New York, NY: Norton, 2012. 314 pages. $25.95.
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In The Collective, the most recent installment of the American campus novel, Don Lee presents a group of Asian American artists whose coming-of-age is marked by an irresolvable conflict: the tug-of-war between self-identity and community. For the members of the 3AC (or Asian American Artists Collective), the process of self-discovery isn’t so much about finding an identity as it is about confronting the identities that are, somewhat inescapably, chosen for them—identities based on politics, race, and the expectations that come with belonging to a minority community.
When reading The Collective, one can’t help but think about the college setting of Jeffrey Eugenides’s The Marriage Plot, whose Madeleine Hanna, like The Collective’s narrator, Eric Cho, questions the possibility of creating truly original work in a postmodern age drenched with semiotics, deconstruction, and other forms of what Eric describes as the “lingua-franca of pseudo-intellectualism.” The same Sturm und Drang that troubles Madeleine, an uncertain prospective PhD student in English, saturates the first-person narration of Eric, a third-generation Korean American from California who, later in the novel, reluctantly enrolls in an MFA writing program. While in a freshman creative writing course at Macalester College, Eric meets the fiercely intellectual and polemical Joshua Yoon, a Korean student from the East Coast whose many preoccupations include the politics of Asian American art. In the same course, the two befriend Jessica Tsai, a Taiwanese American art student who’s interested in painting and sculpture. Together, they form the 3AC, a group that expands beyond Macalester to include other artists and writers after the three relocate to Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Although the 3AC is founded early in the novel, it isn’t until the three collectively experience related acts of racism that the 3AC becomes an intellectual community. The pain and anger resulting from these and other experiences of racism fuel the activities of the Collective. The group’s sense of cohesion is short-lived, as its members become increasingly wary of Joshua’s unrelenting politicization of Asian American art. As the Collective begins to dissolve, Joshua becomes unable to see that the very thing that would seem to unite them logically, the experience of being a minority artist, is also the thing that begins to push them apart.
The scope of Lee’s characters’ preoccupations—art made for a small audience—can risk giving them a sense of one-dimensionality. But he saves them from that pitfall. Ultimately, they move us with their tenacious insistence that, indeed, one can create beautiful art through perseverance. And one can create, as well, meaningful relationships with fellow artists. In the case of Joshua and Eric, however, this meaningfulness has a shelf life. From the beginning, the friendship is contentious. When Joshua senses Eric’s unfamiliarity with the realities of racism, he chides him for not writing about Asian Americans, claiming that he’s been brainwashed into a form of “race betrayal.” When Eric begins to date Didi O’Brien, an Irish Catholic from Boston, Joshua accuses him of being a “twinkie” (a stereotypical term for an Asian person who mainly associates with white people), attempting to convince him that Didi is only fascinated with his racial difference—in other words, “slumming.” Such withering critiques from Joshua continue throughout the novel. When Eric come to terms with Joshua’s rage, this gap in the narrative is filled: “Although I relished his counsel and company, I was wary of him at times, wary of how critical, noisome, and dogmatic he could be, of his predilection for creating drama and havoc, of the inequity in our roles, and wary, too, of his dependence on me, his neediness.”
Although their friendship doesn’t dissolve until the end of the novel, it has been marked by death from the very beginning. In the opening pages, forty-one-year-old Eric ruminates about the possible reasons for Joshua’s suicide. When Eric visits Joshua for the last time, we surmise that their friendship has reached a symbolic end. As Joshua tells Eric, “You have been a great friend to me, Eric. My best friend. . . . But you stopped needing me a long time ago.” Recalling the words of Didi O’Brien, with whom Eric reconnects and marries, Eric realizes that Joshua “would never have what I now possess—a life beyond the pursuit of art.”
For Eric, it would seem, the “problem” with being an “idealist” like Joshua is that it comes with too heavy a price. We can’t help but see a similar conflict between idealism and reality in the academic pursuits of Madeleine Hanna, Mitchell Grammaticus, and Leonard Bankhead, the triangle at the heart of The Marriage Plot. For them, like the original trifecta of the 3AC, the pursuit of the academic dream in a postgraduate world is undercut by a deeper tension between self-identity and reality. The acute psychological realism that both Lee and Eugenides bring to the campus novel suggests that the college experience and all of its attendant idealism is ultimately unsustainable. In both The Marriage Plot and The Collective, the sacred division between the university and the outside world crumbles, only to be replaced by a gulf between the artist and the world around him—a world that is, as Lee reminds us, inimical to the artist’s vision. And in the case of Joshua Yoon, who becomes unable to distinguish between art and life, it is a world that is, in many ways, his own self.