21 July 2004

Boy Genius by Yongsoo Park

A child genius on a TV show in a South Korea ruled by His Excellency the Most Honorable President Park ("who created the heavens and the earth and saw that it was good"). Tough young boys who are actually wild dogs in disguise. A surgical procedure that allows Asians to look like rich white Americans. A neighborhood near Manhattan called Bogota (site of the First Bogota War and the Bogota Accords, which are brokered by Harold N. Napalm, principal of P.S. 38). And everywhere, the threat of Communism.

This is the world of Yongsoo Park's jaunty, gonzo, and hallucinatory novel Boy Genius. When it came out in 2002, the word most often used to describe it was "surreal", and the book it was most frequently compared to was Candide. Both are accurate, but not entirely helpful.

Certainly, the novel is surreal. After all, the main character, Boy Genius, swims across the ocean at the end (and even gets swallowed by a whale that spits him out, conveniently, exactly where he was trying to go). But everything is described as "surreal" these days, and when everything from breakfast cereal to baseball games to Presidential speeches fits comfortably beneath one label, I get the urge to zoom in and clarify the terminology. I'll spare you the terminology this time, though, and simply say Boy Genius is a joy to read, because with zany humor and a fine economy of language, Yongsoo Park does what the best fantasy writers do: he creates a world where anything can happen, and yet everything that does happen somehow feels appropriate to the imagined universe.

The comparisons to Candide are apt in the sense that the novel is picaresque in structure and style, its characters are little more than cartoons, and it has certain satiric purposes. Candide is a bleaker book, though, and one that gives a sense of a coherent philosophy and worldview. Boy Genius is different in being more social, less philosophical -- its greatest satiric success, it seems to me, is that the setting is a world wherein various racial, financial, and political stereotypes are treated as if they are realistic, so that though the reader experiences them with plenty of irony, none of the characters seem to. (Of course, I should note here that the novel is a first-person narrative, and the narrator is vehemently unreliable, so there's no way to establish the exact nature of the world outside of his mind. For all we know, he could be a mental patient hallucinating in a hospital. Lacking evidence of this, however, it's probably best just to read the book on the terms it establishes.)

Boy Genius himself is completely paranoid, and though at the end of the book we are given some reason to doubt his paranoia as being justified, passages such as the following, which comes at the point where his life first gets difficult, let us think his paranoia is perfectly reasonable:
He thrust a stack of forms before me and slapped the top page. "Those documents will prove that your perspective never existed. You never met with His Excellency the Most Honorable President Park or me or anyone related to our noble democratic republic that upholds the uncontestable merits of democracy, human rights, anti-communism, and free enterprise. You know nothing about the abduction of parliamentarians who have never disappeared or the alleged disappearance of other commie bastards and North Korean stooges who have disturbed our peace and threatened our stability. Nor do you know anything about the arrangements which we have not made with certain representatives of foreign nations and business leaders who do not exist. ... Do you understand what I have not said and what you have not heard in this room that does not exist?"
Boy Genius escapes from South Korea and ends up in Bogota, New York, where he becomes a ruffian until the tyrannical forces of P.S. 38 finally triumph over his rebellion. Eventually, having learned to be docile, he gets a job with Peace Now, "a small consulting firm that worked to guard corporations against theft", and though he becomes rich he realizes there are limits to how high he can climb in society, because of his Asian appearance -- "Were my face representing Peace Now," he says, "clients might mistake it for a Chinese restaurant." After some more adventures, he solves this problem with surgery that promises to cure "Middle Kingdom Syndrome", the symptoms of which are described for him by a concierge at the Enola Gay hotel in Hiroshima:
"No have big behind. No have very much facial hair. No have double fold over eye. No like spending money. No muscle tone. No have girlfriend. These all symptoms for Middle Kingdom Syndrome. Very very contagious disease. Spread by sexual intercourse. More than one billion people in China suffering from Middle Kingdom Syndrome right now."
Boy Genius soon discovers, though, that even when he's cured of Middle Kingdom Syndrome, he can't escape his past. Despite having essentially no character development and a magnificently absurd plot, the conclusion of Boy Genius is affecting, because it suggests various layers of meaning and elicits conflicting emotions. The details and rhythm of the final sentence are bittersweet.

Though nominated for an Asian American Literary Award and listed as a "Notable Book" by the Kiriyama Prize, Boy Genius does not seem to have gotten much notice in the literary world, perhaps because it was published by the small (but excellent) Akashic Books and so didn't have the opportunities for exposure that a larger publisher could provide. This is a shame, because the novel is considerably more interesting -- and fun -- to read than most of what is published by major presses.