The main character here is externally the clumsy Westerner. Meditation is physically painful for him, and he can barely keep awake on the cold Korean mornings. "Make friends with pain," a fellow practitioner advises him, "then you'll never be lonely."
I may have misunderstood it, but this tale seems like a complex exercise in discriminations, a foray into a Buddhist hall of mirrors, attempting to map the Buddhist options without coming to any conclusion. It appears to end with a question mark, in common with many of the tales in Joyce's collection. As the author writes elsewhere in the book "... it may be that stories do not have to have endings we understand, any more than human lives do. Perhaps beginnings are enough."
The story Heaven Lake manages the fictional conjuring trick of combining pages as brutal and tension-filled as something out of The Sopranos with a references to Bach's Suites for Unaccompanied Cello and Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics. But this is getting to be par for the course for this quite exceptional writer.
All these stories feature a
different protagonist, and each is both vividly and carefully imagined. In one it's an African-American who arrives in Hong Kong bearing bad news to a corporate colleague. In another it's a painter whose work is going out of fashion, and who has in addition broken a leg in Chiang Mai.
But in every case the problems are internalized, and each story examines a state of inner conflict where memory and actuality, or the heart and the mind, are in some ways in conflict. There isn't a melodramatic or a tawdry moment anywhere in the exceptionally fine tales, and the author's understated, economical prose style informs them all.
This book contains the best fiction I have ever encountered originating from Hong Kong. All seven stories have been published before as single items, albeit "in different form," but as a collection this book constitutes an astonishingly impressive debut.