Alex Preston

You couldn’t make it up

Alexander Chee explains the mysterious process by which the chaotic facts of an abused childhood became his elegant debut novel, Edinburgh

Orhan Pamuk, writing about Vladimir Nabokov’s masterful memoir Speak, Memory, noted that there was a particular ‘thrill’ for the writer who calls ‘something wholly autobiographical fiction, something wholly fictional autobiography’. When Nabokov did this, Pamuk said, it changed ‘the secret centre of the story’. The fertile interplay of fact and fiction animates a pair of books by the Korean American author Alexander Chee: one a collection of essays, the other Chee’s debut novel, published in the US in 2001 but appearing in Britain for the first time.

There’s something strangely nostalgic about reading Edinburgh (it’s set in Maine; the title is a reference to a book that features in the novel). Written in the early 1990s and originally rejected by 24 publishers before being issued by a small, now-defunct press, Edinburgh has gained a cult following in recent years, driven by the success of Chee’s second novel, the gaudy and expansive The Queen of the Night. The publishing scene at the time that Edinburgh was being written was dominated by misery memoirs, the lit-crit landscape by new ideas about trauma and recovered memory. It feels like these two come together in Chee’s tale of Fee, a Korean American choirboy, aged 11 at the book’s start, who is abused at singing camp, tormented by guilt for not preventing the abuse of his friend Peter, and then, years later, dredges up recollections of this abuse when he develops an obsessive interest in one of his students.

There are repeated references in Edinburgh to mythology, both Japanese and Greek, and particularly to tales of metamorphosis and transformation. We understand that this is what abuse does to the victim; that there is always a before and an after, the shadow-presence of the child who wasn’t molested walking alongside the one that was.

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