The Virtue of Polite Omniscience: Paul Yoon's Snow Hunters
By Patrick McGinty
Snow Hunters is a hand-sized, 194-page novel whose smallish paragraphs and multiple chapter breaks make for a brisk read. Yet the narrative moves slowly. Small, whole paragraphs are often dedicated to a single act—the mending of a shirt in a tailorshop, where Yohan works for an older Japanese tailor; the fall of rain in the morning; Brazilian children climbing tree limbs, their bodies circling “the tree like planets as they went higher, blocking the afternoon light.” Why these small, daily events are rendered with such cosmic importance becomes clear once the flashbacks to the prison camp begin:
They had chores and duties. They were sent to the field tents to carry the bodies of men who had been captured and who had not survived. That hour surrounded by the sound of scissors and liquid in cups and bowls and jars. The activity of flies. Men with untreated bullet wounds attempted to stay standing as they waited in a line. Men lay in the backs of trucks, their mouths pooling with the afternoon rain.
The recollections are brutal. They detail how Yohan’s friend Peng was blinded, how Peng lived in the camp with that blindness, and how he ultimately died a peaceful, haunting death, the particulars of which I’m reluctant to spoil. The old tailor, the two Brazilian orphans, and a groundskeeper make recurring appearances in the narrative, and when they fail to show up for any length of time, Yoon wisely resists any explicit nod toward Peng’s sudden passing.
Paul Yoon. His new novel features a “polite omniscience” similar to that of Denis Johnson or Paul Harding.
This commitment to understatement makes Snow Hunters simpatico with a class of newer books who are re-establishing subtlety as a treasured virtue. While the memoir and the increasingly popular novel-as-memoir tend to rely on a conversational, if not confessional, sharing of the salacious, Yoon opts for a polite omniscience that doesn’t peer straight into Yohan’s mind so much as eavesdrop on his life:
A boardinghouse near the brothel was in fact a brothel…Later, taking a walk, he asked Kiyoshi about the words he had not understood, and the tailor translated them for him in Japanese, grinning.
We aren’t privy to the joke. Nor are we given the gossipy details of Yohan’s brief relationship with a woman (the juiciest detail is a nap taken with an ear on a belly button). No sooner do we receive a fly-by of their first encounter than the relationship ends:
They told no one of each other. And there were moments when he thought the months would go on like this. But they didn’t. He was never sure why. Just that whatever had contained them faded. They both understood without saying so. It had been short-lived, a flare.
Many will cite Snow Hunters’ miniature size and construction as reason enough to compare it with Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams or Paul Harding’s Tinkers, Pulitzer finalist and winner, respectively. Though I find my small copy of Snow Hunters to be positively beautiful, I’m reluctant to make the comparison primarily on looks. These books do not resonate because they are small. They resonate because the size of their mysteries is great. The same polite omniscience from Snow Hunters—that ability to avoid the gossipy details—is present early in Johnson’s Train Dreams:
When a child, Granier had been sent by himself to Idaho. From precisely where he’d been sent he didn’t know…How had he lost his original parents? Nobody ever told him.
The details are presumably accessible for the third person narration, but Johnson allows these details to remain hazy. Anthony Doerr lets character mysteries simmer in a similar way, particularly in his longer stories that approach a similar word count to Train Dreams. In “The Shell Collector,” an entire brisk page is devoted to life events of a blind shell collector:
He returned to Florida, earned a bachelors degree in biology, a Ph.D. in malacology...Four books, three Seeing Eye shepherds, and a son named Josh later, he retired early from his professorship.
We don’t get the backstory on the son or the degrees or the different locales. The gossipy bits are quickly dispatched in a page in order to privilege the story’s real concerns—the mystery of blindness, of the ocean, the wonder of shells.
There are similar mysteries in Snow Hunters. It is less a book about war than a book about post-war life. It is less about the loss of a friend than the attempts at friendship after a loss. It is rare to encounter a book that shows the intersection of Latin American and Asian worlds, and yet this unique setup isn’t magnified. Like everything else in the book, it is handled with subtlety. The small cultural differences are stated but not overstated, seen through fresh eyes that are eager to appreciate a bike ride, a dance with a woman, or even a well-made shirt.
Patrick McGinty’s fiction has appeared, most recently, in ZYZZYVA and The Portland Review. He recently wrote about Robert Boswell’s Tumbledown.