Pachinko and Sensibility
Pachinko, by Min Jin Lee, is a novel that spans generations—an incredibly difficult thing to do!
I’d like to talk about how the style of narration and the careful way it is filtered through various characters helps Lee to a create story that moves through long periods of time with elegance.
The point of view of the novel is free-associative omniscience. That means the third-person omniscient narrator can align with different characters and can move seamlessly from one to another. This unifies the story over time—it’s always the same voice. But it’s also a voice that can take on some qualities of the different characters with which it aligns. And we feel these shifts in ways that are very subtle and very lovely.
Let’s look at some physical description that happens in 1932. The narrator is aligned with Isak when he meets Pastor Shin for the first time:
His white shirt and gray trousers were well pressed. Everything about him seemed controlled and restrained.
A few days later, Isak brings Sunja and Yangjin, his prospective wife and mother-in-law, to meet the pastor, and the narrator slips into the consciousness of the two women as they observe Pastor Shin.
Pastor Shin was a thin man whose clothes were too big for him. The sleeve hems on his aging black suit were frayed, but the white collar at his throat was clean and well starched. His unwrinkled dark clothes appeared to flatten the bent C-curve of his shoulders.
I love the way the storytelling voice is basically the same and yet it reflects the personality and experience of very different characters. Both passages observe the state of Pastor Shin’s clothes, both note they are ironed, and yet they draw different conclusions.
Isak is on his way to become an assistant pastor and even before meeting Pastor Shin, Isak believes he will be an ally and mentor. In essence, he has already decided to like him, and so he notices details that reinforce that decision—the neatness of his clothes. Then he interprets what he notices as not only favorable but as upholding Isak’s own particular values of being “controlled and restrained.”
The women, however, have no pre-established reason to like or trust Pastor Shin, and so they give him a more honest assessment. And unlike Isak, who has led a relatively privileged existence up to this point (that changes later), they know that their well being depends on realistically judging character. Thus, it makes sense that they notice negative aspects overlooked by Isak—that the clothes don’t fit, that the hems are frayed.
Noting the fit of the clothes gestures toward judgement of the body beneath them: too thin. And, of course, the assessment of Shin’s posture, as well as the need to look beneath what his clothes hide to find that “C-curve,” show that Sunja and Yangjin are concerned with more than the surface presentation of human beings.
The women also filter their observations through the sensibilities they have developed through their experiences. The two run a boardinghouse and are responsible for the washing and mending of the clothes of their boarders. They are studying Shin’s clothes with a professional eye, noticing not just that they are ironed, as Isak does, but their overall quality and age, as well as how they fit and how well they are cared for. When they call the clothes “starched” instead of “pressed,” it’s significant. It’s a turn more specific and reveals their intimate knowledge of the work required in starching a collar.
When the women interpret the clothes through their wear and the work that has or has not gone into preserving them, we feel the labor they do every day. The description helps us to understand not only who Pastor Shin is but who the describers are.
The descriptions of Isak and of Sunja and Yangjin are in the same voice but filtered through different sensibilities. We feel a consistency as we move through the many years and multiple characters of the novel, and yet the voice shifts to reflect different perspectives, too.
Much later in the book, in 1979, we get another description that includes pressed clothing. (The omniscient voice quite often describes clothing but always in ways that reflect a particular character’s sensibility.)
The narrator here is aligned with Etsuko, who is observing her daughter, Hana:
No longer permed, her hair was straight and its natural color, a reddish black. It was cut in one even length and splayed across her small shoulders. She wore a neatly ironed, white cotton blouse and a dark pleated skirt coming to her knees, with gray wool stockings and flat schoolgirl shoes. She hadn’t dressed like this since she was in primary school. Her stomach was flat, but her bud-like breasts looked fuller; otherwise, there was no way of knowing that she was pregnant.
This voice is consistent with the one of 1932. It’s careful in its detail, simple and clean in its sentence construction. It’s still a voice that believes there is something to be learned through the ways people choose to dress, care for their clothing, and groom their body.
And yet this consistent voice is filtered through time and character. The year is marked by the clothes Hana wears, which are of course different.
More importantly, we can feel the sensibilities of Etsuko, who is mostly estranged from her daughter. Hana has only come to visit now because she needs help getting an abortion. I love how we feel both distance and connection in the description.
Estuko describes not just Hana’s current hair color and texture but slips in information about how it was styled in the past and what is natural to her. These aren’t details that a stranger would know or that a person who saw her all the time would remark upon. Her clothes are treated the same way. Etsuke can’t help but describe her daughter in relation to what she remembers of her from previous visits.
We can also sense Etsuko’s concern for her daughter in the way she looks at her body, straining for clues about her well being. She notices her smallness and remembers her much younger. This makes the reader see Hana as vulnerable but also makes us feel Etsuko’s particular concern for her. And, of course, the pregnancy is on her mind—she can’t help but look for signs. And she can’t help but find the signs even though they are not obvious.
So, of course, we’re learning about Hana through how she physically looks and the choices she makes in presenting herself to the world. We learn that the storytelling voice is the same it’s always been—one we trust and one that believes we can learn from such details. But most impressive, we also learn about the cares and anxieties of the person giving the description.
This consistent, trustworthy voice and its easy, subtle slips into different brains does a lot of work to makes the reader’s journey through time both smooth and compelling.