Don Lee has set himself a daunting task in this, the successor to his Edgar Prize-winning “Country of Origin” and his second novel, “Wrack & Ruin.” He utilizes a well-worn topic —“the way we were” in college and the years immediately after — and he begins his newest work, “The Collective,” at the chronological end of the story, with the suicide of one of the protagonists, Joshua Yoon.
That he succeeds is due in no small part to his ability to confound this reader’s expectations time and again. For example, the climax of the novel involves a sexually explicit gallery installation by collective member Jessica Tsai that draws the attention of the Cambridge, Mass. city council. One of the councilmembers, Vivaldo Barboza, inspects the installation, takes offense and vandalizes it. When the narrator, Eric Cho, visits Barboza in an attempt to forestall a lawsuit and counter-suit, then learns of the immigrant experience they share (Barboza is a Portuguese immigrant from the Azores), I expected a rapprochement to follow, a tidy outcome. I was wrong. The meeting degenerates into obscenities and ends in a stalemate. After which dissension destroys the collective, the three friends at its core go their separate ways and Yoon becomes increasingly reclusive before ending his life by throwing himself in the path of speeding car.
The collective is an outgrowth of a friendship originating in college among Yoon, a Korean adoptee and aspiring writer, Taiwanese-American artist Jessica Tsai and Korean-American Cho. It grows into a full-fledged artists association in Cambridge, the members using art and literature to explore issues of race, gender and class. The novel rings true in its account of life at a small college far from home and gathers steam as solidarity among the collective members coalesces around their ill-fated gallery exhibit.
The novel is richly populated with supporting characters who dispel the model minority myth of contemporary Asian America: Mirielle Miyazato, a recovering alcoholic; writer Esther Xing, a rival of Eric for Jessica’s affections as well as for the attention of a literary journal editor; Noklek Praphasirirat, a Thai refugee who is inducted into prostitution by a collective member and who after their arrest, immolates herself. Lee, moreover, has an excellent ear for dialogue.
The result is a novel with a deceptive flow, the author managing — time and again — to insinuate small but telling surprises, consistent with a story in which stereotypes are constantly challenged by the collective members. The only discordant note to my ear is the literary journal, Palaver, and its editor, Evan Paviromo, which immediately reminded me of The Paris Review and its longtime editor George Plimpton, a literary institution described with equal measures of bemusement and affection in Ben Ryder Howe’s “My Korean Deli.”
Where Leonard Chang (“The Fruit ‘n’ Food,” “Dispatches From the Cold”) is appearing to be transitioning from fiction to TV writing, Don Lee, in “Country of Origin” and “The Collective” has become one of the strongest voices testifying to the human costs of the collisions of ethnicity, gender and culture both within and outside the U.S.