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THE COLLECTIVE by Don Lee

THE COLLECTIVE

By Don Lee

Pub Date: July 16th, 2012
ISBN: 978-0-393-08321-7
Publisher: Norton

During college and afterwards, some aspiring Asian-American artists figure out their identities in this third novel from the former editor of Ploughshares (Wrack and Ruin, 2008, etc.). 

Eric Cho, the narrator, is a third generation Korean-American from California. In 1988 he arrives at Macalester, a small liberal arts college in St. Paul, Minn. Unformed and eager to please, he falls under the influence of Joshua Yoon, a Korean orphan adopted and raised lovingly by two Harvard professors, both Jews. While Joshua, a loudmouth and provocateur, complains about the pervasiveness of racism, Eric finds a willing girlfriend in Didi, a blonde Irish Catholic from Boston. When Didi ends the relationship, it’s an I-told-you moment for Joshua; obviously she had just been slumming. He presses his point home in a creative writing class (both he and Eric are would-be novelists) by savagely attacking a white girl’s story; she retaliates, leaving a racist slur outside his dorm. Eric draws closer to Joshua and Jessica, a Taiwanese-American art student; they style themselves the 3AC (Asian American Artists Collective). Eric also acknowledges that they are “insufferable twits.” After graduation, all three find themselves in Boston. They expand the Collective to include a range of avant-garde types intent on combating media stereotypes of Asians, but it never really gets off the ground; the group can’t even agree on a mission statement for the website. Joshua’s leadership has failed. Years later, after his suicide (Lee uses it as a hook for his opening), Eric concludes that “Joshua was a liar, a narcissist, a naysayer, a bully, and a misogynist.” Add to that list: a bore. Lee doesn’t persuade us that Joshua has the charisma necessary to keep Eric in thrall to him. In lieu of a plot, he gives Eric another doomed relationship, and then a controversy and media circus over a risqué installation of Jessica’s that celebrates the Asian phallus. 

A novel undone by Lee’s indecisiveness over how much slack to cut his protagonist, the obnoxious Joshua.