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Paul Yoon

Paul Yoon was born in New York City. His first book, Once the Shore, was selected as a New York Times Notable Book, a Best Debut of the Year by National Public Radio and won a 5 under 35 Award from the National Book Foundation. His novel, Snow Hunters, won the 2014 Young Lions Fiction Award. He is a former fellow at the New York Public Library’s Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers, and his stories have appeared in Harper’s Magazine, VQR, the PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories, and The Best American Short Stories. He lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he is currently a Briggs-Copeland Lecturer at Harvard University along with his wife, the writer Laura van den Berg.

Blurbs

"Believe me: This is a genuine work of art, a shadowland of survivors that is tough and elegant and true. And beautiful."

– The Boston Globe

“The Mountain is quiet, restrained and howling beneath the surface...a fantastic collection."

– The LA Times

"Reading The Mountain is like admiring a glowing sunset before realizing that what you're really watching is a wildfire heading your way....his sentences read like Hemingway stripped of his machismo...The Mountain is remarkable...as close as the short story can get to poetry without losing its grip on plot..."

– The Star Tribune

“Yoon proves himself a literary alchemist, transforming tragedy into beauty with deft reminders of our universal connections… Joining such luminaries as Jhumpa Lahiri, Junot Díaz, and Alice Munro, Yoon has undoubtedly earned membership in the exclusive coterie of today's finest writers of the short form.”

– Library Journal (starred review)

"Despite his literary austerity, Yoon's dazzling use of wordplay, pacing, and the quiet authenticity of his characters to instill emotion in his audience makes him one of the most evocative writers working today. Six little mysteries that quietly capture the breadth of the human experience."

– Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

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Featured Book

The Mountain: Stories

Trauma Becomes Tender in The Mountain

09/01/17

In Paul Yoon’s second story collection The Mountain, people in France, Russia, the Hudson Valley and beyond cope in the aftermath of World War Two. I opened the book expecting the violence and horror of war, but instead found tender accounts of people humbly piecing their lives together. Yoon’s characters tread gingerly in the aftermath of war, nursing the wounds inflicted upon their environment and their bodies. The power of Yoon’s stories lies in what’s not said. By entering scenes after the climax of battle, Yoon bypasses brutality to arrive at the quietly wrenching. His stories made me ache, like scar tissue after the injury has not quite healed.

The Mountain smacks of Tim O’Brien’s classic The Things They Carried, a collection published in 1990 that explores the grim banality of the lives of soldiers who suffer from PTSD after serving in the Viet Nam war. In the wake of trauma, both O’Brien’s and Yoon’s characters experience a muted, dulled version of the world. In turn, the climaxes these authors construct are so subtle you almost miss them. In O’Brien’s "Speaking of Courage," for example, protagonist Norman Bowker drives in circles around a pond in his hometown after returning from war, replaying his friend’s death on the battlefield. After eleven cycles around the pond he ultimately gets out of his car and walks into the water. Nothing has been resolved, and Norman is still haunted by his memories, but he has done something. He has stepped out of his cyclical thoughts and activity and, in a way, is baptized. In Yoon’s story "A Willow and the Moon," a woman returns to the Hudson Valley after working to save patients in a bombed out hospital in England. She goes to the now abandoned sanatorium in which her mother, a nurse, worked and eventually overdosed on morphine. She meanders through the empty hallways, finding trinkets she’s hidden under floorboards decades ago and reflecting on the brutality she witnessed throughout the war. Like Norman, she was forced to watch her mother slip away. Like Norman, she has returned home in search of closure. The story ends with her sitting in a rocking chair in front of the sanatorium, watching the sun go down while palming the items she’s found. These are not tales of complete healing or resolution. O’Brien's and Yoon’s characters remain broken, but they are able to find small tokens of comfort. For those who have survived trauma, the mere act of collecting oneself and moving forward is a victory.

O’Brien’s collection was instrumental in portraying war as banal. He shed the archetypal trappings of war as triumphant, and the idea of men emerging from war as heroes. Yoon carries on this tradition and takes it a step further. While O’Brien fixates on the objects his characters carry, Yoon writes about a different kind of baggage. Instead of focusing on physical objects such as ammunition and dog-eared photos of girlfriends, Yoon emphasizes how people carry their own bodies through the world after having experienced the trauma of war. For Yoon’s characters, bodies are very much things to be carried. Individuals continue to fight internal battles after the war is over.

In Vladivostok Station, for example, Mischa carries his physical disability, a congenital limp that inhibits his movement. As Mischa walks through his town of Primorski Krai, he stops to look at an island in the distance on which his grandfather, a Korean refugee, worked in a labor camp for six years. Mischa remembers touching his grandfather’s hands and spine, which was contorted from years of labor, and recalls wonders if his own “misshapen bones” are inherited from his grandfather. For Yoon, trauma does not die. It takes up residence in the body, and is then passed down.

But Yoon’s characters persist. Mishca finds a job where his boss allows him to work at his own pace repairing trains. He falls asleep on a train and ends up near the ocean, where his grandfather and other men in the labor camps were taken to bathe. He walks around an adjacent town, which is vibrant and bustling. He stops to call his father to tell him, simply, that he is by the ocean. Mischa has carried this ancestral weight back to its origins. Things do not change for Mischa by the end of the story, but there is a shift. It is possible to carry sorrow while relishing the victory of survival.

Yoon has a knack for condensing a life, with all its pain and grief, into bite size fragments that make the reader double take. His prose is simultaneously cool and distant, while also pinpointing intimate and striking moments. In the title story The Mountain, the protagonist Faye moves from South Korea to Lianyungang for a job in a factory. Although she is only 26, she has endured a great deal:

She watched her father die. She left. She worked in a motel. She picked apples. She lived in barns that had been converted into dorms. She lived for over a decade in a country where she was never sure of the language. She was robbed, beaten, had her shirt torn off, and six times she was pinned to the ground while she frantically searched for her knife.

Here a life has been paired down to a paragraph, with strife and the mundane mixed together. The fact that Faye picked apples takes up as much space as being robbed and beaten. One is not given more emotional weight than another. This is also the nature of war: when violence is everywhere, our ability to gauge the magnitude of events diminishes. Story and sentence structure mimic the moral nihilism of war.

Despite the dissolution of his characters emotional responses, physical markings of trauma still must be carried. When Faye gets punched during a fight at her factory job, her face is bruised. After a few weeks she can’t tell if the pain is dissipating, or if she’s getting used to it. The coin-sized bruise on her cheek never goes away. Again, physical ailments become metaphor for withstanding emotional trauma. Although pain is not felt emotionally, it manifests in the body.

Yoon’s characters experience profound loss that ultimately cannot be reversed or redeemed. The collection’s power, however, is its presentation of people’s raw, banal struggle. The very title of the book infers a trek. A mountain is a towering natural phenomenon that one must labor to conquer. One must force their body upwards. Yoon does not describe the glory of the summit, but the view afforded by the footholds and crags along the way.

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