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Thread: Pachinko by Min Jin Lee

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    The Gnu Normal Pompey Bum's Avatar
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    Pachinko by Min Jin Lee

    Pachinko by Min Jin Lee:
    A Review by PB

    I. Caveat Lector

    This review includes a summary of the first few chapters of Pachinko, a 496-page novel, and mentions certain plot developments later in the book. I don't consider these spoilers per se but some may disagree. Those who wish to read Pachinko without knowing such details should not read my review.

    II. Fixed Machines

    Pachinko is an East Asian game somewhere between pinball and a slot machines. Pachinko parlors relieve clusters of hooting, backslapping buddies of money they may or may not be able to spare. In principle, any pachinko machine could pay, but in practice, parlor owners prevent this by hammering on the pins that control ball movement, thus limiting the number of potential jackpots to be had. And since they manipulate the pins again for each night's gaming, the winning machines cannot be predicted. But even a fortuitous pachinko machine requires a lucky fall of the ball--fortune and failure are far from predictable. And nothing can be achieved without skillful manipulation of whatever befalls one.

    Pachinko, Min Jin Lee's well received second novel (and National Book Award finalist), employs this peculiar pastime as a metaphor for fate, history, and the Korean experience. "Pachinko was a foolish game," Lee asserts, "but life was not." The comparison is neither shallow nor trite. It is not that life is just game. Lee asks daring questions about morality and destiny and answers them without becoming pedantic or dogmatic. Nor is she vague or relativistic. She has answers and we are invited to consider them. The game goes on whether she is right or wrong.

    Pachinko begins in a Korean fishing village in 1910. The machines of fate have been fixed by Korean aristocrats who have preserved their status by allowing the Korean Peninsula to be annexed as a colony of Japan. The new masters are impounding traditional farmlands in the name of progress and driving Korean families into poverty. Protests orchestrated by Korean Christians have been violently suppressed. Most colonists treat Koreans as little better than beasts of burden or whores.

    Through this world wanders Sunja, a 15-year old girl whose widowed mother has held on by turning their tiny home into a boardinghouse for unmarried fishermen. Sunja's trips to the market for her mother are attracting the attention of Hansu, a Korean expatriate from Osaka, Japan. Hansu is a well off wholesale importer and something of a gangster. He is also 20 years older than Sunja and not inconspicuous about his attraction to her.

    At first, Sunja gives Hansu's ogling a wide berth. But one day on her walk home she is waylaid by a group of truant Japanese schoolboys. They scatter her purchases, move on to her breasts, and are likely headed other places. Sunja is saved by the sudden appearance of Hansu, who sends the boys packing with highly credible threats that, if they ever go near the market or the girl again, he will have them and their families professionally killed. Sunja's infatuation with her deliverer quickly follows. While Hansu seems genuinely fond of the girl, it is also clear he is seducing her.

    Sunja soon finds herself pregnant, destroying her prospects of marriage with any of the young fishermen in her mother's boarding house. Hansu turns out to have a wife and three daughters in Osaka. He has no intention of leaving them for the virgin he has ruined. But here Min Jin Lee distinguishes herself from a thousand contemporary authors.

    Hansu is not an especially good man. He turns out to be more deeply involved with the Osaka underworld than anyone had suspected. But in his own way and on his own terms he tries to be responsible. He does not seek to abandon Sunja. On the contrary, he wishes to set her and her mother up comfortably and securely and keep Suja as his concubine in Korea. He wants to support their child and any future children they may have, to put them through school, and to see that they make it in life. Hansu is not being compassionate, he is being vain. He loves the idea of being the big man with as many wives and children as possible. (He especially wants sons as he has none by his aging wife in Japan). He is certainly old-fashioned and indeed sexist in his views, but he is not (greatly to Lee's credit) yet another "men bad, women good" representative of a supposed rape culture. He is an individual with faults that stem from his flawed character and are not inherent to his sex. And he is in utter earnest about what he'll do for Sunja if she will let him. But she won't.

    And here again, Lee distinguishes herself. Sunja knows that she has been snookered--that Hansu never mentioned his wife before her pregnancy and that she would not have consented to be his lover if he had told her. It is easy for us to admire Sunja's integrity and intelligence in not becoming further ensnared. But the hard truth is that the cultural censure of Sunja's situation will also condemn her struggling mother; whereas agreeing to Hansu's terms would mean a comfortable life for both of them. One wonders a first if Lee is flirting with moral relativity. She is not. But neither is she handing us a problem with easy answers.

    So the pachinko ball falls into an unfavorable quarter and Sunja's inexperienced play is not necessarily helping matters. But the ball takes an unexpected carom with the arrival at the boarding house of Isak, a sickly, tubercular traveler whose shaky health promptly collapses. Isak is a young Korean Christian and minister who is en route to a new position in Osaka. As Sunja's mother nurses the clergyman back to health, she confides in him about the crisis her family is experiencing. After some reflection, Isak proposes marriage to Sunja, whose pregnancy has not yet begun to show. (I may seem to be giving away too much of the plot, but these events are really just the premise for the novel). She accepts.

    So clearly we are going to have a novel equating 20th-century Japanese imperialism with the imperialism of Christian missionaries. After all, bad Christianity, good, um, whatever the Koreans are. But think again. Although many post-Christian westerners do not appreciate it, Christianity did not come to Korea from the West, at least not originally or directly. It was introduced in the early 17th century by Confucian scholars who had encountered it in China. Although soon outlawed, it was popularized in the late 18th century by Yi Sung-Hun, a Korean diplomat who had been converted in Beijing by underground Christians suffering persecution during the Ching Dynasty (and who was martyred himself during Korea's notorious Persecution of 1801). Some missionaries followed eventually, but Korean Christianity has generally remained a Korean phenomenon.

    So are we going to have a novel about how the Christian ethos solves all life's problems? No, far from it. I don't know whether Lee is a Christian (although it wouldn't surprise me), but Pachinko is no exercise in apologetics. On the contrary, it is an honest, even fearless, attempt to understand why the human experience varies so much from what one would expect if a God of love and justice were really implementing a divine plan. Hansu and Isak are central to this inquiry. Hansu is selfish and a gangster, but he has the power to help Sunja and her mother--to keep them together and in comfort. Isak is gentle and compassionate, but he breaks the family up when he takes Sunja to Japan. He doesn't begin to have the means to take her mother with them. He barely has the means to take care of his pregnant wife.

    In Japan, the machines are also fixed. The Japanese won't hire Koreans for jobs that pay the cost of living and won't rent to them outside a grubby and dangerous Korean ghetto. The young couple takes refuge with Yoseb, Isak's loyal and hard-working brother, and Yoseb's wife Kyunghee. But the pittance Isak makes as a minister doesn't begin to cover their expenses (Yoseb has in fact gone into debt to a loan shark even to pay their fare from Korea). Sunja soon delivers Noa, her son by Hansu, and later Mosazu (Moses), her son by Isak--two more mouths for brother Yoseb to feed. Meanwhile Isak's health remains fragile. To make matters worse, Sunja doesn't really know her husband and is having a hard time getting her former lover out of her mind.

    III. Love and Blood

    So is Hansu going to play the roguish Rhett Butler in this story? Is Isak going to be a tubercular version of Lady Chatterly's husband? Emphatically not in both cases. Hansu is a genuinely unappealing figure, a racketeer, a mob boss, and a snob on top of everything else. Isak is a saint. But that only exacerbates the problem. The minister, whose brother was one of the Christians killed during the Korean independence protests, is picked up by the Japanese police after one of his parishioners makes a useless gesture of protest against bowing to the Emperor's shrine. Yoseb's appeals to the proper channels fall on deaf ears. Isak is gone. No one can visit or even contact him.

    Years later, Isak is returned to his brother's house--a gasping skeleton with days to live (the prison just didn't want to have to bury him). His back is scarred from whipping, his bones are broken from bludgeoning, but his eyes still gentle. Yoseb tries to free his brother from the torments of lice by anointing his head with oil. Anointment with oil signifies kingship in the Bible. The title Christ means "the Anointed." There can be little doubt of Isak's worth in comparison to Hansu's.

    Or can there be? As war engulfs Japan, prices soar. The widowed Sunja is reduced to selling pickled cabbage from a pushcart. Eventually she is hired as a supplier to a restaurant and things start to look a little better. But one day Hansu strolls into the restaurant to have a talk with her. He is the business's owner, in fact it was he who had ordered the manager to hire her out of the market. He has been keeping an eye on her and their son since he first traced them. But he is now forced to break his silence because of an emergency. The war, he tells her, will soon be lost. His criminal organization (of which he is now second in command) has received intelligence that Osaka is about to be massively bombed by the American Air Force. The houses in the Korean slums are made of wood and paper; the entire area will quickly go up in flames and those in it will be immolated (and it was, and it did, and they were--historically speaking). Hansu has already arranged for Sunya and Noa to be transported to a farm in the Japanese countryside. Sunja can bring the rest of her family, too, since he is certain she won't leave without them. And in time he even arranges to have Sunja's now elderly mother brought over--presumably to be sure Sunja and Noa stay put.

    Once again, Hansu's motives are not humanitarian. He will do whatever it takes to save his own only son--even if it means saving everyone else. But if it had not helped Noa, he would have left the others to burn. For Hansu, it is entirely a question of blood. And this contrasts with Isak's compassion in saving Sunja by accepting Noa as a son even though he was not his biological father. The contrast is spiritual versus material--love versus blood.

    IV. Killers and Whores

    Pachinko continues the story of Sunja's family for three generations. It ends in 1989 with Sunja and Hansu still alive (though other plot lines have long since subsumed the story). I will summarize no more and have mentioned this much only to show the unblinking way in which Min Jin Lee examines the limits of virtue and utility of vice. "All men are killers and all women are whores" Noa's peers at university tell him, and some version of the sentiment haunts the the novel. Hansu would have had no problem with the idea. He was a gangster because that's what men are, and as for women, well it was understandable that they would want something for what they gave you. That was the situation Hansu tried to set up with the Sunja and her mother: a killer with one of his little nest of whores. But Hansu's selfish proposition would have made them safer than Isak's saintly one. That only made Sunja and her children more vulnerable, whereas it was Hansu who eventually saved them all from a hideous death. Can such a reality reflect the plan of a loving God, the God of Isak? Or are we just killers and whores after all? That's the problem Lee is addressing. That's what she wants to talk about.

    And her answer, in brief, is--pachinko, and the power of a bad fall to carom suddenly in an unexpected direction. Encountering Hansu at her mother's funeral, Sunja reflects on his role in her life:

    "In the moments before her death, her mother had said that this man had ruined her life, but had he? He had given her Noa; unless she had been pregnant, she wouldn’t have married Isak, and without Isak, she wouldn’t have had Mozasu and now her grandson Solomon [the protagonist of the novel's final third]...What did [the Biblical] Joseph say to his brothers who had sold him into slavery when he saw them again? 'You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.' This was something Isak had taught her when she'd asked him about the evil of this world."

    The Biblical text was perhaps inevitable. But what Lee does not mention is that her vision--the pachinko analogy of good caroming off of bad and deflecting back and forth in a perpetual process--is a central presumption of the Yi Ching, the oldest of the Asian classics, in which positive implies negative and negative positive and their eternal jostling is the way tien operates.

    And just to keep it real, that doesn't make this life a very innocent one. "It's a filthy world, Solomon," says a later character. "No one is clean. Living makes you dirty." And so it does. But then the ball caroms off that pin and sails to a place where we find that, hey, we are children of God after all.

    V. Pissing and Moaning

    Pachinko is not without the occasional misstep. The merging of the final section with the rest of the novel is not seamless. Yoseb, an important character whose fate deserved to be detailed, is shucked off in a subordinate clause to the effect that he had finally died (he didn't even get his own sentence). This particularly disappointing since Lee's treatment of Yoseb is otherwise remarkable. After Isak's death, Yoseb forbids his wife from working to make up the lost income and does all he can to discourage Sunja's pushcart venture (culturally, Kyunghee requires his permission to work but Sunja does not quite). He does this because it would be humiliating for him as a man if his wife were working. It would have been easy for Lee to have made Yoseb the repressive face of a supposed patriarchy, but she does not. Yoseb is a good though increasingly pathetic man. His war (a paid factory gig at Nagasaki) leaves him crippled and deformed by burns. When the morphine runs out, he turns to drink for the pain (supplied by Hansu, whom he hates, and who wants to see him neutralized as a factor in Sunja's life). Lee seems to deliver Yoseb's epitaph prematurely: "He was a man who had done everything he could for his family--this had happened to him because he had gone to work." He deserved more than that.

    Unfortunately, just at the point where finishing Yoseb's story would have made sense, Lee shifts to a subplot, largely irrelevant to the rest of the novel, about a gay policeman. One chapter (involving the man's heterosexual wife) can only be described as pornographic. I am not being prudish in saying so. The story could have been told just as vividly and even as graphically without language and tone reminiscent of a "Dear Penthouse" letter (and before anyone asks, yes, I was a college freshman once). Lee's apparent intent is to draw readers fully into the erotic and rather abhorrent encounter, and then to slam the door shut, leaving them to share in the wife's feelings of shame. The whole thing just gave me the creeps.

    VI. Randomness and Hope

    Despite these flaws (and objecting especially to the pornographic sequence), I recommend Pachinko to any adult of any national background, although Koreans may be especially interested. Lee's writing is strong and moving, and her take on the problem of evil, whether considered from a secular or religious perspective, is fearless and even ingenious. Lee's honesty can be brutal but her compassion and generosity is heartfelt. In the second part of the novel, Sunja and Isak's son Mosazu, now the owner of a chain of pachinko parlors, takes a moment to consider his bread and butter:

    "His Presbyterian minister father had believed in a divine design, and Mozasu believed that life was like this game where the player could adjust the dials yet also expect the uncertainty of factors he couldn’t control. He understood why his customers wanted to play something that looked fixed but which also left room for randomness and hope."

    Pachinko is a novel that leaves room for a sort of hope: in God, tien, randomness, you make the call. The ball falls in any case.
    Last edited by Pompey Bum; 05-16-2018 at 02:34 PM.
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    Ecurb Ecurb's Avatar
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    When I was a child my family owned a pachinko game. I imagine that it was given to my father either as a business gift, or in an attempt to persuade him to sell them. IN any event, we played it for about an hour, and then lost interest. The game is like pinball minus the flippers (i.e.there's no skill involved,although you can shoot the ball into the machine at different speeds). I suppose it might appeal to gamblers, but our version didn't pay out any money, and didn't pay off in much fun.

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    The Gnu Normal Pompey Bum's Avatar
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    You can apparently set dials that give you some kind of control over what happens. I've never played, although I had (and still have) a close friend in Taiwan who had a severe gambling problem with Pachinko. The parlors are very seductive, decorated with anime girls (the kind with bunny ears and breasts larger than their heads). It's all candyland until you run out of money or (God forbid) go into debt to the parlor owners' bosses. But I don't gamble so I've never been affected aside from trying to help my friend.
    Last edited by Pompey Bum; 05-18-2018 at 06:40 PM.
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    Ecurb Ecurb's Avatar
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    My home version may have lacked some of the options of the parlor games. As an aside, I like to gamble, but only if I think the odds are in my favor (as a result, I don't gamble in Casinos, the race track, or with bookies; the vigorish is tough to beat, unless you're really good.)

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    The Gnu Normal Pompey Bum's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Ecurb View Post
    My home version may have lacked some of the options of the parlor games. As an aside, I like to gamble, but only if I think the odds are in my favor (as a result, I don't gamble in Casinos, the race track, or with bookies; the vigorish is tough to beat, unless you're really good.)

    That doesn't surprise me too much, since I know you like sports. But somehow I see you as a poker guy? Did I get it?

    I'm not exactly sure how much control one has over Pachinko since I've never played. If there were little or none it would fit with the idea of Isak being a Presbetarian minister, since that kind of Protestantism emphasizes predestination. One's metaphorical flippers aren't really good for much.
    And this from a man in a bunny suit.

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