I didn’t intentionally pair these two books with each other as my winter break reading. One, Random Family, concerns an extended, rambling family that starts in the South Bronx and drifts in all sorts of directions, none of them good. Some family members stay put; others end up in decaying Troy, N.Y., or various prisons. The second, Without You, There Is No Us, couldn’t be more claustrophobic; it’s a memoir of a Korean-American writer who spent six months teaching English at a science and technology university near Pyongyang, North Korea. On the surface, the books couldn’t have been more different.
In Random Family: Love, Drugs, Trouble and Coming of Age in the Bronx, Jessica, her brother Cesar, his gal Coco, Jessica’s beau Boy George and a further cast of dozens are completely unanchored and untethered in the South Bronx: deep poverty, unreliable family ties, unchecked drug use, random and domestic and drug-related violence, teenage boys and girls with multiple children by multiple partners, unstable and unsafe and ever-changing living arrangements — they live in a world where terrible options and terrible choices go hand-in-hand, where, even if they tried to get out, there’s no way to know where to go and probably no way to get there. As the author writes at one point, even if someone in these circumstances does absolutely everything right (and that would be exceedingly hard to do), success still requires an enormous dollop of rare luck. And Jessica, Coco, et al, are anything but lucky.
By contrast, regimentation, obedience and order thrive among the students of Without You, There Is No Us: My Time With the Sons of North Korea’s Elite. Lessons, classes and private living areas are monitored and reported on. In the writer’s class, students sit up straight and demand more homework; out of class, they march and sing in platoons, attend self-criticism sessions and spend breaks assigned to construction sites. They are only dimly aware of something called the Internet, and many claim to have turned down offers to study abroad. They make enormous, uncomplaining sacrifices to build “the great and prosperous nation” that they genuinely believe is the envy of the world. It is really one massive prison organized to serve the regime, and learning to blindly obey but never complain is a necessary survival skill. The strange title of the book comes from a strange song the students regularly sing; you is then-dictator Kim Jung-il, whose image, words, and control are plastered on every space and seep into every corner of consciousness.
The two books couldn’t seem more different, as I said. Yet, when I set aside Without You, There Is No Us after just having finished Random Family a week earlier, I was struck by just how much the people in them had in common. They are all struggling through lives with meager options; both books are filled with “young people trying to outrun their destinies,” in the words of one of the books’ publishers. They are confronted by social structures that are overwhelming to any individual, and they respond predictably. The Bronx drifters and the North Korean student-soldiers are both trying to get by within a rigged system, to extract whatever meager advantage it allows while avoiding the worst of where the system drags them. The details differ — if you made a continuum labeled “order” at one end and “chaos” at the other, images of the people in these books could illustrate the respective poles — but the dynamic is the same.
The tragedy is that, in both books, we see glimpses of the people who, under different circumstances, they could become and want to become, but will never actually become. Beneath guarded exteriors, they mull over impossible possibilities. They cry over distant, broken and unfulfilled relationships. It’s no wonder that one word both authors throw around freely is “love.”
I should mention that, while enjoyed both books, Random Family offers a completely different level of depth and complexity. The writer spent more than a decade with her subjects, visiting their homes and tagging along on family gatherings, emergency room visits, meetings with social service workers, and more. It is immersive, engrossing and unforgettable, and the writing is extremely sharp and deft.