By Yoon Choi
284 pp. Alfred A. Knopf. $26.
The word “skinship” is somewhat difficult to pin down. In medical contexts, it’s used to describe the physical bonding between a mother and child. But in Korean culture, it’s a portmanteau of the two English words “skin” and “friendship,” meaning nonsexual but affectionate physical contact between friends or loved ones (particularly, more recently, among K-pop stars). But in every sense of the word, there is an element of affection, one that seeps through every page of Choi’s debut. In “First Language,” Matthew, a Korean child whose mother has brought him to the United States to live with her new husband, is sent to Second Chance Ranch, a Christian institution for “turning rambunctious boys into disciplined and decent men.” The pastor accuses him of making “overtures” to the other boys (“love letters … gestures”) — as a way of seeking attention. On her way to pick him up, his mother reflects on the pastor’s syntax: “Do you know one word he said that I cannot forget? That word that starts with A. The thing that Matthew wants.” In Korean, “that word is jeong,” she says. “It is that feeling of the glad heart when you see someone.”
In “A Map of the Simplified World,” Ji-won, a friendless Korean third grader in New York City, finds companionship in a young girl of Indian descent. When Ji-won’s mother sees their class picture and comments on the darkness of her friend’s skin, Ji-won thinks: “It was true. Anjali was dark. It was also true that Anjali looked just like Anjali.” But later in the story, when a lice outbreak rattles the class, Ji-won joins her classmates in mocking Anjali, whose curly, black, waist-length hair had been infected, and then “cut to her ears” — the only publicly visible casualty of the event. Choi’s characters live, forget, make bonds, break them, heal them or not. Their affections are no less deep for the circumstances that often separate them from one another.
TODAY A WOMAN WENT MAD IN THE SUPERMARKET
By Hilma Wolitzer
179 pp. Bloomsbury. $26.
The domestic dramas of one 1960s housewife form a novel-in-stories within Wolitzer’s new collection, the first book by the veteran fiction writer (and Guggenheim and National Endowment for the Arts fellow) since her 2012 novel, “An Available Man.” The linked stories follow Paulette and her husband, Howard, through childbirth; a scandal in the basement laundry room of their New York apartment building; trips to at first mock suburban model homes and then long for them; a parent’s death; children’s coughs; the appearance and abrupt disappearance of a “sex maniac” and more. Wolitzer has a gentle touch for conveying the nuances and humor to be found in small moments of intrigue, like when Paulette opens a story with: “Everybody said that there was a sex maniac loose in the complex and I thought — it’s about time.” Many of these stories were published in the ’60s and ’70s (in The Saturday Evening Post, Esquire, Ms. magazine), and are rather concrete in plot, traditional in style. By the time Paulette and Howard have reached their 60s, in “The Great Escape,” written in 2020, Wolitzer has moved into a more lyrical, abstract and fragmentary present, as Paulette introduces the possibility of a mid-pandemic Zoom séance and the timeless notion of communicating with the dead.
Common themes connect the other stories to these linked ones: absent fathers, infidelity, a trembling line between the hyper-sanity of daily ritual and the tilt into madness. However, some of the book’s charm is lost in the gaps between Paulette and Howard’s story line. Throughout these dispatches from the American homefront, the family unit is formed, broken, pasted back together, mused over — but always serves as the anchor for Wolitzer’s narratives. Returning to her apartment with her children in tow, filled with regret that she never saw for herself this so-called maniac who’d been the talk of the building, Paulette finds herself breaking into a run: “Home, I thought, home, as if it were my life’s goal to get there.” Intrigue may lead a story, but for Wolitzer the daily rituals of family always carry it.