Marie Myung-Ok Lee’s The Evening Hero is a universe of trap doors. What begins as the narrative of an immigrant doctor’s forced retirement—setting in motion a stream of memories—becomes instead a story of adventure through a war-torn, and also farcical, world. Yungman Kwak, MD, ob-gyn, wakes up one day to find Horse’s Breath General Hospital, where he’s worked for decades, shuttered. SANUS, its new parent company, is embracing retail medicine, filling the Mall of America with outlets like Speedee Dialysis, Vaccines R US, and At Your Cervix. As Yungman tells his “Korean-ish” son, Einstein, “You can hardly call it medicine. It’s actually kind of sordid.”
Set in the year 20XX—a not quite parallel but not quite future time—Yungman’s Minnesotan life is portrayed with a hard satirical edge. Einstein lives in an estate called King Arthur’s Court, complete with moat and drawbridge, in a development named Custom History Valley. A “doctorpreneur” and shareholder of SANUS, he secures Yungman a job in the Mall of America. At Depilation Nation, “where unwanted hair comes to die,” a nameless, undocumented worker shows Yungman how to operate the Defolliculator II, which interfaces with Yungman’s SANUSwatch. Should he exceed maximum care time with any client, he is fined for “wage theft.” Clients barely register his presence, since they’re hooked up to virtual reality headgear, with one woman reduced to pawing the air “like a kitten.”
Chapter by chapter, sometimes even line by line, the absurd and tragic mesh. At Thanksgiving dinner, while Einstein and his wife bask in their seeming wealth, Yungman is preoccupied by letters he’s been receiving from Seoul, and hiding, unread, in a copy of Shogun. Unbeknownst to Einstein, or to Yungman’s wife, Young-ae, he has been keeping a lifetime’s worth of secrets.
The novel leaps back in time, and we see Yungman’s childhood in Water Project Village, a remote hamlet in the high mountains. Though the village has only a single, precious well for its 20 families, it becomes famous in Korea for selling its water—rumored to have healing properties—to pay for a local school.
In 1949, Yungman and his brother, Yung-sik, are still children. Over three decades of brutal Japanese occupation have come to an end, but Korea is now the battlefield of the Cold War. Their father, a respected agronomist, was working to create drought-resistant seeds. Accused of Communist sympathies, he was imprisoned without charge, and has not been seen in two years. Yungman’s grandfather and mother are struggling to keep the family afloat.
What happens to them as the Cold War explodes into the Korean War is catastrophic. Dean Rusk, former Secretary of State, famously said that the U.S. bombed “everything that moved in North Korea, every brick standing on top of another.” In 1953, Water Project Village is pushed above the demarcation line, into North Korea, in an instant creating a shattered and divided place, no longer a home.
Amid loss, a fairy tale element surfaces: Yungman courts the girl who once lived in the wealthy house atop the village hill; against all odds he obtains a prized visa to study in the United States; he lands the job that no one wants but that allows him to build a new life in rural America. The cost of this is high. Yungman rushes into his new future, papering over his guilt with “a pile of twenty-dollar bills” sent back each year to Seoul. He forgets his mother tongue, and by the time he’s an elderly man, he speaks Korean as a stranger would.
The Evening Hero invokes a hall-of-mirrors strategy. Readers in America will know the United States is a multifaceted, profoundly complex place. Meanwhile, they may imagine North Korea as it is so often portrayed: an impenetrable, alien nation with a buffoonish leadership.
The Evening Hero walks the inverse path. The America of the novel is a tragicomically superficial, and even buffoonish, place, where money is the measure of value. Meanwhile the Korea of the novel is a place of complicated lives, a country that withstands brutal Japanese colonization, only to be carpet-bombed by American planes. The United States dropped 32,000 tons of napalm on targets that were not just military but civilian. Nearly every city was leveled by 635,000 tons of U.S. bombs, and some five million were killed. These facts have been excised from collective memory, not just in America but in most of the world.
The reality of life for Yungman, and for his wife, Young-ae—who floats at the edges of the novel—is that they must live with the consequences of their choices. They have experienced the bounty that America offers. They are fragmented selves who have managed to succeed, at least on their new country’s terms, while simultaneously losing their way.
Culpability waits like a dagger behind every moment. Yungman manages to obtain care for one of his patients via blackmail. He calls the neighboring hospital and suggests they are covering up war crimes: One of their celebrity doctors fought to grant amnesty to Japanese war criminals who experimented with bioweapons on living prisoners—in exchange for research data obtained through torture. Yungman thinks, “Unlike Koreans, for whom history clawed at every day, Americans had the luxury to ignore theirs. How wonderful to be always striding forward, behemoth country that they were.”
Yungman is sometimes knowing in his forgetting, and sometimes truly forgetful. There are moments when the messaging of the novel seems to conduct the plot of The Evening Hero, creating a novel to fit its needs. The sardonic humor can seem a bit scattershot, and events too convenient.
But at other times, The Evening Hero evokes a bittersweet lightness. We feel the watery, hard-to-articulate inner life of Yungman Kwak—someone who betrayed his family for love, who accepts the wages of guilt, whose losses cannot, ultimately, be accounted for. Going home, and making amends, even telling the truth, can’t remake his life. In the novel, as in Yungman’s existence, the past is most alive. The condition of being “scattered-and-divided” remains, even as everything appears livable, even satirical, on the surface.
Madeleine Thien’s most recent novel, Do Not Say We Have Nothing, about art, music, and revolution in China, was shortlisted for the Booker Prize and the Women’s Prize for Fiction. She is a professor of English at Brooklyn College.
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