Paul Yoon’s debut collection of stories, Once the Shore, is one of two short story collections to get on Publisher’s Weekly’s Best Books of 2009. (The other one, which made to the top ten list, is In Other Rooms, Other Wonders by Daniyal Mueenuddin. See my blog entries on Feb. 10 and Feb 13, 2009.) Yoon, a Korean American, was born in New York City. He attended Phillips Exeter Academy and Wesleyan University. He currently lives in Boston. Two of his stories have been chosen for The Best American Short Stories: 2006 and The Pen/O.Henry Prize Stories: 2009. His book, which came out in April, 2009, was not widely reviewed, but received favorable reviews in some good places: New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe.
I read Once the Shore recently and recommend it to you. All the stories take place on an island, which Yoon names Solla, based on the actual island Cheju, which is sixty miles south of the Korean mainland; approximately forty miles long and twenty miles wide. Yoon has said that although a sense of place is very important to him, when he had finished Once the Shore he realized that he had changed everything about the island—geography, events, history—and that the stories were not about Cheju at all. Yoon has also said that he was most interested in exploring the effect of outside forces invading an isolated environment and changing people’s lives on the island between the military occupation following World War II and its present reincarnation as a visa-free tourist destination.
However, Yoon’s wonderfully lyrical stories are no more about Cheju/Solla Island than Sherwood Anderson’s stories are about Winesburg/Clyde, Ohio, nor are they any more about the social effects of the military occupation of Korea than Turgenev’s stories in Sportsman’s Sketches are about the social suppression of the serfs by the Russian nobility. Stories have to take place somewhere, of course, and they often have to have some sort of recognizable social context. But those requirements may be more necessary corollaries than fictional focus.
If the Irish short-story writer Frank O’Connor were still alive, he would point to Once the Shore as an exemplum of his theory that the short story as a genre most often deals with what he called “a submerged population group,” (not to be confused with the current politically correct “diversity”) and that it most often focuses on human loneliness.
Paul Yoon’s book is not a social document, nor a “story cycle” parading as a socio-realistic “composite novel,” but rather a collection of self-sufficient, independent stories about individual human complexity in the tradition of other great short-story writers such as Turgenev, Chekhov, William Trevor, Eudora Welty, Flannery O’Connor, Alice Munro, and Alistair Macleod. Mind you, I am not saying Yoon is an equal to that exalted group of short story masters, but he is a sensitive, knowledgeable, and talented student of their tradition.
I am sure Yoon knows these great writers. He mentions MacLeod’s Island as one of his favorite books. And anybody who recognizes what a great short story writer MacLeod is already has my attention. The tradition within which Yoon has expertly placed himself might be called “lyrical realism.” It was pioneered by those two great Russians, Turgenev and Chekhov. When you read a story in this tradition, you begin moving confidently along as if you were living in the real world, made up of concretely detailed objects, inhabited by fully rounded characters who seems like people you might actually know. However, as you read, you begin to experience a sense of an alternate reality that is not made up of “stuff that happens,” but rather made up of words, sentences, rhythms, metaphors, fantasy, fairy tale, formality, tone, meaning, significance. Events in such stories may seem to be events that happen in the world of everyday reality, but at any moment, with a subtle shift, events unfold that can only happen in the world of wish or fear. However, by this time, you have been so gradually captured by the rhythm and tone of the story’s language that you will accept anything.
Take the title story of Yoon’s collection, his first published work, chosen for the 2006 Best American Short Stories. The story takes an actual historical event, the 2001 Ehime Maru incident, in which a Japanese fishery school training vessel was sunk by the U.S. nuclear submarine USS Greeneville, killing nine Japanese fishermen, and shifts it from the coast of Hawaii to the coast of Korea, the locale of his fictional island Solla. Changing the drowned Japanese to Korean, Yoon tells the story of a twenty-six-year old waiter at one of the island’s resort hotels, whose brother is killed in the accident. Against this story of loss, he balances the story of an American woman in her sixties visiting the resort whose husband has only been dead a few months. She tells the waiter how her husband, stationed in the South Pacific during the War, came to the island on a furlough and carved a heart with their initials in a cave on the island. Although she gradually realized that her husband had lied about this, she wants to locate the cave to somehow find the husband who left her to go to war but never really returned the same man.
The young waiter is also seeking some sort of reconciliation; he is figuratively looking for the mythical center of the ocean that his brother had once told him they could find together. When he takes the woman to the caves, he thinks it is possible that this island, his home, is that center of the ocean. After serving her a special communal meal, he takes her into a cave, where with a sharp stone she begins carving on the wall a design that he thinks could be the words of a language “long forgotten.”
Yoon delicately weaves the two disparate stories together, and the finished fabric gives us a completely unified tapestry that reminds us that although we are ultimately alone, there is always the possibility of finding others who share our loneliness—a discovery that, paradoxically, unites us in the great web of human experience.
In Yoon’s stories, it is not merely plot, as-if-real characters, a real place, or a social/historical context that achieves this, but rather the rhythm and tone of a sensitive storyteller using language to create an alternate world that objectifies our deepest wishes and our profoundest fears.
Once the Shore, published by Sarabande Books, is available in paperback. Buy yourself a copy for Christmas. I think you will agree it is a paradigm of the short story as a beautiful form.