Perhaps the most famous shopping trip in American literature can be found in Don DeLillo’s 1985 novel White Noise. Wounded by a colleague’s unflattering assessment of his appearance, Jack Gladney turns to impulse buying as a form of self-help. “The more money I spent, the less important it seemed. I was bigger than these sums,” he explains, “These sums in fact came back to me in the form of existential credit.” Leigh Claire La Berge has recently pointed out that an important context for Jack’s feeling of expansiveness here is the rapid growth of the consumer-credit industry, which led to the explosive growth of personal banking and credit cards over the next three decades. Jack’s experience of “existential credit” updates the 19th-century linkage between creditworthiness and moral character for the 1980s.
The shopping that once made Jack and his ilk feel so good has far less salutary effects in Jung Yun’s new novel, Shelter. We witness the protagonist, Kyung Cho, forced to stop on the way home from the hospital at a Walmart to buy clothes and toiletries for his father, who has been the victim of a brutal attack. Fumbling through his many maxed-out credit cards, Kyung finally selects his best hope and waits with bated breath. Much to his surprise, the purchase is approved. But even in this moment of relief, his terror is immutable. He and his wife have “refinanced their mortgage, borrowed from their credit cards, and transferred their balances over and over again—all in the name of staying current on their bills, but they can’t keep up with this shell game much longer.” Whereas Jack Gladney reveled in the ego-enhancing pleasures of a credit bubble, Kyung Cho experiences the mechanisms of personal banking in the shadow of debt that, since the 2008 subprime mortgage crisis, has left people caught in what Annie McClanahan describes as “an endless cycle of discredit and dispossession.”
Shelter tells the story of Kyung, a middle-aged Korean American man married to a working-class, Irish American woman named Gillian, with whom he has a young son. Kyung’s father, Jin, is an unusually wealthy university professor, who came to the United States as part of the white-collar Asian immigration boom facilitated by the 1965 US Immigration Act. Hidden behind the facade of a showpiece home in a prestigious Boston suburb is Jin’s abuse of his wife throughout Kyung’s childhood and adolescence, the memory of which haunts the adult Kyung’s daily life. Adding to the trauma, his mother, Mae, took out her frustrations on Kyung as a child, until the day that Kyung, old enough to be credible, threatened to kill his father if he ever hurt Mae again, temporarily halting the family’s violent cycle.
The novel’s action begins years after this uneasy truce. As their real estate agent appraises Kyung and Gillian’s house, which is saddled with an underwater mortgage that is forcing them into hoping for a possible short sale, she notices Kyung’s mother emerging naked and injured from the woods beyond the yard. She has been the victim of a home invasion in which she and the couple’s maid, Marina, were raped and assaulted, while the intruders plotted to extract as much money as possible from Jin.
Recovering from their wounds, Jin, Mae, and Marina move in with Kyung and his family, but the reunion recycles—rather than repairs—Kyung’s childhood trauma. Already constitutionally aloof and further disengaged from family life under the pressures of mounting debt, Kyung fails to reconcile himself with his parents’ abusive history, and eventually causes the dissolution of his own family with a series of reckless, alcohol-fueled acts that cause his life to unravel even more.
What does it mean that the meteoric rise of Asian American literature from the 1970s to the present coincides almost precisely with the explosion of the US consumer-debt economy?
Although it conjures familiar paradigms—as found in, for example, Chang-rae Lee’s A Gesture Life (1999) and Sophie Kinsella’s The Secret Dreamworld of a Shopaholic (2000)—one of Shelter’s more provocative features is to align immigrant trauma stories with contemporary debt narratives. If trauma repeats the past, debt makes for a present haunted by the future. In turn, the novel employs this synthesis in order to complicate the myth of Asian Americans as a “model minority,” suggesting that the appearance of affluence may depend on both psychic and financial forms of specious credit.
A surprising and compelling question emerges: what does it mean that the meteoric rise of Asian American literature from the 1970s to the present coincides almost precisely with the explosion of the US consumer-debt economy? Reflecting the dark underbelly of the model-minority myth, Kyung is less a grown-up Asian American whiz kid than a burdened millennial faced with the realization that he will fall short of his parent’s achievements, but feels pressured to maintain the appearance of success. Much of the debt he and his wife have incurred is the result of buying a house or going on vacations they cannot afford. This comes to function in the novel as a perverse double of that stereotypical model-minority activity: in a contracting economy, overachieving becomes overreaching. If there is such a thing as a model-minority image, it was paid for in part by over-leveraged credit, and the model-minority myth comes to function here as a kind of asset bubble. Like other Asian American literary works, Shelter represents, to borrow erin Khuê Ninh’s formulation, “the immigrant nuclear family as a special form of capitalist enterprise,” bound to the economy it seems to double. We might then place Yun’s novel at the end of an arc that began with the irrational exuberance depicted in White Noise. Founded on unsustainably financed debt, the model-minority bubble awaits its inevitable bursting.
By transforming DeLillo’s creditworthy personhood into a kind of racial indebtedness, Shelter sees the model minority as trapped in the emerging political economy from which it once seemed exempted.