Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Gritty portrait marred by lack of coherence

Nami Mun's debut novel is an interesting patchwork quilt of set pieces that stand well on their own. This story of Joon, the daughter of Korean immigrants to New York (much like Mun), has several strengths to its credit. In spite of them, however, it fails to form a complete whole.

At the beginning, Joon has left the house that she and her mother share, because her mother has decided to stop speaking (she is mentally unstable). Before this, the father had abandoned the family, and started living with another woman. Joon's guilt at abandoning her mother is sublimated by her indecision over who really screwed the family.

On the streets, Joon tries a variety of odd jobs, from hustling to becoming an escort. She is befriended by oddball characters, Knowledge and Wink. As the three hop from one place to another, and from one calamity to the next, Joon comes to form real friendships for the first time in her life.

This, however, does not diminish her tiresome view on life. The narrative is peppered with Joon's cynical ditties on the fragility of relationships, the seduction of substance abuse, the possibilities of sexual deviancy, and so on. It does get to you at some point.

Redemption is promised towards the end with the fig leaf of Joon's decision to set her life in order and return to live with her mother. Given her know-it-all bluster, this sudden about-turn comes across as jaded and contrived.

Miles From Nowhere is not a bad book. Mun does possess a distinctive voice and a talent for characterization. However, the budding author needs to work on dovetailing disparate parts into a satisfying whole.

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