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Review: Paul Yoon’s “The Mountain”

The shards of people’s lives depicted in the six stories of Paul Yoon’s The Mountain are disturbingly thematic in spite of their disparate settings and time frames. Especially after war, his characters try to pick up their lives and keep going, though often without goals and objectives. Stories begin and ramble along, as Yoon’s characters wander unfamiliar territories, sometimes looking for friends or family members from the past, sometimes looking for nothing beyond basic survival—frequently with little introspection that would no doubt be too painful to confront.  Almost always, these stories end with no real sense of closure but, instead, arbitrary incidents as meaningless as earlier events in their lives. Perhaps the most ugglesome aspect of his stories is that they forebode a chaotic future for mankind when wars and climate change will result in even larger numbers of displaced people, wandering the earth, trying to survive.

In the first story, “A Willow and the Moon,” the narrator describes “a sanatorium high up in the mountains,” in the Hudson Valley, where his mother worked as a voluntary nurse in the 1910s. She was French and had been a professional pianist on a trip to America but married a man well below her station. When he was still young, the narrator’s best friend, Theo, became ill from an incurable illness and left the area with his father. Then the narrator’s mother died from a morphine overdose, followed by the departure of his father. Much later, after the narrator has left the mountain, gone to Europe, but then returned, he asks himself what it was that had drawn his parents together, “What made someone give up a life and start another? What made my mother stay in New York? What did she think she was stepping toward? She chose my father and the shape of a life she could never have imagined,” suggesting she had never had the earlier goals of her career. Yet as arbitrary as that union became, the narrator’s remark about another person he knew as a child is even more unsettling: “He often held himself as if trying to vanish.”

Random invisibility holds true of several of the character’s lives in the second and third stories, though in both instances the settings are several decades later. In “Still a Fire,” a man who is hired to do the dirty work of a minesweeper has his hand blown off. It’s accurate to observe that he survived the war in Europe but not the aftermath. A woman who nurses him back to health is addicted to morphine and will subsequently need help for her own affliction. A mute in a shantytown detoxes her but she will leave him and roam the country shortly afterwards. Her departure is similar to a woman’s in “Galicia,” who meets and marries the manager of a hotel. After a few years, their initial closeness disappears. The husband is frequently away at conventions for hotel managers. One day when she plans to meet him at the  station when he returns home, he is not on the train. Instead of returning to their home at the hotel, she impulsively departs on another train after a random encounter with a different man.

The title story, “The Mountain,” circles around a painting that a Korean woman, named Faye, remembers about an incident involving her parents. She recalls a painting her father found in an “alley trash container,” when the three of them lived on the outskirts of Shanghai. They took the painting home as a birthday gift for Faye’s mother. “It was a painting of a mountain though where the mountain was they never knew. She never knew either whether her mother had believed them, that they had bought it at the market. She had no memory of her mother ever looking at it,” though Faye remembers it years later as an adult. At that time, also, she returns to the Shanghai area for work on an assembly line in a factory. The area has become badly polluted, and to escape their dreary lives, the workers drink and seek random sexual encounters with their co-workers.

Faye becomes involved with the man who recruited her for the assembly line, and one day she will take his motorcycle and drive into the area where she lived as a child with her parents, who long ago disappeared. On the motorcycle, she searches for the house where she once lived, recalling her years of wandering afterwards: “She watched her father die. She left. She worked in a motel. She picked apples. She lived in barns that had been converted into dorms. She lived for over a decade in a country where she was never sure of the language. She was robbed, beaten, had her shirts torn off, and six times she was pinned to the ground while she frantically searched for her knife.” Is she searching for the mountain in the painting, for her lost family, for her lost innocence?

The chilling aspect of broken, lost, displaced lives is replicated in the other stories in this slim collection. Taken together, there is little sense of hope for Yoon’s characters, yet their thematic connection should make us pause and ask why our world today produces so many lost souls. What will happen to all the displaced Syrian children when they grow up? How will the world absorb their tragedies, their disconnection from their pasts, their bleak futures in a largely unwelcoming world? These are the kind of questions we should be asking about our collective future. Paul Yoon has shown us the past, described characters who are endlessly wandering, searching for something to give order to their lives. How we deal with the future remains our most urgent question.

Paul Yoon: The Mountain
Simon & Schuster, 242 pp., $25

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Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email = clarson@american.edu. Twitter @LarsonChuck.

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