Debut Novelist Jung Yun Follows the Money in Shelter

Finances loom large over Jung Yun’s debut novel, Shelter (Picador), and their implications are like the famous iceberg metaphor: small on the surface, relatively paltry, but massive beneath sea-level, extending so far in so many different directions that it’s easier to ignore it’s there at all. And isn’t that the truth about conversations about money in general? People don’t like to talk about their financial situation, and though one’s instinct may be to assume that this is especially true of the poor, as if they should be ashamed of their state (which, according to USA-pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps mentality, they should be), it is in fact a strange privilege that belongs mostly to the middle and upper classes. It is still a luxury of sorts to be able to shoulder debt’s burden while keeping mum about it.

So opens Shelter: with the preoccupation of its main character, Kyung, with the possible sale of the house he and his wife, Gillian, bought some years ago, and which they now want to sell. Well, Gillian wants to sell the house. Kyung, on the other hand, “can’t stand the idea of being reduced to a renter at his age, asking a landlord for permission to paint a room or hang up some shelves. He was raised to believe that owning a home meant something. Losing a home like this — that would mean something too.” Kyung’s parents, who raised him to believe in the meaning of this type of ownership, live a neighborhood over from him and Gillian, in a massive house with too many bedrooms, but Kyung doesn’t want to move back in with them either.

From the novel’s opening pages, you’d think this book would be about this middle class family that refinanced their home before the financial crash and are now in so much debt they have to decide whether to keep up with mortgage payments or the electricity bill every month, and this even though Kyung is a college professor (though any professors reading this will probably snort, knowing that salaries for PhDs aren’t what they used to be or don’t stretch as far as they once did).

But the novel isn’t actually about this opening situation at all. Houses, money, ownership — these are framing devices, sets against which the novel’s main plot takes place, a plot that involves the brutalizing of Kyung’s parents in their own — very expensive and fancy — home along with the woman hired to clean that home who let herself in when the intruders were there. The events that take in the house are horrible, unspeakable almost, but for Kyung, almost everything is unspeakable. He is a quiet man, but not placid. He doesn’t speak much not because he has little to say but because he is scared of what he could say, what he would say, if allowed the opportunity. Or, as happens late in the novel, he takes a chance and opens his mouth no matter the consequences.

Instead of Kyung and Gillian moving into his parents’ house, then, his parents — and the maid as well — end up moving into the crumbling home that they’re told at the start of the novel they’d have to sell at a loss. From three people, the small house’s occupancy doubles to six. And as the house’s occupancy feels like it’s risen above the fire-safety maximum, so too does the brim of Kyung’s emotional stability; he runneth over.

We find out that the cycle of violence has perhaps ended with the rape and beating of the two women and man in the big house in the expensive neighborhood, but it began far before. Kyung’s father, Jin, beat his mother, Mae, and Mae in turn beat Kyung. Kyung who has never laid a finger on another man, woman, or child. Kyung for whom a display of passion ends up seeming like sexual assault. Kyung who is embarrassed by the Western manliness of his brother- and father-in-law, who starts the book trying to fix a broken garbage disposal while knowing the task is hopeless, at least for him. Kyung, who whether you like him or not, you have to feel sorry for him even while you want to slap him upside the head — making you uncomfortably remember the fact that he has been slapped, many times, and deserves no more such treatments — because he is standing in his own way and refusing to attempt to take care of himself, and who is, in the end, far more like his own parents than he thinks.

Here we come back to the money. In an act that Kyung absolutely cannot forgive, Gillian gets his father to pay off their debt in one fell swoop. She does this knowing Kyung will never get over it; because he will never get over it. This is a book in which everyone ends up alone, in various ways. Except, maybe, for the child, Ethan, who is relatively shielded from the terrible things happening around him — relatively, mind you.

Besides the more or less straightforward plot — this is a very well plotted book, which is rare for such excellent literary fiction — there is a lot going on in Shelter, as indicated above. The book deals with culture and racism, from a broker’s casual assumption that Kyung is Chinese (he corrects her: “Korean.”) to Kyung’s own disgust with the way the Korean wives at the church his parents belong to are subservient to their husbands. Part of what he loves about his white wife is how she isn’t subservient to him or anyone — she doesn’t change her last name, for example — but this is also part of what he dreads about interactions between her and his parents. He worries that she’ll seem too gutsy (she doesn’t), that her cooking won’t be right (it isn’t), and that her family won’t understand his (they understand one another enough; more, though on a surface level, than Kyung can understand either).

Kyung’s sense of control is another problem that’s called into question, along with everything that goes with that concept: his manliness (he isn’t violent, he doesn’t like sports, he isn’t handy, two double whiskeys are enough to get him drunk, which let’s face it, is just reasonable, especially on an empty stomach), his fatherhood (he doesn’t really get being a dad. He has the response that Levin has to his son in Anna Karenina; he’s worried and scared rather than in love with his son), his finances (med-doctor-failure turned PhD-doctor-professor, clearly earning less money than if he’d stayed on the medical route).

Yun treads carefully around these topics, allowing the reader to understand and take in what she needs to without beating her over the head with any kind of message about control and power and men and women and parents and culture and race and money. She simply lays the topics out, one by one, overlapping, until there is a map that one can choose to look at as a whole if one is that kind of reader (which I am) or ignore if one is inclined to simply deal with the story at hand and let the rest sink in subconsciously. A masterful work of literature that is also a page-turning dramatic family saga, Yun’s first book had better be as successful as it reads.

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