20 Books of Summer 2018: Book 1
New strategy for 2018: Start with the long books.
Pachinko by Min Jin Lee is an ambitious book that follows four generations of Korean immigrants in Japan. The characters are engineered so that a reader can’t help rooting for them even though the book’s pace and structure keep the reader at a distance. Every few chapters, the narration shifts to follow a different character and the narrator’s voice remains coolly removed throughout. However, with the frequency of time jumps and so many characters to analyze, everyone is left a little thin—except maybe Sunja. She’s the only character given a key role in each generation:
First Generation: Yangjin and Hoonie
Lee knows how to draw a reader in! Hoonie’s introduction is a short nine pages, but sets the novel’s tone. Pachinko begins with Japan’s annexation of Korea in 1910 when Hoonie is working in his family’s boardinghouse. His family is comparatively well-off, but poor and struggling. From the get, there’s something a little miraculous about Lee’s main characters in their extreme work ethic, patience, and tenacity. Hoonie marries Yangjin and they have a daughter. Thirteen years later (or two swift paragraphs), Hoonie dies and Yangjin is left alone to raise Sunja and run the boardinghouse.
Second Generation: Sunja
Sunja’s story underpins the entire book. The narrative swings back around to her experience even after the focus has moved to her grandchildren. My biggest gripe with the book is that no one else is quite as interesting as Sunja and her immediate circle. Looking back, though, I’m torn between seeing her as an interesting character or as one I just wanted to know more about. Her sections were the most engaging because she was the character with the most going on, who remained the most tight-lipped about her thoughts and feelings.
Sunja’s life is difficult and shaped by her sense of guilt and shame that her husband (Isak) married her with the knowledge that she was already pregnant by another man. Isak was in ill health and wanted to give her child a name for all that she and her mother had done for him. He’s the picture of virtue, perhaps annoyingly so. Even more annoying: When the time skips begin in earnest, Isak is the first character to be shortchanged. The rest of the book refers back to their marriage, but for all its importance to the plot and character development, it only exists in snatches.
Once time starts skipping, it doesn’t stop. There are long-awaited confrontations and conversations that are built up, then skipped over. Some information (all the key stuff) is told in retrospect, but heart and emotion is tough to convey via summary. At times, I felt like I knew these people through an annual holiday card or mass email, but even that gives the pacing too much credit—some characters are offstage for more than a decade. When they resurface, they’re fundamentally different people whose actions are hard to understand because they were also enigmatic as children and teens.
Third Generation: Noa and Mozasu
Noa and Mozasu are brothers and—for as much as their differences are harped upon—they end up being quite similar. They both possess their mother’s work ethic and are singularly (almost mechanically) proficient at their chosen professions. Both move up the ranks quickly and uncontested because they’re so much more honest and dedicated than any of their peers. In Lee’s defense, it’s hard to flesh out a character when he can meet and propose to his wife inside a single chapter, get married offstage, reappear a few years later for the birth of his kid, then, in the next chapter (and some years later), learn that his wife has tragically died. This death is sad in the sense that it would be a sad thing if it happened—it’s sad because the idea is sad, not because the reader had any attachment or investment in the character. When contrasted with more developed characters/scenes, this moment was especially flat. Lee is a very talented writer, but the growing cast size begins to negatively affect the quality of her storytelling in this section.
Fourth Generation: (assorted)
By this point, the narrative is checking in with the characters from Sunja’s section, Mozasu and Noa (along with their wives / partners, and a friend or two), PLUS the next generation of kids and their girlfriends. One girlfriend is limited to a few sex-crazed chapters (the chapter from her perspective is such a tonal misfit that I’m not sure why it was included). By the end, though, the book is steaming on so quickly that it’s not about the people it created in the early chapters. Or, maybe it is in places. I wouldn’t know—I skimmed for key names in the last 50 pages.
Overall: 3.6 (out of 5)
Pachinko is worth reading but I think its characterization as a “sweeping epic” is overblown. It’s more like a soap opera. It even has its own bad boy / good girl trope! (I left this out of the review for the most part. It was eyerolling-ly bad in a lot of places. She’s so good that maybe the crime boss will change his ways… *blech*) When Pachinko isn’t insightful and moving, it’s at least entertaining. When it’s shallow, it’s still interesting (until the last fifty pages or so).
Need to Read