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The Collective: A Novel Hardcover – July 16, 2012
This month's Book With Buzz: "Little Fires Everywhere" by Celeste Ng
From the bestselling author of Everything I Never Told You, a riveting novel that traces the intertwined fates of the picture - perfect Richardson family and the enigmatic mother and daughter who upend their lives. See more
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Lee comes with an agenda -- an important one -- about ethnicity and art, but he also delivers a heartbreaking, sexy, and frequently funny story about fractured friendships. EW's Grade: A- --Stephan Lee, Entertainment Weekly
Offering strong characterizations and thought-provoking prose, Lee addresses the Asian American experience from various vantage points...His novel has enough depth to spark uninhibited discussion in any book group and, given its time frame, will have special meaning for Gen X readers. --Shirley N. Quan, Library Journal
Lee smashes Asian stereotypes to pieces to present a provocative look at what it truly means to have one's identity tied to not just oneself but also an entire race. -- Carolyn Kubisz, Booklist
"The Collective" brilliantly sorts through issues of friendship, intimacy, idealism, art...Don Lee is a phenomenal writer that you absolutely should know, and "The Collective" is a book you absolutely should read. Get two pages in and you'll know I'm right. --Rachel Meier, Christian Science Monitor
A hilarious and winning story...this book's plangent, and also celebratory undercurrent, flows on, whispering to the reader that the other collective it speaks of -- friendship in youth -- is equally unstable, and prone to collapse. The best parts of this keenly felt novel will remind you why. --John Freeman, The Boston Globe
“Lee comes with an agenda―an important one―about ethnicity and art, but he also delivers a heartbreaking, sexy, and frequently funny story about fractured friendships.”
- Stephan Lee, Entertainment Weekly
“Offering strong characterizations and thought-provoking prose, Lee addresses the Asian American experience from various vantage points, realistically examining themes ranging from personal relationships to racism and artistic censorship. His novel has enough depth to spark uninhibited discussion in any book group and given its time frame, will have special meaning for Gen X readers.”
- Library Journal
“It is a hilarious and winning story, smoothly told...”
- John Freeman, Boston Globe
About the Author
Don Lee is also the author of the novels Wrack and Ruin and Country of Origin and the story collection Yellow. He has received an American Book Award, the Sue Kaufman Prize for First Fiction, the Edgar Award for Best First Novel, an O. Henry Award, a Pushcart Prize, and the Fred R. Brown Literary Award. His stories have appeared in The Kenyon Review, GQ, The Southern Review, American Short Fiction, The Gettysburg Review, and elsewhere. He is currently the director of the MFA program in creative writing at Temple University.
Top customer reviews
Eric Cho, a Korean American from California, is the focal character of the book. He's an aspiring writer who befriends 2 fellow Asian students at the mostly white Macalaster College in Minnesota. One, Joshua, is another aspiring writer, the other, Jessica, is an artist, rebelling against her parents' wishes that she become a doctor. There are a lot of good observations here about the desire to make a difference in the world and good examination of the issues of racial identity and whether or not an ethnic artist has an obligation to explore themes reflecting his identity or if he or she should be free to examine any topic they wish and assume the persona of any race. But after a very provocative opening, in which Eric, in his mid-thirties, reflects on Joshua's suicide at the same age, the middle of the novel bogged down a little bit for me for a couple reasons. First, all the standard set pieces about young writers - like the brutalities fellow writers inflict on one another in writers' workshops - have been done so many times before, it's difficult to make it fresh unless you do a scathingly satirical take on the whole writing/publishing business the way John McNally did in After the Workshop: A Memoir of Jack Hercules Sheahan.
The other problem is that Lee's two main characters - Eric and the friend he admires so, Joshua - aren't all that likeable. Joshua is obnoxious, pedantic, selfish and manipulative. Even though he is far more talented, it's hard to understand why Eric would revere him. There is a section later in the book when Eric wonders if someone truly dedicated to their art, as Joshua was, has to sacrifice so much to focus their energies on their art that they become deficient in their relationships and interpersonal skills. And admittedly all of us probably have had some over-the-top annoying person in our lives whom we maintained a friendship with because they possessed some quality we looked up to. Clearly, Joshua has the boldness and sense of freedom to tell people off in ways that Eric would never dare to, but in almost every other way he makes Eric's life miserable, and it's hard to spend a lot of time in a novel with a character that obnoxious, unless he gets some sort of comeuppance, and Joshua's is only self-inflicted. It may be too strong to say Eric is unlikeable, too, but he is a bit of a wimp. He has to be pushed to the limit to stand up to Joshua, and for a good part of the novel he has, in her words, a "puppy dog" crush on Jessica. We spend a lot of time hearing - in albeit very sexy details - about Eric's relationships with 2 women. In the first, he becomes a clingy, needy jerk when she asks for some more space, and then kids himself into thinking, as Joshua suggested, that she was a typical white girl only interested in experimenting with dating an Asian guy for a while. At least his reaction is interesting because Lee shows how much of the prejudice Joshua and Eric see everywhere stems in good part from their inability to see their own flaws. After Eric graduates, we spend a significant amount of pages hearing about his relationship with a suicidal, depressed woman who is still mooning over her previous boyfriend. It's hard to understand why Eric continually insists he loves her, given how badly she treats him. But again, that might fall in the "been there, done that" department of foolish things we do in our youth. Despite what I considered to be the drawbacks of this section of the novel, Lee's talents still shine through. He has some very funny passages - one in which Joshua takes the podium at an AA meeting and does an incredibly funny, exaggerated riff on the hard-luck stories members often share. In another, as the group of Asian artists meets to form their collective, with dreams of enlightening the world on the Asian experience, they got bogged down in the task of creating a mission statement. All the ridiculous arguments people make as they debate the multiple connotations of every single word they might use will be hilariously familiar to anyone who has ever participated in that type of exercise.
For me, the novel really picked up and had some interesting meat to it in the final quarter, when Jessica gets caught in a big political and media maelstrom over a sexually graphic sculpture that will go on display in Cambridge city hall, in which she tries to make a statement about the stereotypes people have of Asians. A Cambridge councilman comes out in protest, claiming the public shouldn't be subjected to art that's nothing more than pornography. This episode is deliberately reminiscent of the stir Boston Councilman Dapper O'Neill created when he protested a Boston museum's exhibition of Robert Mapplethorpe photography (the novel even makes a reference to that). It's a funny extended passage that hits all the right notes. At the close of the novel, as Eric adopts a middle-class lifestyle, there are also great observations about what it means to accept compromises and get on with one's life after realizing the limitations of your talent and the downsides of trying to be a starving artist. Living in crappy apartments and being unable to afford vacations doesn't look so appealing when you reach your 30s and still haven't had a story published or your work exhibited in any notable gallery. The strength of the final section redeemed the whole novel for me.
These days, most books are about vampires, detectives, and fantasy lands. Very few books address what is happening now in a non-over-the-top, realistic manner. This book, on the other hand, is relevant and contemporary. It addresses issues that are relevant to all of us: race, art, friendship, love. It is literary and thoughtful WITHOUT being boring. So if you want to read something of substance that will also keep you up at night with anticipation, buy this book.
I do not know the author personally and have no disclosure to make.
Most recent customer reviews
However, there are 2 things I have issues with: the very flawed main characters, and the...Read more
Where do you go, after excellence like this?
To more Don Lee, I'm guessing.Read more