In cooking, tossing a mishmash of ingredients into a pot and letting them brew can be a good thing. The resulting stew—or bouillabaisse, if you want to be fancy—is often better than the sum of its parts.
The same is not usually true of fiction, as Angela Mi Young Hur shows in her first novel, The Queens of K-town, which reads like a few half- finished MFA projects pasted together: a hodgepodge of undeveloped characters, disparate narrative threads, and multiple themes—suicide, parents who leave, ethnic-identity crises.
Hur juxtaposes the story of 26-year-old Cora— a recently dumped academic type who serendipitously finds a dashing new love on the elevator while preparing to jump off a building—with that of her 16-year-old self, who parties it up in Manhattan’s Koreatown one wild summer. The first storyline reads like a mix of naughty chick lit (great sex with a perfect stranger who turns out to be surprisingly kind!) and self-conscious artiness—lots of talk about Korean girls falling from the sky. The second storyline, about the younger Cora, never seems to make up its mind if it’s about her family or her new friends.
That’s too bad, because, mostly, Hur’s writing is quite good—evocative without being obtrusive. “Mina somehow looked like my mother when she was a young girl, before the rest of her life had happened. . . . She seemed nostalgic and withdrawn enough to evoke the same faraway girlishness of all our mothers, as captured in faded pictures.” Nice. If only such descriptions added up to something coherent.
The older Cora tells us that her academic thesis “was my scrapbook of curiosities, an attempt to collect tangible evidence and markers to my identity, but really just the laminated effluvia of my dreams. . . . I wanted people to open the pages and tell me what they saw.” Hur, like her protagonist, did a postgraduate fellowship in Indiana, and one suspects that the thesis in question had a great deal in common with—or was indeed the germ of—this novel. This reviewer sees . . . self-indulgence.