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The Collective by Don Lee
Photograph: Jonathan Aprea

Review: The Collective by Don Lee

A fine prose stylist meditates on idealism and pragmatism in his novel of ambitious, young Asian-American artists.

By Timothy Bracy

By Don Lee. W.W. Norton & Company, $26.

Don Lee’s third novel traces the trajectory of three Asian-American friends who meet in college and pursue lives in the arts, together and apart, in the ensuing decade. The friendship among narrator Eric Cho, sirenlike visual artist Jessica Tsai, and the acerbic and troubled writer Joshua Yoon is complex and frequently fraught. When a confluence of circumstances finds the three cohabiting in a Cambridge, Massachusetts, household during the late 1990s, the intensity is ratcheted to nearly unbearable heights, abetted always by the manipulative presence of Joshua, whose determination to read racial undertones into every manner of personal and professional interaction is at once noble, self-serving and vaguely paranoid.

Among an ensemble of colorful characters, Joshua is the novel’s most indelible creation. His is the sort of special talent and negative charisma around which a great deal of activity is frequently generated, and eventually the three main characters find themselves founders of a thriving group of young Asian-American artists called the Collective. Their ambition is to upend common perceptions of Asian-Americans through manifesto-driven art, and for a time it seems they might succeed in realizing their lofty aims.

What transpires is by turns comic and tragic, and in many ways The Collective turns out to be less a treatise on ethnic identity than a rumination on success and failure, idealism and pragmatism. Lee is a fine prose stylist who shares something of Philip Roth’s talent for digressing into tangential episodes without ever halting the momentum of his narrative. Here, he credibly addresses the political and social concerns of a specific demographic, while also rendering a work that will feel relatable to nearly everyone who reads it. His characters would be proud.

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