Mun's Bronx Burns, Obscures

"Miles From Nowhere" by Nami Mun (Riverhead)

“Ladies and gentlemen, there it is,” Howard Cosell informed the nation during the 1977 World Series. “The Bronx is burning.” His signature stilted, terse cadence and morbid turn of phrase succinctly vocalized a somber resignation that threatened to stifle the once vibrant borough. Ravaged by Robert Moses’ ambitious urban planning, the Bronx—newly equipped with a gleaming expressway—literally crumbled throughout the 70s and 80s, forcing thousands of residents to seek shelter in tenements and public housing. As desperate landlords set fire to their property, hoping to reap the benefits of insurance policies, blackened, windowless towers came to punctuate the skyline of an apocalyptically desolate landscape.

Joon, the protagonist of Nami Mun’s debut novel “Miles from Nowhere,” embodies the melancholy pervasive in this landscape. However, the heated social and political factors that fuel the destruction of the Bronx are of marginal importance to Mun. Though her character lives underneath the rubble of this dying city, Mun’s semi-autobiographical tale highlights inner turmoil over external destruction.

Joon and her parents leave Korea at the behest of her mother, who intends to forage a better life in the United States. But disaster seems to be the family’s travelling companion, and as her mother’s mental instability becomes crippling, Joon’s father leaves the family. Unable to convince her mother to speak six months after a hospital stint, Joon abruptly leaves home at the age of 13. The rest of her adolescent life is spent on the streets, in and out of shelters, motels, and abandoned apartment buildings, and the bulk of narration is devoted to the steady incineration of childlike innocence.

As Joon experiences increasingly disturbing events the deeper she delves into street life, Mun details graphic descriptions of drug abuse, crime, self-mutilation, and abusive relationships in an eerily dispassionate tone. She moves through varying degrees of misfortune with a businesslike lack of emotion—a methamphetamine and bourbon-induced haze is described with the same clarity as a Narcotics Anonymous meeting. Joon herself eventually acknowledges this discrepancy in storytelling; “Who knew where or when this was,” she wonders, as her junkie roommate tries to convince her to perform an abortion on herself using bleach and a tampon. Having rendered her own credibility as a narrator questionable, the story is further complicated by blunt, unprecedented chronological leaps that often reveal a character’s future demise within a short, humorous story. As this fatalistic narrative proceeds, Mun attempts to douse her inherently despondent story with hope. Joon’s stalling biography culminates in a spasmodically positive acceleration that uselessly heaps a sudden dose of optimism upon a solid foundation of despair.

Mun’s entire narrative is a staccato rhythm of choppy vignettes that are potent in isolation but awkward as a whole. The even-handed treatment of tainted youth is juxtaposed with sappy, trite religious experiences that crop up randomly with little justification. God is “an old black man with sky-bright eyes who smiled at everyone as though he’d seen all of them as children once.” Dressed as a janitor on a bus, he says, “Come with me,” but Joon refuses.

Joon’s transient lifestyle provides a colorful cast of characters that distinguish different portions of her life. Unfortunately, Mun’s characteristic lack of subtlety seeps into these portrayals as well, and the characters are painted in broad, vapid strokes. Though Joon painfully recalls being taunted with racial slurs as a child, she views her multiracial peers through an equally skewed lens—in which lisping Puerto Rican call girls offer advice on oral sex and superstitious Chinese women throw knives at enemies. When racial stereotypes aren’t heavily reinforced, Mun utilizes conspicuous hints to contextualize Joon’s acquaintances—a fellow runaway who endeavors to teach Joon life lessons is named Knowledge, while a former addict who is painfully honest about the difficulties of overcoming addiction is named Frank.

Mun’s “Miles from Nowhere” successfully creates an historical snapshot of New York City, providing effective reference points for a specific time and place without revealing significant depth or context. Pop cultural tidbits are peppered throughout the novel—family portraits include men wearing velvet suits and jheri curls—but the work fails to address the root of the era’s ubiquitous despair. Joon is constantly surrounded by a group of young runaways, yet the impetus for this youth exodus is never explored. The noise of traffic drifting from city-sanctioned highways provides an urban soundtrack, and elevated train cars reveal burned buildings through their grease-stained windows, but these images are subordinated to mere setting.

“Miles from Nowhere” is a book of abrupt stops and starts that, like the slumlords of the Bronx’ past, chooses to exacerbate raw wounds while self-consciously falling short of a remedy, choosing instead to wallow in unfulfilling, albeit compelling, misery.