Joseph Han’s mind-blowing debut novel

The sociological construction of the “nuclear family”, meaning a family unit whose members all live together, is almost a century old. Since Hiroshima, the concept has proven too mature not to be destroyed, and sly references to “my nuclear family” today are almost certainly accusations of wanton destruction rather than emotional bliss. Choose your metaphor. Joseph Han’s first novel, “Nuclear Family” (Counterpoint Press), blows it up, leaving you with the spectacle of the mushroom cloud.

As Han’s novel engages in a real nuclear incident, it’s the 2018 alert of an incoming nuclear missile in Hawaii – false, it turned out, but no less disconcerting for its impacts “It’s not not an exercise” by Dr Strangelovian. But it’s also a feint in the novel, one of many confusing anticlimaxes that cut the rug under the 33-year-old South Korean-born, Honolulu-resident author who has other fish to fry, often literally.

It wouldn’t be considered an Asian American Bildungsroman without a central obsession with family, and Han hands out a doozie with the Chos. Immigrant owners of Cho’s Delicatessen in Honolulu, father, Appa, and mother, Umma, father two children, Korea-born Jacob and American-born Grace, who give new meaning to the term offspring.

As we meet them, Joseph, misfit and puer eternus, was shot while trying to cross the DMZ – yes, the 38th parallel of the Korean Peninsula – heading north, not south. Everyone, including the reader, is free to reorient themselves around this news, but it is hardly a spoiler to note that, from page 75, the author has recruited a ghost to explain everything, not that he leaves all the talk-story at the ghost.

ghost story redux
The unmitigated genius of “Nuclear Family” is not just its use but the enhancement of the venerable ghost story. As important in Western literature as it is in Asian literature, this narrative staple—apparently as old as storytelling itself—seems to have run its course, past its best-before date, to us more enlightened, science-loving, post- The critters of Hiroshima.

But a ghost story is the unabashed heart of “Nuclear Family” and its greatest achievement. It turns out that Joseph is haunted by the spirit of his grandfather. Like many other nominal family heads at the time, Grandfather Tae-woo left beleaguered North Korea to seek refuge for his family in the South, promising to return for them once that mission was accomplished. A facility for abandonment and intergenerational guilt, it works like a charm.

Grandpa’s fate is to find himself literally stuck in a crack in the wall separating the newly divided nation in a desperate act of remorse, return, and hoped-for renewal.

But long before he makes his literal run, he insinuates the mind – and, most importantly, it emerges, the body – of grandson Jacob, who, largely without understanding, is pulled from the relative safety of the refuge. chosen by his parents, Hawaii, South Korea, where of course he teaches English to Koreans intrigued by his Koreanness.

AuthorJoseph Han

What’s amazing about Han’s story is the degree to which the two men are aware of each other. There’s little ethereal about their connection, and the reader is given gripping tales of what it’s like to be in another mind.

“Tae-woo did not participate in daily life like other ghosts, especially South Koreans who stayed in the lives of their offspring, under a self-proclaimed duty as karmic enforcers bringing favors or creating good luck for loved ones wherever they could,” Han wrote. The Tae-woo that comes closest to Jacob’s “favor” is a Job-like rash all over his body.

“Some ghosts were strong enough to inhabit the living while they slept, to cause their loved ones to sleepwalk around their homes, never farther,” Han continues. But Tae-woo is a whiner, ruminating on “how nice it must have been to have a male heir”.

Sensory prose
Their all-too-literally twisted relationship is a constant wonder to watch, corporeity battling with transpersonal forces in which fate and everyday emotional manipulation mingle uncomfortably.

What makes Jacob, whose name salutes the biblical anti-hero who wrestles with God in the form of an angel, an outcast in a family of outliers is that he’s gay. It’s the darkest secret possible, but Han deftly prepares the reader for the idea, with hints as early as page 22 and more detailed stories about Jacob’s dating, all sad. You won’t find this wording in so many words, but the suggestion is strong that it is Jacob’s sexuality that makes him a mark for Satan.

All in all, Han assembles an incredible cast of characters, all believable even at their most outrageous. Some will interest you more than others, but whether you end up caring about any of them will be a matter of personal taste.

Taste is pretty much everything in this food-obsessed novel. It’s not certain that the book will make you crave Korean food, but you’ll know what it looks and tastes like. The food is nothing short of basic. How it’s made and received is paramount, and when stoner Grace ends up puking a hundred-course meal at the reputation-ravaged Cho’s, you know it’s pretty much the curtains for the family business.

In addition to being gustatory, Han’s prose is auditory. There are paragraphs of names, pages of place names, the incantatory invocation of generations of people, Korean and Hawaiian, that function as wiser versions of biblical begettings.

Han’s writing doesn’t read like anyone else, which is praise enough for a cocooned first novelist in a literary world. It’s telling that his three-page catalog of acknowledgments and influences doesn’t include Maxine Hong Kingston, without whom writing “Nuclear Family” is unimaginable. It may be a question of generation.

I’m willing to own this as a mere personal pet peeve, but I wish Han hadn’t ended this intensely scented novel, which held my full attention for most of 300 pages, with a fart joke. At least that ends a convoluted story in which nothing lasts long.

“Nuclear Family” by Joseph Han. Counterpoint Press, 299 pages, $26.

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Irene B. Bowles