went to the zoo and then had ice cream and then watched Spider-Man: Homecoming (which is literally about the homecoming dance, because it's not like he's coming home to anything else other than the Marvel Cinematic Universe I guess, but he doesn't know that. That's too meta for me you guys) and then watched the end of one of the most amazing football games I've ever seen. And then the next day I spent the whole day reading Pachinko and swatting my kids away like they were gnats and I was a rhino in a nature documentary. Imagine a rhino reading a book. It's pretty funny to do that.

Most of the time I can imagine easily trimming a good 50-100 pages off of a book this size without it hurting even a tiny bit. Movies are like that, too. Even movies based on books where other people get mad because their favorite scene wasn't in the movie (like never telling us that Rita Skeeter is an unregistered animagus and that's why she was getting all those scoops) usually don't bother me (usually). I think this is because I'm an adult and recognize that different mediums have different strengths and weaknesses. Also I mean her name is literally "Skeeter," like a mosquito. Like, she's a beetle, but you get it.

Anyway, let me tell you what this book is about before I get distracted again. It follows Sunja in the fishing village of Yeongdo, Korea, at the beginning of the pre-World War II Japanese occupation. At 16, Sunja makes a decision that will haunt her for the next 60 years: she is seduced by a wealthy trader twice her age who she assumes will marry her. Instead she finds out that she is pregnant, he has a wife in Japan, and her baby's father is a Yakuza boss. She marries a Christian pastor who sees in her an opportunity to be like the biblical story of Hosea, and moves to Japan.

What follows is a story that spans four generations through the severe prejudice, incarceration, torture, and near-starvation of the war; followed by the severe prejudice and prosperity that eventually replaced it in the 80s. Even fourth- or fifth-generation ethnic Koreans are restricted from citizenship and treated as second-class. They are inherently lazy and violent, according to the predominant culture. A culture obsessed with blood and heredity.
You are very brave, Noa. Much, much braver than me. Living every day in the presence of those who refuse to acknowledge your humanity takes great courage.
Over those years we meet a massive cast of characters, and something amazing happened to me. Usually when I write these posts, I can never remember anyone's names. I often have already forgotten who was who aside from a handful of standouts. This is especially true when I read books about nationalities whose naming conventions are unfamiliar to me. I have little experience with Korean names, but I could remember almost everyone, even characters who had little impact on the final story. It's a testament to the storytelling here that everyone was so distinct and memorable, I have no problem summoning each character's name.
People are rotten everywhere you go. They’re no good. You want to see a very bad man? Make an ordinary man successful beyond his imagination. Let’s see how good he is when he can do whatever he wants.
Not only that, but I just love them. There are no villains, even when some characters exhibit profound cruelty. The huge timescale of the book puts actions into context that would be 2-dimensional otherwise. It's just a feat. I don't know how else to describe it.
Patriotism is just an idea, so is capitalism or communism. But ideas can make men forget their own interests. And the guys in charge will exploit men who believe in ideas too much.
I can't think of anything I'd trim from Pachinko. I actually wanted more. There are tiny subplots in here about side characters, one I can think of lasts no more than one chapter and is essentially a complete short story, that I would have loved to know more about. The themes here are simultaneously so huge and grandiose and profoundly personal. You know how in Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, Rick Moranis's character says that the majority of matter is empty space between atoms and that you just need to decrease the space between the atoms to shrink an object and also those kids make friends with an ant and their dad almost eats one of them? Most books are like that. Empty space surrounded by a handful of interesting atoms and a lot of dinking around in between of characters going back and forth trying to decide what to do next without actually furthering the story. 

Pachinko isn't like that. The prose is lean and the majority of the themes aren't said outright by a character thinking profound thoughts, but instead it comes through in dialogue. Or actions where you only realize what it's saying while you're in the shower the next morning (Or night, I guess. I don't know when you shower and frankly I'd like to keep it that way). I'm constantly amazed by the confidence Lee shows in what she decides to tell or not. Huge events happen off-screen and time leaps forward. I think other authors would want to dwell on these things, milk emotion out of them, but by having them happen almost as an aside, we're left to grieve almost like we're catching up with an old friend and having to express sadness that we weren't there with them when it happened.
Sunja-ya, a woman’s life is endless work and suffering. There is suffering and then more suffering. It’s better to expect it, you know. You’re becoming a woman now, so you should be told this. For a woman, the man you marry will determine the quality of your life completely. A good man is a decent life, and a bad man is a cursed life—but no matter what, always expect suffering, and just keep working hard. No one will take care of a poor woman—just ourselves.
It's weird to me when my posts actually become book reviews. But darnit sometimes I just want to say that it's books like Pachinko that makes reading more than a hobby. I've got nothing against model trains or golf... actually yes I do and I used them as examples specifically because I think they add nothing to the human existence. It's fine, though. It's fine because golf means fresh air and (some) exercise and model trains are, uh, cool? What I mean is that they don't add layers of complexity to a world I feel like is constantly more interesting like books do. I don't think anything does.