Linsanity and the Art of Escape
The Sense of Wonder by Matthew Salesses. Little, Brown and Company, 240 pages. 2023.
Starting a few years ago, I lost interest in keeping up with American television—high-budget prestige dramas, mindless sitcoms, guilty-pleasure reality shows, everything. As an alternative, I’ve found myself turning more and more to the television that, for me, has always been simultaneously the most comforting and the most escapist: K-dramas. When I was a kid, my grandmother used to borrow bootleg VHS tapes of never-ending historical sagas every week from our local Korean grocery store, an immigrant ritual that provided a tether to the home she had left behind for the culturally and linguistically alien landscape of Kansas. Now, in my adult life, watching Korean television offers something more like a temporary reprieve from the hellishness of everyday life in America. Of course, it helps that the genre conventions of the K-drama provide maximum narrative satisfaction: ridiculously good-looking people with tragic, strangely interconnected back-stories face terrible, often absurd problems that present themselves, crest, and resolve over a tidy sixteen episodes.
When I started watching K-dramas on my own, I gravitated toward rom-coms and outrageous melodrama—the fare of the early days of hallyu, the Korean wave. Once, in the early 2000s, I tracked down a bootleg DVD box set of the megahit Winter Sonata and binged all twenty episodes over a few feverish days, to my roommates’ bemusement (“Wow, they sure repeat this theme song a lot,” one of them observed). Now, virtually every K-drama of the past two decades can be found streaming somewhere online, legally or illegally, subtitled into dozens of languages for viewers worldwide. In a cultural reordering I’m sure my grandmother never could have imagined, K-dramas are everywhere. Or as Carrie, a character in Matthew Salesses’s brilliant new novel The Sense of Wonder, puts it, “I had grown up with K-drama as something Koreans did in private and didn’t tell anyone else about, so I was forever amazed that it was now a thing.”
The Sense of Wonder was described to me simply as a novel about Linsanity, a proposition that left me lukewarm, not because Linsanity wasn’t a fascinating cultural phenomenon worthy of novelistic exploration by a writer of Salesses’s talents (what must it have felt like to be Jeremy Lin during that time?) but because the discourse on Jeremy Lin’s career has followed such predictable beats. As the story goes, Jeremy Lin dreamed of playing in the NBA, and so he battled through being overlooked and underestimated. Through his hard work, determination, self-confidence, love of the game, and undeniable excellence, he broke through the barriers of racial invisibility to become a star, even if only for a brief few weeks, and in the process brought joy to a population hungry for representation. In mainstream U.S. culture, the fable of Jeremy Lin has been, maddeningly, folded into a self-satisfied liberal progress narrative of racial inclusivity, proof that anyone can achieve anything—as if Lin didn’t have to fight bitterly for every opportunity through a fog of racist stereotyping. Meanwhile, within Asian American circles, Linsanity still looms large. Some talk about Jeremy Lin as a hero who single-handedly healed the masculinity of generations of Asian American bros once dismissed as math nerds. For others, his career stands as more of a wound than a salve, a reminder that we’ll never be seen in the ways we dream of in this country. Given all of this, is it possible to unmoor the story of Linsanity—that is to say, a story of Asian American racial injury and pride—from the preestablished story arcs and takeaways available within the American racial imaginary?
In The Sense of Wonder, Salesses addresses this problem of representation by reimagining the Linsanity story through the unexpected prism of the K-drama form. The genre: a workplace drama with a juicy love line. The male lead: Won, a fictionalized Jeremy Lin, who becomes the first ever Asian American NBA star when he’s promoted from bench player to temporary starter on the Knicks and plays a few weeks of the greatest basketball of his life—a phenomenon dubbed “the Wonder” by the American media. The female lead, Carrie Kang, is a smart, confident TV producer who aspires to create the first ever Korean-American K-drama. When she meets and falls for Won, she also finds in his story the material for the drama she’s been waiting to write and produce: a transnational romance about a Korean basketball star. The apparent antagonist is Powerball!, the novel’s Carmelo Anthony, an underachieving Knicks superstar who seems to represent the barrier to Won’s success. But it’s Robert Sung, the second male lead, who emerges as Won’s true foe—a cagey beat reporter who also happens to be Korean American, consigned to the role of observing the basketball world after a high school injury—via Powerball!, of course—interrupts his own basketball dreams. Enter also the second female lead: Brit, a white actress, Powerball!’s wife, Carrie’s old colleague and the love of Robert Sung’s life.
To wrangle this cast of characters, Salesses, a dexterous storyteller, uses three narrators in an inventive, immersive formal structure. First, Won narrates his experience of “the Wonder” in the first person, and then Carrie takes over and adds her perspective on the same events, while also detailing her own work traveling between New York and Seoul as a K-drama producer. The main plot emerges through their alternating perspectives, but it’s the third narrative voice that gives the novel its unconventional tenor: in a middle section, an unnamed narrator lays out the formal conventions of the K-drama and gives a plot summary of the show that Carrie is currently producing, a fantasy romance involving a fortune teller and a vengeful, ancient, body-hopping ghost (think Hotel Del Luna or Goblin). This unnamed narrator returns once more in the novel’s final section to share the plot of Carrie’s new K-drama, the one about a star Korean basketball player and the Korean American reporter who ruins his career and their romance against the odds. “This is our story’s frame of reference,” the narrator concludes, echoing Won’s recollection early on of the words of a college recruiter who insisted that there was no “frame of reference” for him in the basketball world. “Now go back and read the book again.” It’s only by the end of the novel that we start to realize that we’re not just reading a story about K-dramas but that we might be inside of one.
The best K-dramas luxuriate in formal constraints and conventions rather than chafing at them (see Search: WWW, for example, or Business Proposal). What does it mean for the K-drama form to provide the frame of reference for the story of Linsanity, which itself has come to frame the ways we understand the limits of Asian racial belonging in the United States? Why does Salesses place an Asian American story within an Asian cultural form? The Sense of Wonder establishes the rules of the K-drama—“the tropes [are] my favorite part,” Carrie declares at one point—and then uses them to slowly upend our narrative expectations.
Of course, the sports underdog narrative comes with its own tropes, and so, too, does the Asian American identity narrative. (Jeremy Lin as a figure continues to have a chokehold on Asian American men of a certain generation, I think, because of how his story brought those two sets of tropes to life together for one impossible, glorious month.) Salesses evokes and sometimes directly invokes, not unsympathetically, various longstanding Asian American tropes: the perpetual foreigner/model minority dialectic, generational strife, migration trauma, crises of assimilation and authenticity. But he sidesteps them in favor of other, less worn questions. The Sense of Wonder isn’t a novel about being caught between two cultures, or angst over racial identity, or desiring whiteness. Instead, it dwells on visibility and how racism structures the ways we are seen and how we move through the world.
These narrative questions play out in Won’s strained relationship with the reporter Robert Sung. (As in many K-dramas, the love between the male and female leads proves to be less complex than the relationship between the first and second male leads.) Robert suffers not just from toxic masculinity—the novel opens with his telling of an unfunny penis-size joke, a setup that almost made me put the book down before it began—but also a nasty case of what we might call “only one” syndrome, an unfortunate effect of growing up a minority in white supremacist culture in which individual people of color fight for the right to be the token allowed into a white power structure that is otherwise undisturbed. Won starts off thinking Robert might be an ally, a supporter looking for racial solidarity, but instead he finds an envious and insecure foe, with Robert all too willing to throw Won under the bus for his own ends. They form an agonistic pair: Won is living the dream that’s been denied to Robert, but Robert has the power to shape the way that Won is publicly seen. (We might think here of the many resonances of Won’s name: won, the past participle of win; one, the twinned ideas of singularity and supremacy; won, the Korean currency.) By the novel’s end, however, it’s Carrie who has the last laugh. In the K-drama version of Won’s story that she writes and produces, the journalist character is written as the female lead, the basketball player’s against-all-odds love interest. As Robert’s role is sublated into her own, the wounded Asian American male perspective is written out of the story altogether.
The story’s ending also provides its most unexpected, and subversive, turn. Again, what we expect from a novel about Linsanity, as a point of the convergence of the underdog sports narrative and the Asian American narrative, is an affirmation of the American dream—a celebratory “someone who looks like me can make it” story. What readers find instead in The Sense of Wonder is a repudiation, or inversion, of that lesson. The story of “the Wonder” follows the arc of Jeremy Lin’s career very closely, but it sharply pivots at the end: after being snubbed by the Knicks, although he’s offered a huge contract by the Houston Rockets, Won chooses to leave the United States altogether to play in Korea. He and Carrie get married and settle in Seoul, where they’re happily raising their daughter at the novel’s conclusion.
When they first meet, Won asks Carrie how she got into “the business of representation,” and in response, she recounts “a memory from an early trip to Korea, channel surfing at her halmoni’s house and seeing Koreans on every station—the first time she had recognized this reality as possible.” This is the reality that Won and Carrie decide to enter at the novel’s conclusion. Won may have defeated the odds to become the first Asian American NBA star, but his success meant having to publicly perform humility and gratefulness night after night on the court, simultaneously overcoming and refuting American racism through his mere existence. In the face of this pressure, he walks away. Won and Carrie’s move to Korea thus represents both an escape from both American-style racism and the burden of representation within a racist system and a happy ending—the stuff of K-dramas. The story that the novel tells ultimately boils down to: America was too racist, so we left. But what kind of reality, or fantasy, does this move represent?
The Sense of Wonder joins a host of other recent Asian American and diasporic texts that stage reverse migrations from the diaspora back to Asia. In Weike Wang’s Joan is Okay (2022), the narrator’s immigrant parents move back to China as soon as their children leave home for college (Harvard and Yale, of course). When her mother comes back for a visit, she becomes a prisoner to her son’s empty American success story: miserable and trapped in his Westchester mansion due to Covid quarantine rules, she tries desperately to find a seat on a flight back to China. She vows that once she leaves, she’ll never return. At a key point in Lulu Wang’s film The Farewell (2019), the main character Billi, a Chinese American millennial, declares to her parents that she wants to stay in China, vividly describing their immigration to the United States in her childhood as alienating and traumatizing. In Esther Yi’s Y/N (2023), Berlin and Seoul become cosmopolitan dreamscapes for a drifting Korean American writer; she travels to Seoul not to reconnect with her family or find herself but to chase a K-pop idol. In Davy Chou’s film Return to Seoul (2022), the main character Freddie, a French Korean adoptee, finds herself traveling to Korea again and again over a period of years, slowly forging an independent relationship to the place of her birth. The “return” of the film’s title isn’t singular, but periodic.
In these texts, as in The Sense of Wonder, migration doesn’t end with arrival in the United States or Europe. Asia appears here sometimes as a site of capital and sometimes as a center of cultural production, and sometimes, as in The Sense of Wonder, as both. In a very basic sense, these stories work against the classic American immigration narrative in which sacrificing immigrants come to the United States in search of opportunity and a better life, in which America is modern and enlightened and the homeland is traditional, embarrassingly backwards. In the immigration stories that America traditionally wants to tell, characters’ inner and outer conflicts resolve in assimilation and upward economic mobility. In contrast, these narratives suggest that America is no longer—and maybe never really was—the telos of migration.
In these reverse migration narratives, we can also read a kind of melancholy “what if.” What if my parents had never left? What if I hadn’t been sent overseas for adoption? What if I grew up there instead of here, would my life be different, better? We might call them I wish we’d never left narratives, more readily available to articulate now, within the conditions of late-stage U.S. imperial decline and global capitalism’s flattening of the world. In The Sense of Wonder, Salesses captures the ways that watching K-dramas as a Korean American both feeds this melancholy and softens it, layering fiction upon fiction. He also stages a fantasy version of what might come from this melancholy, conjuring up for readers the libidinal satisfaction of walking away from the false condescension of American racism. His characters simply have somewhere better to go.
But of course, a reversal of the “American dream” narrative can’t undo what’s been done. At the same time that diasporic Asian narratives are imagining reverse migrations to Asia as a form of escape, Koreans living in South Korea describe it as a neoliberal, heteropatriarchal hellscape where ordinary working people can barely survive: “hell Joseon.” Perhaps it’s a historical irony that life in Korea can look like a dream from the vantage point of those of us living in the land that sired hell Joseon—hell America. Once, when I visited Korea as a twentysomething, I met up with an older cousin before joining up with a group of Korean Americans traveling as part of an educational exchange program. I explained to him that we were looking to learn about Korean history and reconnect with Korean culture. My cousin, on a quick break from his crushing work schedule, looked at me skeptically and suggested that instead of trying to “find myself” in Korea, I should just concentrate on living well at home in the United States. When The Sense of Wonder describes the K-drama, it doesn’t call the setting of these shows “Korea”; instead, the narrator says, “Once upon a time in dramaland.” Maybe we’re all looking for an escape from hell.