In the 1980s and 1990s, all around America, you could hear jackhammering in English departments. No one read a book without a complete tool kit of theory. You didn’t read Shakespeare, say. You read about the performance of gender in Shakespeare. Students strapped on their theory and chipped and chiseled at the text like a bunch of deranged sculpters. And then stood back and admired what a wreckage they could make of some old block of stone.
For a white male student like me, this was largely a mercenary art, with very little at stake except eventually acknowledging that the power structures that had privileged my kind were, not surprisingly, reflected in works of art. I didn’t need theory to teach me empathy, to help me understand the world’s cruelty. The books themselves did that just fine.
But for students of color — as in any color but white — this was at once an exhilarating and enormously stressful time. All the supporting apparatuses of campus life encouraged them to use the same tools they’d acquired in literature classes on their own selves; in essence, to jackhammer within. The word interrogate was very popular.
At last we have a kind of campus novel about this contentious period of academe, Don Lee’s “The Collective.” It is a hilarious and winning story, smoothly told, even if it occasionally relies on some familiar character types to propel its story into motion.
Set at Macalester College and in Boston, it tracks the arc of three Asian Americans into university and then post-graduate life, where they take different approaches to continuing the exploration of identity they collectively began in classrooms.
Our guide to this tale is Eric Cho who, as the novel begins, learns that one of his closest university friends, and former roommate, Joshua Yoon, has been killed in a one-car accident on a road near Boston. Yoon left behind a suicide’s clean slate: wills and belongings carefully sorted, his manuscripts burned. Cho is devastated.
This bit of prologue ought to give “The Collective” a kind of gloomy menace, but the book does a quick about-face. Lee writes such clear-as-lake-water prose that the stone of Yoon’s death quickly drops to the bottom of the book and remains there.
Within pages we’ve spun back 20 years, and Cho and Yoon are meeting for the first time at Macalester. Cho is all nerves and studious good will; Yoon is a bad boy with a foul mouth.
On the first day of class, Yoon challenges Cho to find their fellow classmate, Jessica Tsai, attractive. “[Y]ou strictly vanilla? As in boarding-school shiksas . . . Ritz cracker chirp-chirp Marshas.”
As it turns out Cho has always dated white women, a decision he hasn’t interrogated until Joshua forces him to do so. And yet when Cho finally finds a girlfriend at Macalester she is, of course, white.
The section of the novel that describes Cho’s first love affair is moving, and merciless. It is at once frankly erotic and mundane, the way college love-making can be. You know fairly soon that Cho is going to get dumped. Yoon, of course, is waiting for him when it’s all over. “I’ve missed you bro,” he says.
In moments like this, “The Collective” threads a perfect line between the theoretical dogfights of the classroom and the actual dogfight of experience. Half of what you learn in college, after all, is discovering what you don’t already yet have experience to fully know. One of the pleasures of college life, and writing workshops, is the notion of there being safety in numbers, that if there is suffering to be done, it will be done collectively.
“The Collective” reveals what a fallacy this idea is, especially when experience constantly has to be doubly refracted, as it is for Lee’s characters: once against the theories that frame cultural identity, and then again through the filter of Asian American identity itself.
Lee’s cast alone shows how difficult it is to even conceive of the latter existing. Cho is a third-generation from Mission Viejo, Calif.; Yoon is a first-generation orphan from Korea, raised by two Jewish professor intellectuals; and Jessica Tsai, the third of their triumvirate, who also winds up in Boston after graduation, a second-generation Taiwanese from upstate New York.
In the second half of the novel, the three of them move in to a house on Walker Street in Cambridge, and become hopelessly, dangerously intertwined. Lee writes perceptively and well about the bargains working artists make with themselves to tame their ambitions. Cho begins working at a literary journal called Palaver, surely modeled upon Ploughshares, which Lee edited for nearly two decades. Slowly Cho’s dreams of his own writing begin to be put on hold.
Yoon and Tsai, however, follow the genius route, the tortured-artist route, which means not giving up but allowing oneself freedoms in reward for fortitude. Yoon says and does whatever he wants, while Tsai becomes a kind of sexual provocateur. Eventually, all three of them — feeling frustrated and in need of something — decide to form an Asian-American artist collective.
At this point, the novel’s plot has to work pretty hard to bring about a dramatic culmination to its above ground discussion of identity politics. Press conferences are held; lawyers engaged. Meanwhile, this book’s plangent, and also celebratory undercurrent, flows on, whispering to the reader that the other collective it speaks of — friendship in youth — is equally unstable, and prone to collapse. The best parts of this keenly felt novel will remind you why.
John Freeman is the editor of Granta and the author of “The Tyranny of E-mail.’’