By 2012, Jeremy Lin had bounced between NBA teams for the better part of two years before landing, unceremoniously, on the bench of the New York Knicks. Because of team injuries and a lockout, Lin finally got a shot to prove that his successes in high school and at Harvard hadn’t been a fluke.
Over the course of two weeks in February, Lin scored career highs, bested greats like the late Kobe Bryant, and led the Knicks to a seven-game winning streak — all while playing without a guaranteed contract. His fans succumbed to “Linsanity,” and everyone — journalists, coaches, and recruiters alike — scrambled to account for his sudden success. How had they all overlooked a talent of Lin’s magnitude?
“Coaches have said recruiters, in the age of who-does-he-remind-you-of evaluations, simply lacked a frame of reference for such an Asian American talent,” reported Mark Viera in The New York Times, in the middle of Lin’s ascendency. This quote serves as the epigraph for Matthew Salesses’s audacious fourth novel, “The Sense of Wonder.”
The book follows a Korean American NBA player named Won Lee during a hot streak for a fictional New York Knicks. Salesses burdens Won with the same biased assumption that plagued the real-life Lin: that there was no “frame of reference” for his success. “Fact was I had been a star all my life,” Won muses. “I had overcome the same racism over and over to be one. … By then, I already had plenty of frames of reference for what he meant.”
“Frame of reference”: The lacerating casual racism of the phrase becomes a motivator for Won — and a formal north star for Salesses. Narrated in three different voices, “The Sense of Wonder” weaves together Won’s story with that of his girlfriend Carrie Kang, a high-powered television producer struggling to be taken seriously in Seoul. The third narrative strand belongs to the K-drama plots Carrie sets out to produce overseas, one of which begins to mirror Won’s rise and fall.
It’s easy to see why the NBA, with all of its behind-the-scenes power jockeying, would make an interesting jumping-off point for a Korean miniseries. Won’s extraordinary winning streak, dubbed “the Wonder,” is matched only by the players’ sensational personal lives, which twin and double back on one another. Powerball!, the team’s star player and Won’s childhood idol, is distracted by his wife’s affair with an Asian American journalist, Robert Sung. The affair causes irreconcilable tension between all three men. “If you believed Carrie,” says Won, “it was because me and Sung were in a love triangle — with Powerball! — a bromance.”
As Powerball!’s behavior becomes more erratic, Won fears Powerball! might lash out at him instead of Robert. “Even with a career like his, Powerball! still felt threatened by the idea of an Asian dude taking his place,” Won realizes after a particularly pointed betrayal on the court. “That was the reason he saw Robert Sung when he looked at me: yellow peril.”
Meanwhile, Robert wreaks havoc for Won in the press, narrowing his career options as the heat of “the Wonder” fades. The apparent similarities between the two men are a source of frustration for Won, who rejects the inherent racism of the comparison. Robert, on the other hand, attempts to make both professional and personal meaning out of their shared histories — early basketball stardom, a leg injury, proximity to Powerball! “Why did he keep coming to me and telling me to choose sides?” Won asks himself during a final confrontation with Robert. “I wasn’t taking either side, any side. I was choosing myself.”
Won sees a potential answer to Robert’s behavior in the one irreconcilable difference between them: Robert is a transracial adoptee, raised by white parents. “When I was around him, race seemed even more complicated,” Won admits. “That feeling bothered me, yet it also made me give him more chances than I would have. I felt responsible, if not for causing his pain, at least for bearing witness to it.”
At first glance, Carrie’s storyline seems as far away from this drama on the basketball court as a 16-hour flight to Seoul. But she asserts the relevance of her own narrative early in the novel. “To be a minority in America is to guard what you love against other people’s scorn,” Carrie explains. “What I mean is, K-drama wasn’t a craze; it was life.”
As Carrie navigates her new job bringing Asian-American talent state-side, her sister K receives a devastating diagnosis. K-dramas become a way for the sisters to communicate and connect across their shared grief and terror. (Salesses’s late wife shared K’s diagnosis. “I saved K because I couldn’t save my wife,” Salesses writes in the book’s acknowledgments section. “Writing this book was an exercise in wanting to live.”)
Carrie notices plot devices everywhere, like the “love triangle” between Won, Robert, and Powerball! or the K-drama-worthy e-mail she receives from a fan. Soon, the tropes that determine each episode of Carrie’s successful miniseries, which features a fortune teller and a girl who can see ghosts, feel inextricably woven into the world of professional sports that dominates the first half of the novel. After all, K-drama is life. Or, as Salesses challenges his readers in the last lines of the book, “This is our story’s frame of reference. Now go back and read the book again.”
Throughout “The Sense of Wonder,” Salesses refuses to shy away from frank discussions of race or racism, even as he centers the hopes and fears, frustrations and professional triumphs, of his protagonists. Salesses also declines to bench a complex formal device that would, in the hands of a lesser writer, dissolve under pressure as the clock runs out. Above all, the novel chooses itself. Like “the Wonder” or “Linsanity,” you may just have to see it to believe.
THE SENSE OF WONDER
By Matthew Salesses
Little, Brown, 256 pages, $28
Kristen Evans is a freelance critic. She writes about books, movies, and television for outlets like BuzzFeed, The Los Angeles Times, Literary Hub, The New Republic, and elsewhere.