Research Seminar Blog –Dr  Bella Adams (LJMU): ‘Wrack and Ruin’ (2008) by Don Lee: an ecocritical reading,  28th Feb 2012
Michael Harley

Dr Bella Adams’ research seminar was about the novel Wrack and Ruin (2008) by Don Lee, a Korean-American novelist and professor of creative writing at Temple University.  Works preceding Wrack and Ruin include a short story collection Yellow (2001), set in the same fictional Californian town as Wrack and Ruin, and the novel Country of Origin (2005). The presentation was based on a chapter for a book entitled Asian American Literature and the Environment that Bella is co-editing.  Bella’s central premise was to review the book on eco-critical terms, which means, as succinctly as I can for those uninitiated like myself in eco-criticism, a reading of the novel that focused on the depiction of the environment in regards to relationships between space and place and anthropomorphic depictions of nature or the ‘non-human.’

Wrack and Ruin is a satirical comedy that depicts the lives of the inhabitants of a fictional Californian town, Rosarita Bay, over a Labour Day weekend.  The main focus of the narrative is two American Asian brothers, Lynden (a former NY based artist and now Brussels sprout farmer) and Woody (a film producer who is trying to persuade Lynden to sell his farmland to golf course developers).  Bella explained how the text is about ideas pertaining to the concepts of ‘yellow’ (Asian American-ness) and ‘green’ (environmentalism).  Ideas about race, the non-human, labour, art, and white hegemony are intertwined against a historical background that has resonance dating back to the nineteenth century.

The novel draws upon the history of California and its chequered past of race relations as part of a process that attempts to contextualise the experiences and subject position of Asian Americans in 21st Century USA.  This is also mixed with concerns in the novel about the relationship between the human and the non-human, or nature.  This represents the central aspect of the novel, history and discourses of place, history, and race collide in Rosarita Bay.

Characters within the novel represent these discourses which mean that as the characters move and socialise around Rosarita Bay conflict arises and satire ensues.  Bella was consistent in pointing out that comedy is pervasive throughout Wrack and Ruin from the satirical, such as Lyndon’s art projects being labelled ‘too’ stereotypically Asian or ignoring his cultural heritage, to the farcical when an elephant escapes from a parade and rampages throughout the town.  Hence the ideological conflicts taking place throughout the novel are infused with a sense of humour that serves to keep the narrative engaging and also prone to unexpected events that shock the residents out of their daily realities.

The major points of discussion regarding eco-criticism examined a variety of symbolic representations of nature and the political and ideological uses of land.  For example, Lynden, goes into the ‘wilderness’ whilst and defecates.  Upon his return he feels that he has gained some profound insight about the relationship between man and nature, he has ‘connected’ with the land in a meaningful way.  Lee confounds Lyndon’s perception of his relationship with nature by subjecting the character to irritation and pain from a rash that he received from using poison oak leaves during his sojourn in the woods.

In conclusion Bella said that the novel was ‘radically destabilising’ in that it de-powered discourses.  The ‘yellow and ‘green’ discourses prevalent in the novel were examined, satirised and deconstructed.  This is reflected in the end of the novel when the two brothers share a meal compromised solely of Brussels sprouts.  In lieu of the events in the novel this final meal is perhaps a moment of understanding between the brothers who are able to enjoy the simplicity and the nutritious aspects of the food whilst eschewing the symbolic conflicts that propagate the novel.  Hearing Bella’s description of this made me think that the brothers had some sort of connection with each other, and the land, only when the narrative is at its simplest.

Following the presentation a lively question and answer session was cut sort due to time constraints.  Bella had managed to make Wrack and Ruin interesting and accessible so that her critical insight into the text could be appreciated.  Bella called to attention the humour of the novel and its explorations into discourses that ultimately failed to provide meaning for the main characters.  In the process of doing this Bella helped my own research topic by complicating definitions of race, place, and nature in ways that will enrich my own writing.

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