Forget it Jake, It's 2019


Review of Your House Will Pay, by Steph Cha.

New York: Harper Collins, 2019  


The day I picked up Steph Cha’s (nauseating, brilliant, enraging) novel Your House Will Pay, Jonathan Safran Foer told Ben Shapiro that he only eats animals that fuck. The day I finished it, Jonathan Franzen published an essay in The New Yorker urging Americans to admit defeat on climate change, accept the impending collapse of human civilization, and focus on shorter-term pleasures and projects instead. Both arguments are, to say the least, muddy; they propose hyper-individualistic solutions to problems that are simply not amenable to such. Foer proposes a billion individuals undertaking a kind of radical, absurd sacrifice, which Franzen recognizes is unlikely; he, however, responds with a kind of placid nihilism. Neither solution makes a lick of sense, which should surprise nobody.    

That The Jonathans—moral consciences of Brooklyn, toasts of the oughts—would struggle to engage with social ills should surprise no one in 2019, but pitting their musings against the primal, furious scream of a Korean-Angeleno mystery author surprised me. Genre hasn’t inherited the earth, at least not yet. But it might be the only way to describe it.  

Cha (with whom I attended law school, in the interest of disclosure) made her bones in detective fiction, in the dirty and disreputable world of books where things happen. Her Juniper Song series, starring a Yalie burnout who enjoys Raymond Chandler when not rescuing women from L.A.’s shockingly cruel 1%, is a perfect companion for a long flight. I don’t mean that as an insult, but I know how it sounds; Cha writes potboilers, and very good ones. Her prose is spare and propulsive, and her mysteries get solved. In other words, she doesn’t usually write the kinds of books that get longform reviews—her characters are too busy with gunfire to have much of an internal monologue. They also tend to be women of color, which remains unusual in literary fiction. Cha’s “Korean American feminist noir” centers people who exist in the background of most of the books I read: the protagonist’s Asian friend from Harvard, the Armenian family next door. These people, and these problems, are more often examined in the dimly-lit corners of the genre press; Cha is by no means the only person exploring issues of identity in mystery novels, let alone romance or science fiction. But the awards and the New Yorker excerpts still go to white men with dramatic glasses and facial hair (For the record, #NotAllBeards), struggling with guilt over how they treat women.  

That makes Your House Will Pay, and the conversation around it, unusual. It’s being published by a literary outfit, and has already received the kind of accolades detective fiction never gets:  listings on Pacific Standard and Lithub, a New Writers Pick at Barnes and Noble. The People Who Decide About These Sorts Of Things think Cha is the author of the moment, and they might be right; Your House Will Pay is terrific, and ought to make her a star. But reading Your House Will Pay against Cha’s earlier work shows how porous the boundary between genre and mainstream fiction has become, perhaps because the line between genre and reality has ceased to exist. 


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Because House is a plot-driven novel I’m hesitant to discuss its twists here; really, you should read it. But in brief: it shows both sides of a long-simmering violent racial conflict in the outer L.A. burbs. Parts of the story read as familiar, especially since Cha hews closely to real-life events; others, particularly those sections from the point of view of a young pharmacist named Grace, are shockingly vivid. Cha does what she’s been doing for years, showing messy and violent worlds through the eyes of cloistered women who are just now learning to face them. It’s a brilliant maneuver, especially with something as explosive as the L.A. riots; Cha specializes in normal people dealing with profoundly abnormal events, and learning the contours of their new realities. That transformation gives House its arc; while details and identities trickle out with the precision you expect from a mystery writer, the only release Cha offers her reader is the sense that her characters might be better equipped for the riot that closes the book than the one in its beginning. Even there, however, Cha could be accused of sticking to her roots; the noir fiction Juniper Song reads obsessively is not exactly known for its happy endings.  

Of course, neither are a lot of books that receive critical acclaim. Foer’s magnum opus Everything is Illuminated explored the liquidation of Trochenbrod, Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex began with the burning of Smyrna, and even the almost deliriously happy ending of Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom follows a parade of horribles including arms dealing, cancer, and gruesome death. That said, if House lacks the tidy resolution of your standard mystery book, it also lacks the studied interiority of so much contemporary literary fiction. Cha’s characters are drawn effectively but economically; they don’t talk much, even to themselves. They mostly reactto things that happened before they were born or social pressures they only dimly understand. The real engine of House is its plot, which neither main character instigates; they’re victims and bystanders, not agents. This choice gives the text a queasy power that I generally associate with Greek tragedy (an association that the name, with its obvious Atrean connotations, does not exactly discourage). Horrible things are happening, which our heroes do more to re-enact or to embody than to cause; no one escapes the ancestral curses that haunt Cha’s Los Angeles.  

This fatalism makes House a tricky book to describe, as well; it’s propulsive in its plot but static in its sociology. Its characters do much but its world changes little—everything that happens will happen again. That’s generally a desirable quality in a potboiler, where everything that happens will need to happen again, ideally in time for your next plane ride or commute. In your average mystery series, though, that cyclicality arises from a near-total lack of character development; detective solves crime, bad person goes to prison, detective gets call about new crime. By contrast, House’s main characters are very different people by book’s end. It just doesn’t matter what kind of person you are in Cha’s world; the forces shaping its inhabitants’ lives are too big and impersonal for that.  

In other words, Cha is a realist. House doesn’t center personal growth as something that changes the world because it doesn’t, in fact, change the world. Her characters don’t learn to see beyond race because, in fact, growing up Black and growing up Korean in L.A. aren’t at all the same. And her characters don’t abandon their grudges; they know that apologies are cheap. This isn’t how one learns to write in Iowa, or how we’re told we’re supposed to go through the world. But it has the distinct, meaningful advantage of reflecting the world we all live in now. My strong hunch is that this sudden shift in perspective—a result both of truly ridiculous current events and the increasing elevation of marginalized voices in a variety of media—made Cha’s rise possible, and others’ fall inevitable. Life has become pulp. 


* * * * *


When I started writing this morning, I had a perfect example of the plot-driven Nightmare Rollercoaster on which we all live; the ever-changing emotional spectacle of Amber Guyger’s trial for the shooting of Botham Jean. But that was all hours ago, and now Donald Trump wants a moat filled with snakes on the Rio Grande. In 2019, whiplash is expected. The idea that anyone in this sort of world could maintain an internal monologue for more than a sentence at a time—or that that sentence would be devoid of profanity, interrobangs, and at least three different fonts—seems quaint in the extreme. The generic conventions of most middle- to highbrow fiction are designed to allow for introspection, either as characters examine their own motivations slowly and at length or as an omniscient narrator surveys the landscape. Nobody has time for that anymore. The books we used to read to escape stultifying reality—in which shoes fell, quickly, with no time to breathe—now seem to be the only way to make sense of that reality.  

House’s fatalism also makes it an uncanny fit for the times. In my professional life I write about powerlessness, or about how awful it can feel to have no control over your circumstances. When governments deprive people of that control we call them arbitrary, or tyrannical; when societies do it we call them cruel. Either way, to live in America in 2019 is to feel no control whatsoever over frantic events; governments break the rules and lie. There is no guarantee that good arguments win, or that making a reasoned case (to a judge, or a police officer, or a United States Senator) will get anyone much of anywhere. The important decisions are all being made in rooms you will never be let into, and they cannot be appealed. There is a kind of hot shame that goes along with realizing your life is not your own, or that its course was decided before you were born; I have no interest in pretending that shame is new, but it feels inescapable (at least to this privileged white liberal) in ways that it did not before.  

That shame animates good noir. Noir is a genre in which the mechanisms that ought to govern communal life no longer do so—no one pays for private investigators when cops are doing their jobs—and it differs from traditional mystery in that those mechanisms are never repaired. Chandler’s Los Angeles is never fixed, even if his characters come to find some shreds of dignity within it. Neither is Juniper Song’s, and neither is ours; it would feel cheap for House to marry its characters’ growth to any kind of optimism, and Cha’s genre footing allows her to find a graceful ending without that traditional note.  

It also might explain House’s remarkable lack of guilt. Cha’s characters aren’t robots; they think about what to do. But they rarely dwell on what they’ve done, even when it’s horrible. This relentless prospectivity is an old genre trick; keep things moving forward and you can hide all manner of writerly sins. But, frankly, there is no other way to imagine the world now. Who on earth feels remorse anymore?  Who even remembers what they did wrong a week ago? Nobody has time for that. Cha’s cast is exhausted, as exhausted as we all are—they keep on going regardless, without the introspection we associate with fancier books or gentler times. 

Reviewing Your House Will Pay is an easy task; the book is really, really good. But I am also Cha’s target audience. I like genre books and always have, which used to make me trashy. But it is one thing to enjoy straightforward, plot-driven writing; it is another one entirely to live in a world that can only be explained in such a form. I, personally, would love to go back to the literary culture of ten years ago if it meant being free from the concerns that have made that culture seem so antiquated. That will never happen, though; we’re mystery fans now. 


Posted on 20 November 2019

ZACHARY HERZ (@zacharyherz) is an Assistant Professor of Classics at the University of Colorado Boulder, specializing in Roman legal and political history.