No book has influenced how I approach book reviews more than Craft in the Real World by Matthew Salesses. The book challenges the lens many readers use, one shaped by white, Western values, and is a call not only to make space for diverse storytelling, but to evaluate it on its own terms. And, while I can’t remember if Salesses makes this argument directly, one takeaway for me is when we do so, actively seeking work outside of our own cultural experiences, we become more thoughtful readers, writers, and people. So when I watched an online event for the book and the interviewer and Salesses talked about K-dramas as an art form, I decided I needed to check some out. Regrettably, a year later, I still haven’t, and now feel woefully unqualified to review his new novel, The Sense of Wonder, which heavily features K-dramas.
Which is not to say you need to be familiar with K-dramas to enjoy this novel. Quite simply, it’s an enjoyable, if at times painful, read. It opens with an uncomfortable joke that starts, “An Asian American basketball star walks into a gym.” But before the joke is delivered, the narrator—Won Lee, who for the purposes of the novel is the first Asian American in the NBA—warns us, “It’s the dirtiest joke I know, because it’s the truest.” I won’t share the rest of the joke, but let’s just say this short two-paragraph opening does a lot. Yes, it establishes Won’s voice and some of the novel’s conflict, but it also acts a bit like a content warning of what’s to come. If you can’t guess, Won will be on the receiving end of heinous racism.
Sharing this story, and the microphone, is Won’s girlfriend, Carrie Kang, a studio producer attempting to bring K-drama to the American entertainment industry, which is not enthusiastic about embracing anything different. The novel is divided into seven sections that mostly go back and forth between Won and Carrie’s perspectives, with one interlude—Part Three: K-drama, For the Love of Your Future Self, which offers a quick overview of the genre for the uninitiated (yes, unfortunately, that includes me), as well as a K-drama tale that feels in conversation with what’s happening between Won and Carrie. And we’re told where K-drama shines is “in the tension between certainty and wonder.”
That line holds the crux of the novel. It’s why all the K-drama references and stories are essential, and why other story threads—Carrie’s sister’s battle with cancer; Won’s strained friendship with a sports reporter; his relationship with teammate and NBA legend Paul Burton, who is widely known by the nickname “Powerball!”; and Powerball!’s marital drama—are indispensable. In all these stories, much like in life, we see the push and pull between what’s certain and what’s not, what holds a sense of wonder.
Wonder has a few definitions, and can be used as both an adjective and a verb. It’s a feeling of surprise, of being a phenomenon; it’s the act of pondering, of marveling, of being surprised. Salesses leverages these shifting meanings throughout the novel, as well as in its title. When Won, who spends most games on the bench, gets playing time during Powerball!’s absence, he rises to stardom and a reporter calls him “Won-derkid.” The media then begins calling the subsequent winning streak “The Wonder.” Talent itself is a wondrous thing, as are opportunity, luck, and the phenomenon of any streak of fortune.
One touch I’d be remiss not to mention is the care Salesses put into chapter titles—themselves a marvel these days when most novel chapters are simply numbered. Their presence feels special, and like an invitation to take the work deeper. And the titles are often clever: one is “And at the End of the Story Is the Telling of It,” and another shares the title of Salesses’ 2020 novel, Disappear Doppelgänger Disappear, which was a PEN/Faulkner finalist.
Clever is an apt word to describe The Sense of Wonder, as it’s so richly layered. By merging the worlds of sports and entertainment (and the ways the two overlap), the novel astutely captures the tension between the public and personal lives of sports stars. It manages to be both funny and heartbreaking, and as entertaining as I imagine a K-drama is. I suspect a familiarity with the genre will lend the reader a wider lens to view the novel, but even without such context, The Sense of Wonder is a sharp, delightful read. And the book gave me the impetus to finally watch K-dramas, which I suspect will only bring greater appreciation for this wondrous world Salesses built.
The Sense of Wonder
By Matthew Salesses
Little Brown and Company
Published January 17, 2023
Rachel León is a writer, editor, and social worker. She serves as Daily Editor for Chicago Review of Books and Fiction Editor for Arcturus. Her work has appeared in The Rumpus, BOMB Magazine, The Millions, Electric Literature, Los Angeles Review of Books, the Ploughshares blog, Split Lip Magazine, and elsewhere. She shares her anxiety and wide-eyed optimism to encourage other writers in the newsletter Pub Cheerleaders, which you can find at: https://pubcheerleader.substack.com