Midway through Paul Yoon’s “Run Me to Earth,” a woman quietly mends shirts in her hut in the mountains. Within the next few pages, she finds herself tangled in a stand-off between a hysterical father and the other people in her camp, a stand-off that involves weeping, strangulation and a stabbing. Extraordinarily, this moment of violence and what should be excitement has the same emotional impact as the one of neutral stillness just moments before. Though the novel promises an intricately woven story about the aftermath and effects of war, it somehow manages to paint images of pain and graphic suffering with the same brush used to depict tranquil scenes observing birds and peaceful landscapes. This strange dichotomy is not a singular occurrence; rather, the lack of contrast between emotionally charged and depleted scenes repeats throughout the novel, rendering the plot flaccid and monotonous.
The novel follows the stories of teenage orphans Alizak, Prany and Noi as they navigate bomb-ridden Laos to care for wounded civilians and obtain supplies on behalf of Vang, a doctor who supplies them with food and shelter as compensation for their services. It is 1969, and the country is being torn apart by a civil war between the United States-backed Royal Lao Government and Communist opposition. The novel is structured as a patchwork of voices of several characters, stretching across countries and years; but despite its ambitious arch, I was forced to admit that the end of the novel had me feeling as indifferent and unfamiliar towards its characters as I had when reading the first page.
While such narrative structure allows for a more multifaceted take on traditional linear plot construction, the jarring leaps in time and indecisive switches between narrative voices render “Run Me to Earth” shallow and groundless. While these kinds of novels often have a satisfying effect of bringing the overall narrative full circle, it felt as if Yoon was reaching too far to find a way that the different voices of each section are related to each other.
This is not to say that the novel is devoid of descriptive words and phrases for outward characteristics and scenes. There are even a few passages that are unquestionably beautiful:
“He fought back, got cut four times, swallowed his own tooth once, and waited a day thinking it would exit out of him — that he would get it back — and then wept when he searched for it in his own shit, alone, in a field, and it wasn’t there. His own tooth had vanished somewhere inside of him. There were times this fact bothered him more than his own hunger or the sudden volley of gunfire.”
And still, despite the lyricism of these passages, they manage to merge in a way that still fails to add color to a drab landscape.
Though the novel is a conglomerate of several different characters’ voices, there is an element of detachment that not only disconnects them from each other, but also alienates the reader. Somehow, even at halfway through the novel, any semblance of character development was nonexistent. Even the plot progression felt lagging, and it was extremely difficult to continue mucking through the plot without attachment to any part of the novel. Yoon’s detached and impersonal writing style works for other readers, who praise it as “a sparely (sic) written gem.” Others claim that the novel “(finds) depth of emotion in formal restraint,” but the repressed nature of this novel only served in estranging me from its characters.
Perhaps Yoon intentionally wrote in a restrained manner to suggest how normalized the violence and suffering of war has become for the Laotian people. Though even if his intention is to make such a statement, it fundamentally impairs one’s reading experience by failing to create an engaging narrative and presenting characters to which readers find it difficult to forge connections with. “Run Me to Earth” addresses an interesting and important facet of history, but with an approach that lacks emotional weight and urgency. While it is not an enjoyable read, the novel lacks enough traction to even formulate an aggressively negative review.