Tuesday, 28 September 2010

FREE FOR FOR MILLIONAIRES by Min Jin Lee


This is the story of one Casey Han. Her parents moved from Korea to America to escape the troubles there in the aftermath of the war, and have provided her with a solid upbringing in Queens. She received a scholarship to Princeton, and the story tells of her attempts to find a job and a happy relationship as she grows into her twenties.

It's enjoyably Victorian, which a giant cast and lots of interweaving plots, and maintains your interest, if not your sympathy, throughout. The main character is always re-reading MIDDLEMARCH, and I will eat my bra (and its got a LOT of underwire) if the author is not a great lover of the Victorians.

Actually, I've often noticed that immigrants are fond of the Victorian style (another example is Vikram Seth's A SUITABLE BOY, the first book of this blog), and you may not be surprised to learn that I've got a theory about it. It's this. Ready?

Now, you can't play variations on a theme until you know what the theme is. Or: you can't remix a track that doesn't exist. European and American writers can have a fine compempt for narrative, and for character; they can mix it up and spit it out all they like, because the basic narratives in which they live have all been formed already. Thus they can mix and remix. They can be modern, and post-modern, and tear the Victorian novel apart, because they already have the Victorian novel. A lot of people from outside this tradition, however, have never really had their stories told. Thus, they need plot, and character, so their grandchildren can rip them all up. They need to write their own Victorian novels.

It's kind of the same thing with modern art. You can't mess with the visual world until you've agreed what the world looks like.

I can't think that I've ever read a book as absolutely immersed in consumer culture as this one is. Casey has a bizarre sense that the world has somehow treated her unfairly, because she is not as wealthy as some of her fellow students at Princeton. She honestly seems to consider herself poor, and, also bizarrely, the author seems to agree with this anaylsis. This is a book in which not being able to afford 500 count Egyptian cotton sheets is regarded as being a genuinely difficult thing, for which Casey deserves sympathy. It makes it a little hard to relate to.

Eventually, Casey decides to go to business school (irritatingly referred to as B school throughout), and the world of business is written about with such familiarity that I think I learn a little something about the author's background, and about why the absence of 500 count sheets might be perceived as such a problem.

I just googled her, and if you look here you'll see I won't be needing to eat my bra.

2 comments:

  1. I haven't read this book, but it seems to me there's a direct connection between the consumerism and Victorianism. Those people were obsessed with class signifiers, and not having the right sheets might well have been a huge embarrassing deal.

    Also isn't feeling poor a matter of perspective? The difference between actual quantifiably poor, and poor-for-a-princeton student. Sort of like the "poor" people in Victorian novels who all seem to have servants (but now in their reduced circumstances just one serving girl , and a charwoman who comes in on Wednesdays).

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  2. Ooh Erol, very good point. There's the lit classes paying off. I didn't think of that. I guess it wouldn't have bothered me so much if I though it was intentional - a theme she was considering - but it just seemed to be absolutely the view point of the book: that sheets are self-evidently very important. It didn't seem at all considered. Or maybe I was just bitter. Why don't I have 500 count sheets? This living in a garret is getting me the hell down x

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