14 Jul / Paris Is a Party, Paris Is a Ghost by David Hoon Kim [in Shelf Awareness]
In 2007, the New Yorker published “Sweetheart Sorrow,” which became the first chapter of David Hoon Kim’s enigmatic debut, Paris Is a Party, Paris Is a Ghost. The duration of the novel’s opening 30ish pages is the only time Fumiko – a Japanese student in Paris who was the protagonist’s lover – is actually alive, and yet her presence looms throughout.
Henrik Blatand is a multiply-displaced, peripatetic polyglot: he’s ethnically Japanese, adopted to Denmark (with a brief educational foray in Sweden), currently not working on a literary thesis in Paris. His fleeting affair with Fumiko ends with her suicide, an event from which Henrik can’t seem to recover. She appears as a corpse for a dissection class in the second chapter – although Henrik will never know her afterlife fate, as one of the students assigned to parse Fumiko’s inert form takes temporary narrative control. When Henry returns to continue his story, he’s an untethered wanderer, often chasing Fumiko’s elusive, impossible image. Isolated, usually broke, he eventually completes a translation course (inspired by a French-to-English job for a blind physicist he randomly picked up for quick cash) and reliably (enough) supports himself with his multilingual talents.
The years pass; Henrik remains essentially alone. Despite access to multiple opportunities for communication, Henrik might be incapable of sustaining lasting connections. His most significant relationship after Fumiko is with his goddaughter, Gém, the precocious child of a classmate. Henrik is probably the better parent, certainly more engaged and attentive than Gém’s divorced father, René. Out in public, even with immediate physical disparities – Henrik’s “unmistakably Asian” features next to “strikingly beautiful six-year-old” blonde-haired Gém – their obvious mutual attachment makes a father/daughter bond believable to strangers. Reminded of Fumiko’s tragic demise, Henrik wants to protect Gém, even – especially – from René, who’s determined to make her a horror film star with a has-been Italian director, complete with a murder of crows. Reality proves unreliable in Kim’s fictional world.
Trained at the Sorbonne and Iowa Writers Workshop, Kim, like Henrik, is a multilingual expat-in-motion. Kim was born in Korea, raised in the U.S. and educated in France, and he is fluent in Korean, English, and French. His erudite prose is undeniably sublime and polished (his vocabulary remarkably extensive – anechoic, astrakhan, tatterdemalion) but perhaps too much of many good things doesn’t coalesce successfully here, resulting in distracting missteps and disconnects. Kim’s debut hasn’t quite accomplished all that it could and should. The exquisite beauty of his composition – combining words, crafting sentences – however, bodes well for perfecting future narratives.
Shelf Talker: David Hoon Kim’s ambitious debut follows an ethnic Japanese expat in Paris as he loves and then mourns a young woman lost to suicide.