In the summer of 2007, a short story by a young Korean-American writer named David Hoon Kim appeared in the pages of The New Yorker. It was Kim’s first published work of fiction. This auspicious beginning is normally the stuff of literary legend, about as straight-line a course for a book deal as a young writer could hope for, but for Kim, the book itself was a long time coming.
Kim’s debut novel, Paris is a Party, Paris is a Ghost, starts off fifteen years ago, the first chapter a near word-for-word transcription of his breakout short story. In it, the protagonist, Henrik, a young Japanese-Danish man (a Japanese adoptee who grew up in Denmark, raised by Danish parents), is struggling to get by as a literature student in Paris. His girlfriend, Fumiko, has locked herself in her dorm room and refuses to leave, and with his fellowship expired, he’s reduced to making money by taking up a translation job for a crank physicist. From there, the book advances episodically through Henrik’s life until we find him in middle age at the novel’s end, his problems mostly unresolved, his obsessions largely unchanged.
Although billed as a novel, Paris is a Party, Paris is a Ghost is actually best read as a trilogy of novellas that take place at different periods in Henrik’s life and which explore his love for three different women. The first of these women is Fumiko, whose “strangeness” he has fallen in love with, but whom he loses in the book’s first chapter. The second is a French girl, Luce, whom Henrik meets on the train to Paris, but whose phone number he fails to ask for. “She reminded me of a Velázquez I’d seen at the SMK,” he tells us, and the book’s middle section finds Henrik searching for Luce, uselessly, pathetically throughout Paris.
The book’s final section, and its most emotionally engaging, covers what might be Henrik’s only successful love affair of the entire book, with Gémanuelle, the blonde six-year-old daughter of his best friend Rene. His romantic-life non-existent, he has embraced his role as a godfather to the little girl, so much so that when the two of them are out together, Gémanuelle insists on telling strangers that Henrik is her father.
A fairly long period of Henrik’s life is covered in the novel, roughly the same period it took Kim to write the book. This makes it inevitable that the passage of time should be one the novel’s central themes. Chapters are set years apart, and at the beginning of each one the reader finds Henrik’s life radically changed from what it had been only a few pages before. Henrik abandons his literary studies for a stint in a translation academy, then becomes a technical translator for a pharmaceutical company, and then loses the job years later. This in-and-out structure of the story is not uninteresting, and a patient and generous reader might find in the book something of the charm of the Up! documentary series in which the audience returns to the same group of people at years-long intervals throughout their lives, seeing how they’ve changed. One could say that it recreates the feeling of growing older, of awakening at various moments from the stream of life’s passing. But for most readers, the book will feel haphazard, as if cobbled together from bits of inspiration that struck the author years apart.
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the book is the way in which Kim’s voice has stayed constant throughout the novel’s long gestation. Kim is an excellent sentence-level writer, eschewing both floweriness and over-simplicity. He treads lightly, but there are never any missteps, and his intelligence shines through in the easy flow of his prose. This is as true of his New Yorker short story as it is of the novel’s final chapters. His jokes are deadpan, but they never fall flat. An example of his humor comes in an early scene where Henrik speaks to Fumiko through the door of her dorm room:
“I heard her say, ‘J’ai froid’—’I’m cold.’ Or it could have been ‘Ta voix’—’Your voice.’ The fact that so many French words rhymed with each other, coupled with Fumiko’s difficulties in pronouncing them, resulted in frequent misunderstandings between us.”
And yet, I had difficulty connecting emotionally with Kim’s story or any of his characters. Perhaps it’s the influence of Hemingway (the novel’s title is a nod to Hemingway’s memoir of his time in Paris, A Moveable Feast, whose title in French was Paris est un fête), but Kim’s Henrik strikes me as unnecessarily reserved, almost stoic. One wishes he’d made Henrik a little less tight-lipped about his feelings.
The one thing that’s clear as you read the book is that time—well, age, really—is the novel’s chief antagonist. The Henrik we encounter at the book’s outset is not the one we find at its conclusion, nor is the young writer who penned a short story that once made it into The New Yorker the middle-aged man who brought this novel to completion. A picaresque decision to translate a physicist’s papers becomes a dead-end career as a translator. Paris goes from being a place of romance and youthful adventure to a kind of catacomb that has trapped Henrik’s life. Fumiko and Luce are all but forgotten by the time we reach the book’s latter pages, both, it seems, by Henrik and by Kim.
Only Henrik’s goddaughter Gémanuelle remains as a source of hope by the time we reach the book’s ending, and Henrik’s love for her is like something out of Salinger, a love that stems from a disillusioned man’s yearning for the innocence of childhood. After Gémanuelle gets recruited by a talent scout for child actresses and becomes a minor movie star, Henrik gets fired from his job as a translator and becomes, essentially, Gémanuelle’s full-time babysitter, shuttling her between home, school, and the movie studio where she works. Searching for Gémanuelle one day in the studio, he finds her “among the remains of Pompeii.” (“They’d been used,” he clarifies, “for a Spanish television series that had won a lot of awards.”) “I gave her a smile,” he tells us, when he finally finds her, relieved that she hasn’t gotten lost, “that reflected none of the chaos and turmoil and sorrow inside of me.” There is indeed a great deal of sorrow in this book. I just wish Henrik had expressed more of it sooner.
Paris is a Party, Paris is a Ghost
By David Hoon Kim
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Published August 3, 2021