Crystal Hana Kim
THE WASHINGTON POST – ‘O Beautiful’ unsettles the reader from the very first page. In the opening scene, Elinor Hanson, a 40-something former model and aspiring journalist, is on a plane seated next to a man who won’t stop talking. He’s a familiar and annoying type, eager to hear himself lecture to a captive, female audience. Elinor rebuffs him and takes a sleeping pill. When she wakes though, it is to a pawing and insistent violence. Did the assault really happen, or was it a pill-induced nightmare? The question haunts the rest of this enthralling and thought-provoking novel.
Half Korean, half White Elinor is plagued by doubt as she returns to her home state of North Dakota, where she’s been tasked with finishing a story for a prestigious magazine. She’s taken over the assignment from her ex (and former graduate school professor) and wonders: Did she really earn this gig, or did she get it because she once dated the famous writer, Richard? Can she pull off writing about how small-town Avery has changed from an oil boom? In less capable hands, a story about a writer searching for a story about Big Oil could feel cumbersome or dry, but Jung Yun, whose acclaimed first novel Shelter was published in 2016, uses Elinor’s return to a place that never truly felt like home to explore larger questions about power and belonging in modern America.
As Elinor takes up temporary residence in Avery and tries to connect with the local residents, she is astounded by how much has changed since she left. There’s been an influx of people who have come to town looking for profitable jobs and the landscape now pocked with oil rigs and drills. Elinor is here to write about fracking crude oil and shifting power dynamics, but as the locals complain of transient workers, who are often Black and Brown, her assignment increasingly becomes one that reflects a divided America. She wants to dig deeper because “writing had always been her way of making sense of the world and all the things she didn’t understand”.
A sense of mystery and threat lurks in these pages. First, there’s the destabilising incident on the plane, and then Elinor learns of a local girl who has gone missing and the racially targetted violence that erupted in reaction. There’s the threat of Elinor’s own past, memories of a mother who abandoned the family. Finally, there’s also a mysterious voicemail from a graduate student enemy alluding to a scandal with Richard.
This sense of impending danger continues as Elinor is undermined, second-guessed and transgressed upon as a woman, a North Dakotan, a writer and a biracial American. After an incident with a bouncer outside a bar, “Elinor feels a current of anger travel through her body, white-hot as it reaches some nerve that she didn’t know she had. She wishes she was taller and bigger and stronger. She wishes she was a man so she could get up in his face … If she were a man though, there wouldn’t be any need to. Men don’t tell other men to be nice.”
Again and again, Elinor is angry. She is exhausted by being looked at and wants to turn the lens outward to examine the country that has made her. As Elinor finally claims her story, it feels as if Yun is speaking to the reader directly: Look at the power, misogyny, and white supremacy rooted throughout our country –at how inextricably tied they all are.
Sometimes, Yun has a narrative tic of retelling what is already known from the details. In one instance, a man at a bar tries to manipulate Elinor, insulting her as a way to get her attention.
We are shown the interaction through the man’s dialogue, and then through Elinor’s interiority -“she also recognises the game he’s playing, a technique made famous on a television show – some sad reality series designed to help awkward men approach women”- and then again in her conversation with the female bartender who kicks the man out. We get it, a reader might say. But who can fault Yun for wanting to make clear the ways in which women live under constant threat, with daily insults building up over time? Because no matter how much we are told, very little changes.
O Beautiful is a quiet and dangerous story and an insightful meditation on how to make our lives here, amid the beauty and horror of our country. Though the novel opens with Elinor’s uncertainty, by the end, just as she is sure the assault on the plane happened, she understands too this assignment is hers to own. This is not a novel about a woman who learns the meaning of home, but rather, about one who realises how much she already knows about who she is and where she belongs.