'Nuclear Family' fallout: Joseph Han's stunning debut novel

  • by Tim Pfaff
  • Tuesday June 21, 2022
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Author Joseph Han<br>
Author Joseph Han

The sociological construct of "nuclear family," signifying a familial unit whose members all live together, is nearly a century old. Since Hiroshima, the concept has proven too ripe not to be nuked, and sly references to "my nuclear family" today are almost certainly charges of wanton destruction rather than emotional bliss. Pick your metaphor. Joseph Han's first novel, "Nuclear Family" (Counterpoint Press), explodes it, leaving you with the spectacle of the mushroom cloud.

Such as Han's novel indulges an actual nuclear incident, it's the 2018 alert of an incoming nuclear missile in Hawaii —false, it turned out, but no less disconcerting for its "This is not a drill" Dr. Strangelovian impacts. But it's a feint in the novel, too, one of several baffling anticlimaxes that pull the rug out from under the 33-year-old, South Korean-born, Honolulu-resident author, who has other fish to fry, often literally.

It wouldn't qualify as an Asian American Bildungsroman without a central obsession with family, and Han deals out a doozie with the Chos. Immigrant proprietors of Cho's Delicatessen in Honolulu, the father, Appa, and mother, Umma, spawn two children, Korean-born Jacob and American-born Grace, who bring new meaning to the term offspring.

As we meet them, the misfit and puer eternus Joseph has been shot attempting to cross the DMZ —yes, the Korean peninsula's 38th parallel— heading north, not south. Everyone, reader included, is left to re-orient around this news, but it's hardly a spoiler to note that, as early as page 75, the author has recruited a ghost to explain everything, not that he leaves all the talk-story to the phantom.

Ghost story redux

The unalloyed genius of "Nuclear Family" is not just its use of but improvement on the venerable ghost story. As big a deal in Western as in Asian literature, that narrative staple —seemingly as old as story-telling itself— would seem to have run its course, gone past its sell-by date, for us more enlightened, science-worshiping, post-Hiroshima critters.

But a ghost story is the unapologetic core of "Nuclear Family" and its single greatest achievement. Joseph, it turns out, is haunted by the spirit of his grandfather. Like many other nominal heads of family at the time, Grandpa Tae-woo left embattled North Korea to seek safe harbor for his family in the South, promising to come back for them when that mission was accomplished. A setup for abandonment and inter-generational guilt, it works like a charm.

Granddad's fate is to become literally stuck in a fissure in the wall separating the newly divided nation in a desperate act of remorse, return, and hoped renewal.

But well before he makes his literal run for it, he insinuates the spirit —and, critically, it returns out, body— of grandson Jacob, who, largely uncomprehendingly, is dragged from the comparative safety of his parents' chosen refuge, Hawaii, to South Korea, where of course he teaches English to Koreans puzzled by his Korean-ness.

Author Joseph Han  

What's astounding in Han's story is the degree to which the two men are aware of one another. There's little that's ethereal about their connection, and the reader is given gripping accounts of what it's actually like to be inside another spirit.

"Tae-woo didn't participate in daily life like other ghosts, especially the South Koreans who remained in the lives of their progeny, on self-appointed duty as karmic enforcers bringing favor or crafting luck for their kin wherever they could," Han writes. The closest Tae-woo comes to "favor" for Jacob is an all-body, Job-like rash.

"Some ghosts were strong enough to inhabit the living while they slept, to get their relatives to sleepwalk around their homes, never farther," Han continues. But Tae-woo is a whiner, ruminating on "how nice it must have been to have a male heir."

Sensory prose
Their all-too-literally twisted relationship is a constant marvel to watch, corporeality doing battle with transpersonal forces in which destiny and everyday emotional manipulation mingle uneasily.

What makes Jacob —whose name salutes the Biblical antihero who wrestles with god in the form of an angel— an outcast in a family of outliers is that he is gay. It's the darkest possible secret, but Han deftly prepares the reader for the idea, with insinuations as early as page 22 and subsequent more detailed stories of Jacob's trysts, all of them sad. You won't find this formulation in so many words, but the suggestion is strong that it's Jacob's sexuality that makes him a mark for Satan.

In all, Han assembles an amazing cast of characters, all of them credible even at their most outrageous. Some will interest you more than others, but whether you end up caring about any of them will be a matter of personal taste.

Taste is very nearly everything in this food-obsessed novel. It's hardly a given that the book will give you a hankering for Korean food, but you'll know what much of it looks and tastes like. Food is nothing short of elemental. How it is made and received is everything, and when stoner Grace eventually vomits a hundred-course meal at the reputation-wracked Cho's, you know it's pretty much curtains for the family business.

Besides being gustatory, Han's prose is auditory. There are paragraphs of names, pages of place names, the incantatory summoning of generations of people, Korean and Hawaiian, that function like better-behaved versions of the Biblical begats.

Han's writing doesn't read like anyone else's, which is praise enough for a debut novelist cocooned in a literary world. It's telling that his three-page catalog of acknowledgements and influences does not include Maxine Hong Kingston, without whose writing "Nuclear Family" is unimaginable. Perhaps it's a generational thing.

I'm willing to own this as a mere personal peeve, but I wish Han hadn't ended this intensely olfactory novel, which had my undivided attention for the better part of 300 pages, with a fart joke. At least it winds up a convoluted story in which nothing lasts for long.

'Nuclear Family' by Joseph Han. Counterpoint Press, 299 pages, $26.
www.counterpointpress.com joseph-han.com

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