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The Seoul of New York

“Commuters give the city its tidal restlessness, natives give it solidity and continuity, but the settlers give it passion.” —E. B. White

Garnet, this is a good novel. Like coming of age stories? Patricia Park ’03’s Re Jane focuses on a 20-something orphan who has a thing or two to learn about self-esteem, her obligations to family, and what she really wants. We learn key Korean terms for understanding character and destiny, yet Re Jane also smartly engages with the classic English novel of education Jane Eyre. (No knowledge of Brontë required to enjoy, except you’ll miss inside jokes like the “Lowood” and “madwoman in the attic” references.) Seeking contemporary urban fiction? This one celebrates Queens, Brooklyn, and Seoul, a city reinventing itself even more intensely than New York. Lit and pop references abound—Korean soaps, Star Wars, Friends, the 2002 Seoul/Tokyo World Cup, and more—all set to the urban rhythms of grunge and neon, daily grind and giddy possibility, blackouts and fireworks. 

Jane Re (the American version of her name) grew up in Queens following the death of her white father and Korean mother. She graduates from college and right before 9/11 tries unsuccessfully to land a job in the World Trade Center with a fancy finance firm. She has to settle for being a stock clerk in Food, a tiny Flushing store with a comically generic name run by the strong-willed Uncle Sang who raised her. Jane wants more, yet feels guilty for being ungrateful. Coming-of-age novels typically depict a struggle between obligation to others and the protagonist’s desire to strike out independently. Along the way Jane confronts other binary choices, including Korean versus American, good daughter versus bad, how to define failure versus success. Yet Park’s narrative undoes either/or thinking. Jane’s family history turns out to be more complex than she knew, transforming her sense of the past and how she envisions her Korean and American identities. The novel’s ending also deliciously reworks Jane Eyre, updating both the meaning of inheritance and the famous line, “Reader, I married him.”

Jane needs both Korean and English to tell her story: Nunchi, for example, the obligation “to read a situation and anticipate how you were expected to behave,” thus demonstrating “good family education” in Confucian values. There’s also its contrast, tap-tap-hae, a feeling of constriction caused by all those responsibilities. Jane’s English is hip and polyphonic, but it invokes the U.S. past as it recasts the immigrant story. The Puritans sharply distinguished between license (excessive selfishness) and true liberty, and the Constitution links individual rights to the necessary checks and balances of the social contract. Finding the balance between rights and obligations is a key theme of Jane Eyre and much fiction. Indeed, one of our best novelists, Gish Jen, argues in Tiger Writing: Art, Culture, and the Interdependent Self that American culture is drowning in self-centered narcissism and needs to turn both to Asian traditions and to fiction to rediscover the counterbalancing values of interdependence and empathy. Jane Re could be Exhibit A.

Swarthmore grads have recently made quite a splash in contemporary fiction. Many of you know of a novelist named Franzen, but let me mention a few others: Emily Chenoweth (Hello Goodbye, sweet-sad like the Beatles tune); Adam Haslett (Union Atlantic, channeling Puritan voices to critique finance capitalism); and Maya Lang (The Sixteenth of June, which wittily sneaks sentences from Joyce’s Ulysses into a sparkling comedy-of-manners). Reader, these too are worth your time!   

—Peter Schmidt is William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of English Literature.