Wrestling with Ghosts: Joseph Han’s Nuclear Family

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For Jacob Cho, the twenty-five-year-old protagonist of Joseph Han’s debut novel, Nuclear Family, the traumatic history of the Korean War and his family’s ensuing immigration to America has not weighed too heavily on his shoulders. The pampered child of the owners of Cho’s Delicatessen, Jacob is not asked to speak Korean (his younger sister can do the work of acting as translator). Despite his parents’ prodding, the recent college graduate has no full-time job; no deep interest in the family business; no girlfriend; and though it’s not quite open knowledge, no intention of ever having a girlfriend. He is living his own American life, largely unburdened by the expectations of his parents’ culture. In one striking and very telling flashback, an eight-year-old Jacob receives the gift of a toy aircraft carrier, including a model soldier and bomber planes. The toy is not an unusual one for an American child, and yet, as the novel wryly observes of Jacob’s Appa and Umma: “How odd it must’ve been for the boy’s parents to see their son playing with replicas of the same planes that once flew over and bombed their country.”

The luxury of ahistorical freedom ends for Jacob the moment he arrives in Seoul for a gig teaching English. Someone is waiting for him, and this someone happens to be none other than the boisterous, needy, and frequently vulgar ghost of his grandfather, Tae-woo. During the years of his afterlife, Tae-woo has been fruitlessly trying to cross the demilitarized zone (DMZ) in an attempt to reunite with his first wife and the son he abandoned during the Korean War. You would think that a ghost would have no problem crossing even this heavily guarded border. But it turns out that the barrier between north and south also holds fast for the dead, keeping whole crowds of roaming, deceased family members agonizingly separate. With Jacob’s arrival in South Korea, however, Tae-woo is granted a new opportunity, and he voraciously and uninvitedly begins infusing himself into the young man’s body, hoping to use his grandson as a vehicle for walking across the DMZ.

For Jacob, his grandfather is an overpowering force. Contact with his ghost results in a raging red rash all over Jacob’s body. He finds that the words in his mouth are not his own. The thoughts in his head are being jumbled about by a separate entity. “Mostly,” this novel warns us, “the dead are at peace. But when they are not, this is when they may ask something of us, attempt to guide our lives to fulfill what they could not.” Indeed, many people would like to think of ancestors as beneficent presences—all prim smiles and warm company and perhaps the occasional sleight-of-hand that might better one’s fortunes. But the far more interesting psychological story—and the one told here—is the resentment and angry confusion and demands that our progenitors would probably force onto us could they open their eyes and look at our present. We who have our own lives and our own concerns are often insufficiently loyal to the forces and people that conspired to bring us to life. “He’s trying to use me,” Jacob says of his grandfather, in one poignant cry for help to his living relatives. Tae-woo is unmoved. He cannot imagine a more fitting occupation for a grandson than dutifully assisting him in his quest.

Back in Honolulu, the Cho family watches in shock as news programs broadcast images of the young American man who—after breaking away from his tour group—was caught by South Korean soldiers attempting to cross the DMZ. Then, as the reality sets in, not only are the Chos agonized over Jacob’s safety and mystified by his incomprehensible act, they also must deal with the reaction at home. In an aftermath with all-too-real resonance, the Chos’ status as a beloved neighborhood fixture is undercut by racism and suspicion. People stop eating at the Delicatessen, imagining that the Chos have some nefarious connection to Kim Jong-un’s regime. Meanwhile Grace, Jacob’s beloved younger sister, becomes increasingly at odds with the life that her parents have pinioned her into, and starts her own parallel breaking-away from parental and ancestral forces.

The bustling scenes surrounding Cho’s Delicatessen are well-wrought, but Han’s real talent is in allegory and premise more than on-the-ground realist depiction. Within Jacob’s story in particular, Han’s spectacular imagination is allowed to show its many layers and mind-bending scope. By the time we accompany Jacob in his dash across the DMZ, the act has become nothing less than a battle between the generations: a vivid and searing metaphor for the struggle between American individualism and duty to the past. If Jacob allows his grandfather to force him into North Korea—to reunite with the family that Tae-woo left behind before meeting Jacob’s grandmother—who knows when or if Jacob would ever again be able to see his own family: his mother, father and sister. To save himself, Jacob fights the ghost of his grandfather, battling the thoughts and memories and even the language that his ancestor, his Baik Harabeoji, has forced into his body:

He would make himself too heavy for Baik Harabeoji to carry. Jacob concentrated all thought into his foot and put it down. Jacob started thinking in English, the English he accrued and carried all his life, and let it overflow. A part of him wanted to let go. Give in to the pull north. His shoes skidded forward. He raised his hand and struck himself across the face.

Despite several jumps of postmodern experiment (at a climactic moment the words “King Fool” repeat over several pages until deconstructing into a scramble of letters), the concluding beats in this novel move to the rhythm of a familiar heart. Ultimately the relatives ripped asunder reunite; familial love is a force worth fighting for. What is beautiful is the titular nuclear family. When borders destroy or separate these bonds, there exists no earthly or supernatural argument for their worth. To rip sibling from sibling and children from parents is as good a barometer of evil as we have in a politically multifarious world. Only toward the end of the novel does a thematic interruption begin to take form. If this book articulates an indictment against the political forces interrupting familial and cultural continuity, then what is the moral position of the Cho family itself, who has benefited from America’s annexation of Hawai’i, which took place despite widespread protests from Native Hawaiians?

In the final chapters of Nuclear Family, the drawn-from-life 2018 false missile alert throws Hawaiians into a terrifying panic. A warning appears on smartphones across the state, announcing an incoming ballistic missile and leading many to believe that North Korea had decided to strike. Here Han’s prose expands, and in fervent litanies he describes the landscape; the names of immigrant families living in the state today; and notably, the names of Native Hawaiians who fought against the United States’ claim to the region. The Kānaka Maoli forebears are described, not unlike modern Koreans, as “people whose families witnessed fleets of warships arrive, their land cut off by fences and barbed wire, sacred places soon renamed for battlegrounds, veterans, and presidents; people whose families remembered the sound of bombs and air raid sirens.” Han addresses this historical analogy again in the novel’s acknowledgments, writing of his own family: “[O]ur citizenship and my naturalization as ‘American’ are predicated on the illegal occupation and overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom.” He goes on to implicitly call for a worldwide paradigm shift in how violently seized land is dealt with today, declaring that “Living and learning on this land has taught me this: for there to be peace and reunification, One Korea, there must also be an independent and free Hawai’i.”

It should be said that the calamity of a divided Korea is not one that Han’s writing invites Americans to enter into to solve. But Nuclear Family does call upon its American readers to personally address the particular kind of evil that has touched the Cho family’s past. The issue of drawing borders and upholding them—bravely and memorably dramatized here—is always a current event, and a problem that exists both within our hands and under our feet.

Ariel Djanikian is the author of the novel The Office of Mercy (Viking/Penguin, 2013). Her stories have appeared in Glimmer Train, Alaska Quarterly Review, West Branch, and Tin House, and her essays and book reviews can be found at the Kenyon Review Online, the Paris Review Daily, and The Millions. More from this author →