BASS 2018: Yoon Choi, “The Art of Losing” from New England Review #38.2

Palimpsest bench: The Immigrant as Palimpsest

Palimpsest bench: The Immigrant as Palimpsest

Watch the boy, she had said.
Or had she? Some things he knew for sure. His name was Han Mo-Sae. His wife was Han Young-Ja. They had been married forty years, possibly fifty. The wife would know. They had two children: Timothy and Christina. They would always be his children but they were no longer kids. He had to keep remembering that.
Tunes. He was good with tunes. He could retrieve from memory music he hadn’t heard in decades. “The Mountain Rabbit,” “Ich Liebe Dich,” Aretha Franklin’s “Operation Heartbreak,” which he had first heard in his twenties on the Armed Forces Network in Korea. He had a good singing voice. He had been Tenor 1 in the church choir; years before that, he had led off the morning exercise song in the schoolyard. These performances had given him an appetite for praise and notice, although no one, seeing the old man he had become, would know it.

Complete story available online at NER

I’m a complete sucker for an Alzheimer’s story. Build it around an immigrant family, and you know I’m going to bring in Seth Keller’s palimpsest bench doubly inscribed with Michelle Janssens Keller’s “immigrant as palimpsest” text. The two go together so perfectly: as a palimpsest layers one text over another, and the immigrant layers one life over another, the disease strips layers away, little by little.

Philosophy debates whether reality is made up of things, or ideas. For Mo-Sae, the two interplay as his memory goes in and out over the course of a few hours alone with his grandson. He’s not sure why his wife isn’t there, forgets she’s gone out for an errand. Sometimes he remembers, sometimes he forgets who the boy is. Sometimes he forgets he’s there. He looks at a coffee can full of change, and wonders why the coins are so odd: “Then he remembers that these are American coins.” The reader knows terror as the boy gets into dangerous situations – climbing over a rail on the balcony, standing at the edge of a pool – and the grandfather might forget he exists if he turns around. On returning to his apartment, “The doors keep opening and closing on identical hallways, and Mo-Sae realizes that he has no idea which is his own.” Things and ideas don’t always match up any more.

His wife, Young-Ja, becomes the second narrator of this story. In her Contributor Note, as well as her interview with Rose Whitmore at NER, author Yoon Choi explains the need for a second, more reliable narrator in a story of this kind, and how the idea developed from one character – a man with Alzheimer’s – to a story of interrelated characters and events. It’s one of the more explicit and helpful Notes, from a would-be writer’s POV, and for me, it’s always interesting to see where stories come from.

Young-Ja also provides an interesting narrative thread of her own, as she interacts with a neighbor. He started out as my “favorite overlooked character” (though I changed my mind, more later); we don’t know much about his life, but he has many interesting items in his home, including an organ. Also an older man, he’s packing to move so his offspring’s caregiving duties will be more convenient. He gives Young-Ja some of his items, including a Christmas cactus, which she ignores until it wilts. “But what she realized was that Mr. Sorenson’s gifts were not free but finicky, and came with a burden of care.” Just like children. Or parents who age inconveniently.

Jake Weber’s post at Workshop Heretic is highly informative, as he focuses on the issues involved in writing about “other” cultures within a dominant culture. Both because he’s a professional translator (of Korean, among other languages), and because he’s published stories set in “other” cultures, he has some interesting insights into the tradeoffs and decisions involved. I found his observation that there are three, maybe four cultures here – Korean, Korean-American, American-Korean, and American. Again, I think of the way Alzheimer’s, with its tendency to strip away more recent memory first, might peel off those layers of the palimpsest that is Mo-Sae.

One scene in particular resonates with me, partly because it echoes on what is familiar to me, and partly because it reveals so much about the family. Mo-Sae is asked to return to his church choir, which he left before his illness was obvious, for a Christmas performance. To Young-Ja’s surprise, he agrees. This isn’t good news for her; she’d rather they not know about his condition. Rehearsals go fine, but at the performance, during one of the solos, Mo-Sae makes his way to the platform to do his own impromptu solo:

Nothing could be read in the soloist’s expression. Perhaps that was what made him a professional: the ability to keep singing, keep pretending. And no interpretation could be made of the choir director’s turned back, from which a conducting arm continued to emerge and retreat in time. Or of the choir members who presented three rows of staunch faces.
But Mo-Sae’s face was laid bare to scrutiny. The expression on it was high-minded and earnest, but also a little coy, as though he was struggling to disguise his basking pleasure.
What was he possibly singing? In which language? To which tune? Or had he somehow learned the tenor solo on his own? He was not behind the microphone so no one could hear. But anyone could see from the childish look of surprise that came over Mo-Sae’s face that he was straining for the high notes that came forth in the soloist’s voice.
So there it was. The spectacle.
Young-Ja could do nothing but watch, to feel that there in the spotlight that she had never once sought for herself, her private miseries had become manifest.

Christina, the daughter, finally leads Mo-Sae from the choir. That’s an interesting choice. Young-Ja is almost relieved the secret is out. Almost:

Now that the secret was out, the church members treated her like one of the New Testament widows. They saw her as devoted, praiseworthy. They never asked Mo-Sae to rejoin the choir or even take part in a real conversation. Thus she was free from the burden of his reputation.
And yet, sometimes she took the opposite view. She was not really a widow so she was not really free. While Mo-Sae was alive, she could not pretend that he did not exist in some real, sometimes inconveniencing way. Others might pretend, but she had to look squarely into the question of Mo-Sae’s dignity. It was up to her to reclaim it from this point forward in a more complicated, arduous, thankless way.

Again, the inconvenience borne by family. It would be easy to judge Young-Ja, but only for someone who’s never loved someone who wasn’t always able to meet expectations of others in public.

The story takes an unexpected twist that projects a complex future, a future not at all settled by the end of the story. Choi tells us it was not the first ending she envisioned, but it was the one that became necessary to her when she started filling in the details of this family.

My nomination for interesting overlooked character would be Christina. As Jake points out in his post, giving her a more traditional Euro/American name signals a shift from Korean-American to American-Korean in the minds of her parents; her choice of husband perhaps shifts it even further. Given the ending, she’s the character whose life, past and future, I would most like to know about.

Let’s end with the beginning: the title, “The Art of Losing.” Everyone in this story is losing something. Sorenson, the neighbor, meets the loss of his home by giving away items that will live on, although to Young-Ja they are items that require care she feels too burdened to provide. The daughter Christina, leading her father away from the choir at Christmas, faces this loss with seeming dignity and responsibility, but we don’t know what she is feeling. Mo-Sae, facing ever-increasing losses multiple times a day, ends the story by huddling near the door, watching his grandson so he won’t forget he’s there. The little boy, who lost the coins that were to buy him ice cream, met his loss with a temper tantrum he’s young enough to get away with. And Young-Ja, who loses so much, barely notices, she’s so busy trying to get through the day.

The art of losing can be created in different shapes and colors, and we can all just do our best.

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