Few people write long short stories these days and one of the reasons may be that they are so hard to get published. Many quarterlies prefer to publish briefer stories to showcase more writers. And with the disappearance of Alice Munro from the world of contemporary short fiction, the novelistic story that she was such a deft and prodigious practitioner of, has become exceedingly rare. All of which makes Yoon Choi's remarkable collection, where the average story is 35 pages, a publication that deserves attention.
The eight stories in "Skinship" examine the experience of Korean Americans living in the United States, pulled between the two often opposing cultures that frame their lives. Whether narrated in a third or first person voice, the stories move with practiced and compelling grace, so much so that when they glide elegantly to a finish it feels more like a pause because the characters she has so thrillingly brought to life will not stop breathing. This is a writer who knows where to find a story's natural ending, just like a cook who knows where to cut the joint when turning a whole chicken into parts. Her well-chosen details, deft manipulation of time, attention to the sounds and rhythms of speech, whether American or Korean American, are the many qualities I admired. The challenges each central character faces take on a richness that feels dimensional and compelling. In addition, Choi harnesses mystery in an unusual fashion, using it not to draw a reader into a story, but to reflect a character's ignorance of the world beyond their experience. Nowhere is it used to better effect than in the stand-out story at the center of the collection, "Solo Works for Piano."
The story opens when Albert Uhm meets Sasha, a woman who was part of his peer group in the unnamed music program where they were both students. Albert Uhm never had the brilliant career he seemed destined for as a teenager prepping for major competitions, and instead, is buried in oblivion teaching out on Long Island at Hofstra. Sasha no longer plays the piano at all; she is married and with a child, and that child is the reason she's contacted her old friend. Her daughter is a musical prodigy, and she thinks Albert may be the only person who can understand the roller coaster of her child's emotions.
Sasha is thoroughly American, never having given up the youthful expressions and gestures of excess that once, in Albert's eyes, defined her:
"'It's Moore now. Sasha Moore. I haven't been Sasha Silber in forever!' She laughs.
'How long's it been, Albert? Like a million years?'
'Twenty-two years come June.'
"He can't quite orient himself, as though both Sasha and her memory have entered the room, and he doesn't know which way to look. He instantly remembers—witnesses—her slightly antic gestures. Her rhapsodic, careless way of speaking: ages, miles, forever. Her habit of laughing and apologizing. Always laughing and apologizing" (111-112).
Sasha brings on the memory of Yegor Zorkin, the master they studied under, and that in turn allows him to relive the time when Zorkin sat down at the piano in a moment of instruction focused on Sasha directly, but indirectly, on all of them, and played a medley of music borrowed from many sources to make the point that all music deserves focus, attention, and respect, not just the classical canon. Those memories unlock others and soon we have a fuller picture of the ossified routines of Albert's lonely, ascetic life contrasted with Sasha and her wild, almost feral daughter who plays for Albert, in a spontaneous and absorbed manner, a Zorkin-like medley of music that excites him to his core. But is she teachable, he wonders.
The narrative line, which at first seemed straight forward and simple (two friends meeting again after many years), twists and bends with the addition of surprising developments in backstory and the reader watches as Sasha's arrival challenges the precise and disciplined Albert. The wild and primitive being she has brought into his studio upends his careful existence. More than that, it recalls his student days when he was distracted by the confusing relationships with his fellow pupils, when he felt as though the people around him spoke in a code he couldn't quite translate. The reader sees how his self-reliance put others on edge, how his severity of purpose and need for precision is at odds with people whose emotions are foregrounded. Even when they were students, he found "[t]he ever-presentness of whatever [Sasha]was feeling…rather miraculous" (115).
Though the third person point of view is limited to Albert's narrow perspective, it's inclusive in other ways: it stretches across time, revealing his experiences in music, love, and sex and additionally, his persistent sense that he is missing something that others can perceive. This is the mystery I was speaking of: he feels surrounded by meanings and messages he will never fully understand. When Sasha says of her daughter, "She's like the next Albert Uhm,"(136) Albert doesn't know how to respond. "What is he to make of this? He feels this is complicated nonsense" (136). Yet as always, he returns to his solitude with a consoling thought: "He does not mind knowing of himself that he is a person who retreats" (145). When Sasha's daughter runs out of the studio and the lesson comes to an abrupt stop, Albert says, "What's wrong with her"(140) and Sasha replies, "Don't you know? Can't you tell?" (141), questions he repeats to himself later that echo similar questions asked in different ways by other people throughout his life.
But when they're thrown at him by Sasha they finally breach Albert's fortifications. Who is he and who is that little girl? That's the mystery he's faced with, and that's when he knows he must articulate an answer. What he discovers, and what the reader discovers through him, is nothing less than the meaning of art. It is also the answer to Sasha's agonized cry, "Have you been happy? Is it, is it possible" (148)?