If you liked this article, then consider supporting me via my Patreon site. Even a small pledge helps: https://www.patreon.com/user?u=2706521&ty=h
From the opening of Jung Yun’s novel Shelter, the emotional tension is palpable. Yun presents us with a portrait of quiet desperation in the form of Kyung Cho, a mediocre professor who is facing financial ruin.
His father, Jin, is the successful Professor Cho having carved out a name for himself at an unnamed Boston university where in brings in plenty of grant money while living very comfortably off the patents. Kyung refuses to ask his father for aid, “They do have a place to go, a place that makes sense financially, but it would wreck him to exercise the option, to explain why he had to.” The great irony here is that in trying to preserve his own place and pride, Kyung is unwittingly setting himself up to be wrecked.
As the novel’s protagonist, our perception is filtered through Kyung, which, of course, colors the entire story. Kyung’s strained relationship with his mother, Mae, and father take center stage when the two are victims of a brutal home invasion. Mae and the couple’s housekeeper are raped and tortured, while Jin is beaten and bound. The suddenness of such horror momentarily erases Kyung’s concerns. But every erasure leaves a mark, and Kyung is already threadbare.
This is what makes Yun’s novel remarkable: its pace, the frenzy of the opening third. No sooner are we given such pressing concerns as they are immediately made to feel petty, as Kyung certainly feels. We discover ourselves reading not a story about a strained marriage (Kyung and his wife Gillian) at the time of the housing crisis:
“The books and websites that Gillian always asks him to read refer to this state as ‘underwater’ or ‘upside down’–terms he actively dislikes. It’s bad enough that everything in the house keeps breaking. He doesn’t need to imagine himself drowning too.”
Nor a story about recovery after a vicious random act of violence. Rather, we find ourselves mired in (as Kyung has been his entire life) various and deep abusive relationships–Kyung’s father’s abuse of his mother, his mother’s abuse of him, Kyung’s own emotional self-abuse that takes a toll on Gillian. Kyung has broken nearly all contact with his parents who literally lord over him in a mansion on a hill just blocks away from his own home:
“Brick by brick, he’s built a wall around his life, trying to preserve his family and home as his alone. He helps out his parents when asked and visits when invited, but not too often, and never as much as he should. It’s the most he’s willing to do, the absolute minimum he can get away with and still be considered a son.”
This distance through proximity is due to Jin having regularly beaten Mae while Kyung was growing up. This abuse led to Mae taking her frustrations often physically as well out on her son. Rage infects Kyung, pumping through his blood. Rage not just towards his father, whom he has promised to kill if he ever lashes out at his mother again, but also towards his mother (a woman that he can’t bring himself to begin to understand), his own wife and in-laws (who seem either unwilling or incapable of considering him a peer), at the Christians preying on his parents discord, and even at his own son, Ethan, for simply being the greatest enigma, a child. Kyung is obsessed with maintaining the facade of normality. And, yet, he is galled by it whenever his parents, wife, in-laws, or acquaintances attempt to do the same. What mild comfort he seeks out and receives, he is unable to embrace, feeding a seemingly endless cycle of bitterness:
“‘You’ve been a good son,’ she says. ‘You figured out how to keep them in your life, even though you really didn’t have to. It’s not like you owed them anything.’
‘They’re my parents, Gillian. What was I suppose to do?’
‘What lots of people do–move to another city, get an unlisted number, avoid them. You had every right to cut them out of your life. Even a therapist would say so.’
‘That’s an American idea. Koreans are different.’
‘But you grew up here. You’re American too.’”
Here is where Gillian cuts to the heart of Kyung’s dilemma, if you will. He’s too tempted to see himself as a stranger, an other rather than as some going through a shared experience. A second-generation Korean-American, it’s too easy to slot the story of Kyung Cho into immigrant fiction. Although most certainly a family drama, Yun has crafted a novel that’s less about cultures or generations clashing as it is about the banal and casual abuse that tends to infect nearly all lives.
It is the throwaway lines said to people gently eroding their self-worth. It is the open contempt of seemingly ordinary gestures. It is the off-handed undercutting of not one’s authority but one’s autonomy that makes Shelter a success as when Jin admonishes Kyung for his career and familiar failures:
“‘If you think too much, you won’t ever accomplish anything.’
Had the words been phrased differently–a little kinder, a little easier in life–they could have formed the basis for something meaningful passed down from father to son. But said in this moment, they don’t resemble advice so much as judgment.”
Some may feel that the narrative momentum drowns in emotional reflection, but I disagree. What slows the storytelling is the reflection of shock, and it is appropriate. We, readers, experience a similar numbing, emotional confusion that has consumed Kyung. The dynamism of the opening of the novel necessarily lessens but the energy never weakens. Rather, what we see is a wild, jarring opening then the futile attempts to repair damage done through some misguided belief in the force of will power. The characters react to being shattered by trying to pull themselves together as individuals, never realizing that they can only heal or recover together.
It is an impossible thing to ask of the Chos because they are so very closed off from each other emotionally and alienated from their true feelings and self-image due to the domestic violence they have suffered and perpetuated:
“Because it’s worse to listen to someone in pain, he thinks. Because hearing a beating and not being able to do anything about it are their own form of punishment. This is the truthful answer, the one Kyung knows he should give, but he doesn’t like the damage it implies.”
My only major negative criticism of Yun’s novel is the character of Gillian, a woman that seems so paper thin her interactions with her husband border on unbelievability. Yes, Kyung is emotionally closed off, a powder keg if you will, but every scene with Gillian seems to show us a person that couldn’t possibly be any kind of intimate. Neither Gillian nor Kyung are people who are married to each other even though they are married to each other. Gillian is a forced character. Too often, she and her family feel like mere foils, familiar signposts for casual readers so that they have a superficial explanation for Kyung’s actions. She is an immensely dissatisfying character given that Gillian should be one of the prime movers of the story.
For readers who enjoyed Andre Dubus III’s The House of Sand and Fog and Gillian Flynn’s novels, Shelter will fit in quite well. As a literary debut, Yun’s novel shows more than mere promise demonstrating a confident voice and style that can only improve.
Release Date: March 15, 2016
Read Jung Yun’s Author Bio here
Jung Yun was born in South Korea, grew up in North Dakota, and was educated at Vassar College, the University of Pennsylvania, and the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Her work has appeared in Tin House (the “Emerging Voices” issue); The Best of Tin House: Stories, edited by Dorothy Allison; and The Massachusetts Review; and she is a recipient of an honorable mention for the Pushcart Prize and an Artist’s Fellowship in fiction from the Massachusetts Cultural Council. She lives in Western Massachusetts with her husband.
This article was made possible thanks to support from my patrons Rachel Racicot and Tyler Whitesides.