Book Review: New in Fiction
This debut novel is a brutal portrait of a Korean-American teenager living on the streets
Reviewed by Elizabeth Jackson, Fri., Jan. 9, 2009
Miles From Nowhere: A Novelby Nami Mun
Riverhead, 304 pp., $21.95
There is a long tradition in literature of the earnest young orphan embarking upon hard circumstances to achieve a place in society through strong moral fiber and a persistent idealism. Miles From Nowhere, the debut novel from Nami Mun (a Pushcart Prize winner), recalls this tradition but drags it into the muck and the modernity of a runaway struggling with homelessness and addiction. Mun's portrait of a Korean-American teenager living on the streets is brutal yet infused with occasional tenderness and hallucinatory beauty. The main character, Joon, has not much of a home to start with. After her parents succumb to alcoholism and mental illness – collateral damage in the immigrant experience – 13-year-old Joon takes off on her own. Joon finds periodic guardians along the way, among the junkies and street-people whose lifestyle she soon adopts. But their betrayals, in tandem with her own destructiveness, eliminate her hopes for refuge again and again.
In an early scene, a fellow runaway aptly named Knowledge takes the role of Joon's adviser. "'So, what did we learn today,' she asked [Joon]. 'Trust your instincts.' 'Wrong. Stay in shape 'cause you never know when you have to kick some ass. Okay, what else.' 'Help people when they're in need.' 'Wrong again. Help only strangers. You can't go around helping all your friends 'cause they start depending on you and that gets you nowhere, okay?'"
This unexpected humor is one of few respites from the failure and exploitation that characterize Joon's existence, including her ideas of love. Pain provides Joon with definition, even affirmation. She describes dissociating while being severely beaten: "[W]hen the sound left, the pain left, too, leaving you flat on the floor, watching a peaceful movie of yourself taking every hit and feeling absolutely nothing. During those times, I was a superhero." In a culminating, drug-soaked incident, Joon's boyfriend expresses his love for her – "I want to see your insides" – by literally flaying her. The relentlessness of these degradations in the end is numbing to the reader, despite the flights of poeticism and Joon's halting progress. The prospect of Joon's finding a measure of security becomes a matter of indifference, as one expects the devastation in some sense to prevail.
Nami Mun will be reading at BookPeople on Tuesday, Jan. 13, at 7pm.