(Simon & Schuster, 2017)
Paul Yoon’s story collection, The Mountain, is an important book for many reasons, and yet what will likely draw readers back again and again is Yoon’s language, the potent beauty of its sentences. The aesthetic space within and between the sentences is part of what, when discussing a writer’s style, is referred to as “quiet” or “minimal.” Syntactically, the sentences are spare, their grammatical restraint functioning in deliberate contrast to the violent imagery that screams through the prose of this slender, six-story collection.
The terrain covered is vast: multiple continents and centuries. It requires great skill to cover such unexpected distances, both of time and geography, in such a compressed space. Beyond this, it is the stark desolation of his characters that pierces these luminous narratives. These are characters who are mostly migrants, suffering from acts of violence, addiction, lives bled thin due to context and circumstance, the legacy of trauma, the fallout of war and corruption.
The narrator of “A Willow and the Moon,” which takes place in an abandoned sanitorium in the Hudson Valley, returns after serving in WWII to understand his past and recover “some old hope.” The story closes with the image of a rowboat that “had become untethered and was now drifting away. I saw it move as though it were being pulled by a long string, going father and fading. I watched until I couldn’t see it anymore. Then Elsa Marie, holding her boy, closed her eyes, and the day ended, and there was only the water in the night.”
Much of the prose is structured so that the reader is pulled into realms of ambiguity and deeper questioning provoked by the experiences of the protagonists themselves, who are frequently confronted with questions to which they can’t discover satisfying, meaningful answers.
“Still a Fire” is told in the voices of Mikel, a young man living in the war ruins of northern France, and Karine, the morphine-addicted nurse who tends to him. The descriptions of morphine addiction and violence are written with chilling exactitude. But long after the violence has passed, loneliness and uncertainty remain:
And who are these people she has come here with? She sits beside Oliver, this man casually drinking his wine, and recognizes that her life these past four years has been moments with strangers. Or perhaps it always was. What terrifies her is that she doesn’t know if this makes up a life.”
The title story is a tour-de-force that takes us into a strangely familiar, bleak vision of East Asia, set in the future. It appears to act as a counterfactual extension of the violence that has characterized the stories with historical scaffolding. A 26-year-old Korean woman named Faye is recruited for factory work in Shanghai, where she experiences physical brutality and reflects on her father, who worked at a chemical plant deeper in the country. Her father died beneath a tree on a mountain which Faye herself eventually climbs towards the end of the story. The sound of breaking skin, the “cold shock” of her tooth being smashed into the side of her mouth, the probability of having stabbed someone in the dark—while these acts stand out as they should, it is a sense of loss that pervades, inextricably entwined with vast imagined spaces of empathy and light.
If loss and hope collapse into each other, there is a risk of sacrificing these characters’ lives to a concept. Not once does the author falter: we are willed into feeling the core of these isolating experiences, into which nearly every character has tunneled.