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'The Fetishist' examines racial and sexual politics

G.P. Putnam's Sons

Alma Soon Ja Lee encountered her first "rice king" — a man who fetishizes Asian women — as a 13-year-old Korean American cello prodigy rehearsing with a regional youth orchestra. An older blond clarinetist whispered in her ear, "Oriental girls are so sexy."

To Alma, one of the protagonists of Katherine Min's novel The Fetishist, it had felt like a "five-word pronouncement of immutable destiny," heralding a parade of Asian fetishists who would march through her life. Being pursued by these men was double-edged, mixing "the promise of allure" with "the cost of self-erasure," until "the twisted roots of racism had become so deeply embedded in desire that she could not dig them out."

When Alma first slept with Daniel Karmody, an Irish American violinist and the novel's titular fetishist, she told him, "Once Asian, never again Caucasian" — a joke meant to cement her control over their coupling, "as if joking about being racially interchangeable could protect her from it." She hadn't expected to be but the first in a series of Daniel's sexual conquests that would mirror the march of her rice kings. But after their five-year relationship imploded, Daniel parlayed his looks and charisma into a career of Asian philandering that he never second-guessed — except to rue losing Alma.

At outset of The Fetishist, Alma and Daniel have been estranged for 20 years, and both are at their lowest lows. Alma's late-stage multiple sclerosis has made playing cello a frustrating impossibility, and Daniel is divorced and washed-up, leading a string quartet called Thanatos that serenades the wealthy as they die. One night on opposite sides of the country, they each think of one another, Daniel with regret and longing, Alma with anger and wistfulness.

This might seem a recipe for a second-chance romance driven by a racial reckoning, but Min is playing with different ingredients. Into this doleful tale, she injects a chaos agent in the form of a 23-year-old diminutive Japanese American punk — Kyoko Tokugawa, who plans to kidnap and murder Daniel to make him pay for his part in her mother Emi's suicide. Per Kyoko, Daniel had used and discarded Emi like "sex doll" in a bout of "power-trip fetishizing" — and he had to pay for what he had done.

Kyoko's vengeance sets into motion a fiery farce wherein Min picks at those tangled roots of racism and desire. Inspired by Lolita, but with an Asian fetishist in the role of Humbert Humbert and the objects of his objectification given voice, The Fetishist presents a tightly crafted examination of racial and sexual politics that is at once nuanced and no-holds-barred.

In many ways, Min's novel feels of-the-moment, coming amid a push for more Asian American representation and after both the COVID-fueled surge of anti-Asian hate crimes and the 2021 Atlanta spa shootings that forced a reckoning with the sexual stereotyping of Asian women. But Min actually finished The Fetishist a decade ago — five years before her death of breast cancer at age 60. She hadn't sought to publish the novel in her lifetime; her diagnosis marked a turn away from a long career in fiction, the high point of which was her 2006 debut novel Secondhand World, a finalist for the PEN-Bingham Award. Instead, she turned to writing essays, telling her daughter Kayla Min Andrews, "I need to spend the time I have left understanding myself, my life, and the world around me, unadorned." A fiction writer herself, Min Andrews has brought this abandoned novel to publication, providing readers with her mother's fiction-mediated understanding of the thorny experience of being objectified.

The Fetishist is indeed adorned — a prefatory author's note tells us that "this is a fairy tale of sorts" featuring "a giant, a buried treasure (a tiny one), a hero held captive, a kind of ogre (a tiny one), and a sleeping beauty." Min unspools the tale in short chapters, alternating her third-person omniscient narration primarily among Alma, Daniel, and Kyoko, whose perspectives we dip into and out of in moments of free indirect discourse befitting a Victorian novel. Long, winding sentences filled with wordplay unfold virtuosically, especially when Min writes about Alma and Daniel performing classical music and Kyoko screaming out her demons with her punk band. The plot also includes a slapstick murder attempt, two foiled suicides, a cross-country road trip, and ample flashbacks to a summer in Italy.

All of this framing is ultimately in service of bringing Daniel and Alma to separate and mutual grapplings with the "exultation, laced with contempt" that formed the foundation of their relationship. What makes The Fetishist remarkable in this regard is not just that Min puts pressure on Daniel to come to terms with his sense of entitlement over Asian women, but that she also prods Alma to examine her own complicated relationship to being fetishized.

It is Kyoko's white-hot rage that forces this confrontation, but her chapters are the weakest in the novel. Kyoko's perspective is blinkered and juvenile, her grief largely unexamined because it has "twisted to hate, hate hammered to anger, until the anger, the hate, and the grief had become grotesquely fused." While Min does give Kyoko a brief moment of revelation toward the novel's end, it feels unconvincingly pat. Worst of all — and despite the fact that Min's omniscient narration and flashbacks could have allowed for it — we never actually access Emi's interiority, never fully see her desires and disappointments as she experienced them. There is something ironic about a dead woman feeling like the missing center in a posthumously published novel.

It is always difficult to read a postmortem work without the fact of the author's death hovering over it. Min Andrews writes in an afterword that steeping herself in her mother's writing "made her feel so present, which emphasized her absence." The Fetishist brings Min's presence to bear in boisterous, prickly prose.

Kristen Martin is working on a book on American orphanhood for Bold Type Books. Her writing has also appeared in The New York Times Magazine, The Believer, The Baffler, and elsewhere. She tweets at @kwistent.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Kristen Martin