Sonya Chung’s new novel, The Loved Ones, is in constant danger of being about just one thing, even though it’s richly and intelligently about how that one thing is inextricable from many others. That thing is a scene of consensual sex between Charles Lee, a 33-year-old African American vet who was once stationed at the US Army’s Yongsan base in Seoul, South Korea, and his 13-year-old Korean American babysitter, Hannah Lee, whom he briefly stalks beforehand.
The novel never presents their sexual encounter directly, which is of a piece with what I take to be Chung’s intention: to provoke in her readers as much moral ambivalence as possible about Charles and Hannah’s relationship. One way Chung achieves this is by representing Charles and Hannah’s mutual thoughts via a limited omniscient narrator: “Neither of them wondered Why, about anything. Neither was confused, and everything seemed very simple.” What happens between them is carefully set up by Chung as the overdetermined collision of Hannah’s teenage crush on Charles and Charles’s emotional disorientation following the death of his son—an accident in which Hannah was directly involved. The Loved Ones further challenges whatever moral certainties we might bring to Charles and Hannah’s sexual encounter by framing it as a profoundly positive experience. Their relationship subsequently develops into an unusual epistolary courtship that, after years of separation, culminates in their happy reunification.
Charles and Hannah’s story begins in the 1980s in suburban Maryland, where Chung herself grew up. The novel mostly takes place in Columbia Heights, an historically black neighborhood of Washington, DC, but its settings range widely in terms of history and geography: from Japanese-occupied Korea in the 1940s to South Korea in the 1970s, amid the Saemaul Undong, the country’s rural-modernization movement; then to sites in Paris and West Africa in the 1990s.
Chung gives room to her characters, allowing the novel to be about race and sexual awakening and sexual transgression.
As The Loved Ones guides us through this varied itinerary, its characters violate many taboos. Charles and his white wife, Alice, cross racial lines when they marry, defying Alice’s stuffy, Waspish upbringing. Hannah’s parents, Chong-ho and Soon-mi, cross class boundaries to be together and commit a few other sins that turn out to be unforgivable, even deadly. The novel abounds in depictions of behavior that other characters find reprehensible, and that, taken together, challenge our capacities to make solid moral judgments. As the narrator puts it, “There were no heroes, but no real villains either.” Charles and Hannah’s orthographically identical yet genealogically irreconcilable surnames might be read as symbolizing the novel’s moral disorientation.
The fact that The Loved Ones turns on a moment of sexual transgression is not inconsistent with the story line of Chung’s previous novel, Long for This World (2010), in which a character falls in love with an uncle by marriage and has a child with him. Nor is it inconsistent with the works of the literary forebears claimed by Chung’s characters—most notably Colette, the great French novelist of sexual awakening with whom Hannah identifies strongly.
The Loved Ones is not a novel about sexual scandal or pedophilia, however, at least not in the conventional sense of the word about. Chung resists portraying her characters’ motivations as purely private and psychological. The characters in The Loved Ones never exist in isolation from histories of colonialism, racism, and dispossession. At the same time, their motivations are never merely symptoms of any of these things. For example, at one point Charles finds himself in close quarters with Hannah after he has fled her parents’ living room because he finds its decor overwhelmingly “ugly”: “Everything was mismatched—color, style, American, Oriental.” This scene offers a metaphor for unsuccessful cultural assimilation and for a knee-jerk revulsion that leads to a form of love. The contrast between aesthetic incoherence and emotional coherence recapitulates the clash of racial, intergenerational, sexual, and cultural norms that textures almost every aspect of the novel. In this scene, it’s just such a mismatch that paradoxically enables Charles and Hannah to act on a mutual certainty. They think together: “No one understands, No one knows.” The thought frees them to do what happens next, after Charles follows Hannah up to her room.
Both Lee families are linked by the accidental drowning death of Charles and Alice’s son, Benny, which happens on Hannah’s watch. The tragedy upends the fragile calm of their workaday American lives, at a time when both families have already been struggling with hard memories related to Korea. Charles can’t escape the shame of his participation in the sexual violence associated with the extended American military presence on the peninsula. Meanwhile, Chong-ho’s love for Soon-mi, the daughter of one of his family’s tenant farmers, leaves a wake of emotional destruction. For Alice, Benny’s death throws into relief the price she paid for her rebellious marriage.
All this tumult unleashes emotional possibilities that unravel the forms of love that had held each family together. But in that unraveling, forms of love emerge and reemerge. Alice slowly distances herself from Charles and their daughter, Veda, and eventually enters a lesbian relationship with an old friend from the Peace Corps. Chong-ho and Soon-mi, having basically disowned Hannah because of shame over her involvement in Benny’s death, begin to shed their roles as parents and revive their identity as a couple. Meanwhile, Hannah and Veda settle into something like a sisterhood.
The novel’s reviewers have mostly focused on the novel’s “racial asymmetry,” to use literary critic Stephen Hong Sohn’s phrase for a perceived noncorrespondence between a protagonist’s and its author’s racial identities, sometimes questioning Chung’s decision, as an Asian American, to inhabit African American characters. In some ways, this was to be expected. The novel was published soon after Lionel Shriver’s controversial speech at the 2016 Brisbane Writers Festival, in which she expressed impatience with critiques of cultural appropriation.
Chung’s response to these criticisms has been subtle and has suggested that nonwhite authors do not have the same relationship as white ones to matters of cultural appropriation. Race in Chung’s novel is not a set of fixed traits that one can simply assume. Instead, it’s a product of circumstances that can be sensed everywhere, like a kind of miasma, and whose effects are never predictable. Not only do Chung’s white and nonwhite characters fumble with stereotypes that sometimes fit their targets and sometimes don’t, their racial thinking is never just racial thinking. For instance, in an effort to manage his intensifying attraction, Charles projects stereotypes of Asian emotionlessness onto Hannah, seeing her as stoic and reluctant to smile. In the moments just prior to their sexual encounter, Charles generates even more racist feelings in order to stave off the inevitable, referring to “the hard silence of the Koreans,” and to aspects of Korean culture as being from an “outdated history book.”
Meanwhile, Chong-ho and Soon-mi’s unarticulated antiblackness is a factor in their decision to disavow Hannah. We learn that the pair has been deeply unsettled by the fact that Hannah was employed by a black man. This is difficult for Hannah to accept, so when she tries to explain things to Charles, she is evasive: “Her parents were not racists, that wasn’t it. It was ‘something else,’” having to do with what happens “in Korea when your family is shamed.” The “something else” Hannah refers to marks the limits of her racial thinking: her countervailing awareness that racism doesn’t offer a full or even adequate explanation for why her parents have “banished” her, and that her parents’ own difficult experiences with disavowal in Korea are at play here as well. What’s brought to the surface in these narratives is how racial thinking is mutually determined by conditions and circumstances that can seem unrelated—how race is about many things besides race.
The novel’s characters never exist in isolation from histories of colonialism, racism, and dispossession.
Along these lines, pedophilia in the novel is never just about pedophilia. Chung refuses the patriarchal silencing of victims that we might attribute to Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, in which Dolores Haze is renamed and overwritten by Humbert Humbert’s univocal narrative voice. Rather, Chung has stated that one of her main goals in writing Charles and Hannah’s relationship was to “silence” potential concerns about their sexual encounter. Chung suggests that her aim is to challenge our moral revulsion by sidling up to her characters so closely that she is standing “with them as opposed to standing over them,” thus allowing Hannah’s voice to stand coequal with Charles’s.1 Whether or not this refusal to judge succeeds at creating believable motivations, it does shift our attention away from our moral feelings about Charles and Hannah’s relationship. By the end of the novel, we have become more open to Charles and Hannah’s mutually expressed conviction that “Not everything that seems so important actually is.” That is, we become capable of understanding their relationship as being about more than illicit sex.
Chung’s refusal to cede the novel’s aboutness to any one thing allows The Loved Ones to be about race and sexual awakening and sexual transgression. Her silence about the novel’s key event gives her characters room to reveal themselves as people shaped by race, history, and class as much as by sexual desire. To understand what this novel is really about, one must understand that merely naming these categories produces an illusion that they have their own internal logics, and that they operate independently of one another. Armed with that understanding, one cannot turn the last page of The Loved Ones with such an illusion still intact.