What does it mean to be a writer or an artist in this day and age? And what does it mean when you’re an Asian American pursuing a career in the arts? These are the questions that third time novelist Don Lee puts forth in his breathtaking new novel, The Collective, which follows three friends of Asian American descent throughout their 20s, first in college and then living together in Boston, as they try to make a mark for themselves in the art world.
That alone would be a worthy plot line for anyone interested in bohemian lifestyles, but there’ss more to these characters than just sitting around and pontificating about their various pursuits and endeavours. These are normal human beings who go to a Sonic Youth concert, mill about in tony restaurants, and manage to scrabble up enough cash to go on the odd dream vacation every now and then.
Lee doesn’t make these lives sentimental in any way. In fact, you may wind up wishing you could have a pint with them, flaws be damned and all, due to all of their seemingly ordinariness.
The Collective is probably something of an autobiographical book for Lee – who has previously published the novels Wrack and Ruin and Country of Origin, and a short-story collection called Yellow. Not only does its main narrator, Eric Cho, work for a small literary magazine, while Lee was the editor of the noted Ploughshares literary journal for a period, but its characters navigate through the world of applying for arts grants and wishing that they could walk home with some literary prizes, to which Lee is no stranger, having won an American Book Award, the Sue Kaufman Prize for First Fiction, the Edgar Award for Best First Novel, an O. Henry Award and a Pushcart Prize.
You do get the sense from some of the questions that Lee poses with his novel, to which there are probably no easy answers, that the grist for the mill that he brings forth is probably culled from his own personal life and conversations. Essentially, a large tract or sub-plot of The Collective deals with the questions of race and racism, and the thought that you might be betraying your art if you are Asian American, but don’t deal with Asian American issues within it, whether it be writing or painting. In fact, characters here are posed as being racist for writing about white people in their short stories, or for dating outside their ethnicity in romantic relationships.
This was a thoughtful book for me, as a Caucasian. I consider myself to be fairly open-minded about other cultures, but I’ve probably asked someone of Asian descent in my past the question that rankle these characters throughout the novel: Where are you from? For me, the Asian-Pacific area of the world is so rich with different cultures and ethnicities – Chinese, Japanese, Korean and more – that are conversely seemingly so similar and intertwined that it can be, at times, and at least for me, hard to tell people apart. The Collective, then, has a useful utility in that it challenges one’s perceptions about Asian peoples, and you walk away from it with the resolve to be more respectful of people’s races and backgrounds, to broach questions of ethnicity with sensitivity.
Granted, race and ethnicity gets broached a number of times in The Collective, and at one point the ongoing discussion of these matters is characterized by one character as “whining”. The Collective tends to bludgeon the issue, true, but you forgive Lee as he looks to topics of race in pop culture as a reference point. Lee’s characters dismiss the portrayal of Asians in such movies or plays as Miss Saigon, The Killing Fields (which seems to be an unlikely candidate on the surface, given its sombre subject matter), Breakfast at Tiffany’s and in particular, the role of Long Duk Dong (“The Donger”) in John Hughes’ ‘80s teen classic Sixteen Candles.
The Collective also offers an interesting character-driven storyline that one can get lost within. The story is one of three artists – Cho, who is a writer; Jessica Tsai, a visual artist; and the insufferable Joshua Yoon, who goes on to be a novelist of some renown – as they meet at the Midwestern Macalester College (the same liberal arts college where Bob Mould studied before dropping out to go on to great success with his first band, Hüsker Dü), and then go on to live together in the late ‘90s in a sort of artistic commune in Boston. The three wind up forming the Asian American Artists Collective (or the 3AC for short) and this blossoms into a full-fledged organization complete with potlucks and a writing group with many other people joining by the time the trio resume their respective careers in Boston.
Joshua is something of the leader, and is also a sort of shady Gatsby-esque character who pulls the group into some less-than-ideal dealings. In one of the novel’s true flourishes, Joshua is both immediately likeable and deeply flawed. Towards the end of the story, Lee writes, “Joshua was a liar, a narcissist, a naysayer, a bully, and a misogynist, a whiner, misanthrope, and cynic.” And yet, for all of his faults, and there are many, you sort of wind up rooting for him, even as he does evil things such as fabricating a story of woe as a guest at an AA meeting, tearing down the work of other writers that is actually pretty good, and getting a hairdresser friend of his embroiled in offering (illegal) massages in an effort to drum up business.
The Collective is also a rumination on failed dreams that is often quite touching and can be easily related to for those pursuing a second career as an artist. “At what point is it acceptable to give up?” Lee asks at one point. “You get into your thirties, and every day you wonder if it’s worth it to keep going. How long can you continue being a starving artist? Will it ever happen for you? Very possibly, it will not. Then where will you be? Sometime or another, you have to decide.” As such, The Collection is a moving testament to those who have, at some milestone in their lives, decided that the luxury of a day job and all of the financial stability that it brings is more important that slaving over a keyboard or a canvass in pursuit of a dream that may not quite exist, which is the sad, unfortunate reality for most people whiling away their hours in quiet servitude to their own muse.
Granted, The Collective does has its share of flaws: the narrative sometimes jumps around temporally, making it confusing at times to know what events are taking place when, and some of the issues of race and identity in art could have been trimmed just so as to not feel like the author was hitting readers over the head with a sledgehammer. That said, The Collective is an enjoyable feast of artistic abandon, one that sweeps up readers in a colossal tidal wave of bewilderment, as these protagonists go on to have their shares of success and failures (mostly the latter) in restrained measures.
Don Lee has created a bold and beautiful novel both about race and also what chasing after your dreams can actually entail. What does it mean to be an artist? What does it mean to be an Asian American artist? Those questions do not easily give way to pat resolutions but, at the very least, Lee has the courage to pose the issues and at least acknowledge that there are no firm responses that can be easily done away.