Remember when you were a hyper-intellectual college student and had everything figured out and were totally annoyed with rest of the world for being so clueless? And remember how just the other day you were getting a Pumpkin Spice Latte at Starbucks (soy milk, of course) and you ran into some of those late-adolescent idiots and were like, “Okay, I was the annoying one”?
If so, then you might be interested to read a little book that recently made The New Yorker’s “Briefly Noted” section: Don Lee’s The Collective (2012). Lee has won a number of awards for his novels and short stories, and it’s not difficult to understand why. The Collective is a subtly effective piece of contemporary literature. It’s not particularly dramatic, or syntactically baroque, and yet night after night I forsook my homework to just get one more chapter in. A very good sign, if you ask me.
The book begins with the suicide of a main character, but given that the reader has no context, the event is more mysterious than sad. We then travel back to when the man who kills himself (Joshua) is in college with his friend Eric (the narrator), and one or two other key players. It’s here that we stay for the majority of the novel. The plot revolves around their experience at Macalester College in St.Paul, Minnesota; particularly their experience as Asian-Americans in a predominantly Caucasian community. “The Collective” refers to the Asian-American artists’ group that these friends form–some more reluctantly than others–in the hopes of honing in on their racial and ethnic identities, and not losing themselves in the see of White.
Macalester is a small school, and St. Paul is not much of a hub city (sorry St Paul-ites) so there isn’t really much that goes on, per se. Lee’s characterizations, however, successfully lure the reader into the drama that exists in these students’ minds. You know how it is in college–just like in high school and jr. high and, depending on where you go, even grad school: everything you’re talking about and arguing about and addressing in and out of class is just so important. If you’re fascinated by that time in life, and maybe even miss it a little (that’s right, I know you) then this will probably be a very enjoyable read.
As much as these kids are just so pretentious and self-important, you also have to admit that they bring up some good points. Joshua in particular (adopted from East Asia by Caucasian parents) is extremely concerned with Asian-American artists producing work that has to do exclusively with Asian subject matter. This passion of his creates a good amount of tension with his friends, who don’t find their ethnic heritage to be quite so constricting. As a reader, I quickly found his diatribes to be eye-roll-inducing; but then I thought: it’s a good question! Can a person of one race create a legitimate artistic product that is about or from the point of view of someone from a different race? Similarly, should people who are racial/ethnic minorities focus their work solely on their own demographic? Are they obligated to do so?
Being a White lady who has always been at a pretty good place on the socio-economic ladder (or right at the top, depending on how wide we’re casting our net), I can’t say that I know anything about being a minority artist. As a female I feel compelled to voice and defend my distinct perspective vis a vis any men with whom I might debate (especially when it comes to theology), but I don’t think it’s the same thing. So, Joshua seems preachy; yet, are his friends really somewhat at fault, avoiding asking the hard questions?
Eventually, as the friends grow up and go to grad school and end up trying to ‘make it’ in the big bad world of professional creativity, they do encounter genuine racism. By then, however, it seems their concerns have become not so much about defending their cultures as Asian-Americans but defending their identities as artists against the grown-up world of paying bills and needing at least of shred of a sense of accomplishment. Joshua, for his part, can’t give up the fight, can’t find a place for himself; and Eric, watching closely, wonders how much he can do for a person like that.
The Collective has a bit of a “Stand By Me” quality to it: nostalgic and bittersweet, told retrospectively with both fondness and also the fairer perspective that comes from, quite simply, age. It’s not the most riveting book you’ll read all year, but it’s definitely one of the freshest.