I love when a book breaks "cardinal rules" (many of which are worth as much as what a cardinal might deposit on your car's freshly washed paint) and becomes a smashing success. The latest is Pachinko by Min Jin Lee, author of Free Food for Millionaires--a great title--and resident of my current hometown in New Jersey. I haven't met her, but she was at our literary festival, and I missed her panel because I was volunteering. How did I learn about her book, despite her living in my town, signing at my local bookstore, her getting her own panel at the festival, and a big promo push from her publisher?
Word of mouth. Well, word of write. Roxane Gay named Pachinko one of her favorites of 2017, and I follow Roxane on Twitter. We've met, I anthologized her story "Things I Learned From Fairy Tales" in Protectors, and I haven't seen her since a Sackett Street Writers reading in a biergarten basement in Brooklyn, but she wrote a list of her favorite books for a magazine, and I read it because she has exquisite taste. And there was Pachinko, one of the few new books on the list, and she didn't bother with blurb-talk or using her usual literary critic voice, she gushed. So I picked it up, even though a Korean family drama spanning generations, 600 pages thick, isn't my go-to read.
But I could not put the book down. Lee writes with the urgent prose of a thriller, and dances from character to character, using the third person omniscient point of view.
I have heard many writers, agents, and self-professed writing advisers state that this is death. (Okay, one writer shared a set of rules that said it was "death" and I immediately knew I could ignore the rest.) Some of the great novels have been written in this POV, but it lost favor, and it takes chops to do it right and keep clarity in the narrative. But that doesn't mean it is "death." The second person POV is much harder to do properly, it turns many readers off--including myself--but every year there's one or two that amaze people and do well. For example, this year's Hugo winner for best short story, "Welcome to Your Authentic Indian Experience™", by Rebecca Roanhorse, is a stunning read and makes great use of the POV, forcing you to empathize with the protagonist and setting up the reversal that makes it so powerful, opening a window of understanding. I don't want to spoil it, it's 5800 words that fly by. Read it today.
I would say the third person omniscient is much easier to pull off. It is used in other genres more often. Science fiction, historical narratives, and so on. Crime leans toward narrower perspectives. First person, limited third, with "thriller-jumps" that mimic cuts in movies, where we follow many characters in a race against time.
In a mystery, you might think using the omniscient would deflate all tension from a story. After all, the narrator knows who dun it! And yet, we read many thrillers and stories where the point of view comes from the killer. Sometimes they hide their identity, other times they don't. Omniscient isn't the best choice for all crime stories, but it has a place, especially when you are dealing with many characters and their motivations are important. You can spend a lot of time trying to come up with a scene where the narrator can spy on someone to see their secret agenda, which can be a lot of fun, or you can reveal the sinister agenda openly, and let the tension flow from the reader knowing that one character is waiting to poison the other's jelly donut or shove them out a window.
But back to Pachinko. This is a crime novel. It gets its title from a pinball-like game of chance that is very popular in Japan, their version of slot machines, but are much more fun to watch:
And the parlors have been associated with organized crime, the Yakuza, much like casinos here in the States are with the Mafia. So in a way, this is The Godfather for Koreans living in Japan, an origin story that shows how colonization and wars drove many Koreans to Japan, where they are still lower than second class citizens, even if born there. They needed Korean passports to travel and could be expelled at any time, were refused "normal" jobs and found ways to survive. (This is why any politician in the USA who talks about eradicating Birth Citizenship should terrify you). Some survived by going into the distasteful career of running Pachinko parlors, and the stain of crime is on them even if they are legitimate. The story takes a long time to get to the guts of the business, but one of the major characters is a gangster who wants a poor young girl as his mistress, and she wields her power over him to help her family. Not without tragic consequences for some.
The book isn't sold as a crime story, but it will appeal to fans of the genre, especially if you enjoy historical fiction. I wasn't a fan of that either until I read Holly West's Mistress of Fortune and David Liss's The Whiskey Rebels, but the best of the bunch manage to write compelling tales even when you know the outcome of history. And you get to learn tidbits they don't teach you in school, which is always a joy.
Another great novel I missed was Gravesend by William Boyle, which is getting republished now that his novel The Lonely Witness is out in hardback. His first novel was with Broken River, with a lowing blurb from Megan Abbott, but didn't get much reach. Set in that neighborhood of Brooklyn, it weaves a story of three Italian-Americans: Conway, whose brother Duncan was gay-bashed by a local thug sixteen years ago, arming himself to deal with the killer as he is released from prison; Alessandra, who left for Hollywood and has come crawling back as her star fizzled, and Eugene, the killer's nephew, who worships him. The story doesn't go where you think, and for a short book it is as broad and thrilling as a season of The Wire.
Not many writers get Italian-Americans right, but everyone thinks they can write them because they watched Goodfellas and The Sopranos. Boyle--like me, a paisan with an Irish surname--knows the life personally, and writes the best Italian-American crime story I've read since ever. There's no glorification, he can slam us because he loves us, he is us. Too many crime novels use the Italian Goon Named Bruno as the go-to dumb thug who the P.I. can disarm with ease. I personally find these as offensive as the inarticulate thug of color that was used as the racist bugaboo in an earlier era, but I'm not going to say it's the same. Italians are considered white now, and we have the privilege that comes with it.
|A bar that features in Gravesend|
I worked with people involved with organized crime when I was at the port, and I knew Little Sammy Corsaro, who was accused of many things--including a plot to firebomb the offices of an organized crime taskforce--and they are nothing like the loud, brutish cartoons. They are usually quiet and polite. They do not want attention. I love Scorsese as much as the next guido, but he focuses on outliers who are taken down by their hubris, not the everyday mob guy. The loud ones are usually wannabes. Boyle of course involves a local mob boss, and he is perfect. He has the confidence of an emperor in the Colosseum, but no bluster. You don't need bluster when you have power. (See also Frank Lucas, the Harlem kingpin from American Gangster, who can shoot a man in the street and walk away, knowing no one will rat).
The reissue comes out in September, and is worth your time. And if you want to write Italian mobsters, use it as a reference instead of the Dapper Don and Joe Pesci.