In How to Write an Autobiographical Novel, Alexander Chee strings together a collection of essays detailing the way he understands himself, his trauma, and his writing. There is a vulnerability in the collection that pulled me into moments that were truly personal and inspirational. I read the essay, How to Write an Autobiographical Novel, in my last semester of college, and only now, a year later, I have come back to read the rest. In reading it a second time, what I think gave me another layer of appreciation was the parallel feelings I have of doing the same (of writing a novel).
The moment that reverberated with me was in the essay, 100 Things about Writing a Novel. Where he writes, “You write the novel because you have to write it. You do it because it is easier to do than not do. You can’t write a novel you don’t have to write.” What I took from the essay, and the collection as a whole, was the urgency that he felt when creating.
He also tries to both contextualize, understand, and deal with the trauma that has lived with him since his childhood. He talks both about his therapy sessions, and the adjacent lives it had pulled from and affected. But he mentions that after therapy, after a book, and after time, he hints at the way it still is there. And I feel that it is also implied that those moments, whether brought on by flashback or faces, may stick with him even after writing this novel.
Final Rating: 4/5
Edinburgh by Alexander Chee takes a harrowing life experience as a child and uses it as fuel for an autobiographical novel. Those experiences documented damaging effects child sexual abuse can have on a victim. Told from the viewpoint of a child, Chee manages to weave the culture of his Korean descent into a sweeping narrative that contextualizes the abuse through metaphors and Korean fairy tales.
The story begins with a tale about the Fox-demon in Korean culture known to bring bad luck and creates the framing for the way the main character, Fee, interprets his eventual abuser. This use of the Fox-demon is one of the main metaphors drifting in and out of the narrative with imagery of foxes splintering the moments of greatest turmoil. Fee, being a member of a boys’ choir in a catholic church, also interprets life events through a layer of music in its movement and meaning. In the case of Fee, he uses singing as a way to cope with the choir director, Big Eric, who abuses him and the other members of the choir. The music itself is a point of contention where Fee both appreciates its beauty but dislikes its connotations of Big Eric. It is a double-edged sword that Fee battles with because it is difficult for him to give up the one thing holding him together.
Throughout the novel, Fee sees the way the abuse affected the rest of his choir with two of his best friends killing themselves. This aftermath forces Fee to truly interpret the way his abuser had always been the Fox-demon that he was warned about. Even still, Fee’s feelings are nuanced due to his realization that he is gay and that those feelings had been defiled by his abuser. Though once Fee ages, he finds himself becoming the person his abuser had been.
Edinburgh has strengths that go beyond its telling of the story and shines once the metaphors and form are fully taken into account. Edinburgh is written as if it were a poem in novel form in its use of fragment sentences and concise imagery. This attribution only strengthens how the book is supposed to be interpreted through the eyes of a child still learning to understand the world. The fragment sentences are invitations for the reader to finish the thought in a way that they are pulled deeper into the story itself. The problem is that those sentences are never usually finished with the desired punchline, but rather the needed one. In contextualizing the abuse with Korean culture, the reader takes a greater understanding of pain and trauma endured.
Edinburgh is a novel that acts as a canary in the coal mine for the abuse within the catholic church. While it wasn’t the first novel or allegation of sexual abuse within the catholic church, it acts as one of the first to take the endured abuse and provides a culturally framed lived experience. Many times, events of abuse are documented in a sterile way in which it is only written what happened rather than what was felt. This novel humanizes the victim and forces the reader to reckon with the fact that what happened was both experienced and felt. And in framing the experience through an Asian American lens, Chee works to create a context far beyond the abuse written about in his novel.
Final Rating: 4.5/5
Maxwell Suzuki is a writer, poet, and photographer based in Los Angeles.