Run Me to Earth opens in war-torn Laos in 1969. Three teens—Alisak, his friend Prany and Prany’s younger sister, Noi—freelance in a ruined French villa now serving as a makeshift hospital. They care for each other, ride motorcycles through obstacle courses of unexploded ordnance, and are looked after by, and look after, Vang, a young doctor who finds his own refuge in an abandoned piano and alcohol.
Paul Yoon shatters his story into a half dozen pieces as the physical bonds between his protagonists are shattered by the ongoing war. Each piece forms an elegant short story, linked to others by a hope, extending over decades, of reconnection. One escapes to an idyllic southern France; two others are caught, tortured and jailed. Others circle the world. The war follows them.
Yoon’s craft was already evident in his 2013 novel Snow Hunters, about a North Korean POW who washes up in a town on the coast of Brazil where he apprentices to a Japanese tailor. Run Me to Earth displays the same feel for language—English, yes, but empathy for other languages, whether the Brazilian Portuguese of Snow Hunters or the French which serves a touchstone in the recent novel—and the same fascination with the incongruous: Bach played at the edge of the Plain of Jars, the first taste of an olive. When people are lost, any anchor will do.
But in Run Me to Earth, Yoon has also put structure to the service of style. Each of the chapters a story, the narrative swaps back and forth between decades and continents, separating and recombining the characters, changing viewpoints and focus.
Throughout it all, the language is spare. But Yoon has the ability to conjure up an entire world in a phrase. In remembering his sister, Prany
woke thinking of the curve of her arm that felt, when they were younger, like the greatest net. The suddenness of her care. Noi, who always entered his day like a door swinging open.
In the images it conjures up, the language, despite its spareness, can be unexpectedly cinematic, albeit in a somewhat grainy, natural lighting, art film sort of way:
He had never seen the ocean. They were suddenly driving beside it. It was everywhere and flat and sky-colored. He got lost in it, out there, beyond. Some layer of him inside began to leave him, through his fingertips, his eyes, his mouth. Leaning against the window, Alisak began to cry. Not because of the water.
Yoon takes his wars seriously, and begins Run Me to Earth with an author’s note detailing the US bombing of Laos: “Over two million tons of ordnance were dropped on Laos—more than was dropped on both Germany and Japan during the Second World War.” But the story is, and is undoubtedly intended to be, something broader than a condemnation of America’s Vietnam War era foreign policy.
In a doctor’s coat, Prany finds
a folded piece of paper that he brought to a window. Someone had drawn a circle on it, in a decade old pencil. Just that.
This scrap of paper forms a sort of leitmotif as the characters try to close their own circles.
Yet in universalizing his story, Yoon has somewhat abstracted his characters from their underlying identities. Alisak, Prany and Noi seem somewhat more sophisticated than might be expected from children who had grown up “in a small settlement on the outskirts of the town, where the space between their houses was the width of a motorbike’s handlebars”—Noi calls Alisak a “bedouin”, they dream of Paris, they learn French. The ruined villa still had some of its paintings:
There was a painting upstairs that Alisak thought looked like her. A girl by a river. A basket of fish hanging from the crook of her arm. He had never seen Noi with a basket of fish and probably never would, but it looked like her: the dark hair, the posture that held a sense of both shyness and confidence.
Anyone who has visited a Southeast Asian art gallery can imagine the painting. Yoon’s characters are a bit like that.