The Band by Christine Ma-Kellams

Reading this book was a distinctly disorienting experience, in the best way possible. Was I reading the author’s diary? Did this thus make us best friends? Obviously the answer to both questions is no, but it still felt like a weirdly intimate experience, as if a good friend was telling me all about a recent bizarre experience she’d had, in much the same manner I recount things, minus the academic citations.

The unnamed narrator begins by talking about a fictional K-Pop group named, simply, The Band. Frankly, the only pop culture opportunity missed here was the lack of allusion to the Canadian-American group of the same name. We get a bit of a lesson on K-Pop as we’re introduced to each member, plus Pinocchio, the impresario who put them together.

When a song and music video released for The Band member Sang Duri’s birthday accidentally sets off an international firestorm, Duri goes into hiding in California. In an Asian grocery store, of all places, he meets and ingratiates himself with the narrator, and winds up staying in her house for a while, to the bemusement of her husband and kids. The narrator is unhappily married, and recognizes that, as a psychology professor, she has a bit of a savior complex. As her relationship with Duri unfolds, outside drama threatens to take him away from her for good.

Honestly, this book was the most grown-up version of boy band fanfic I’ve ever read. And, gosh, that’s definitely not even describing it properly. Insofar that all boy band fiction — hell, all fiction about musical groups — is fanfic in some form, this brilliant homage to the musical genre easily navigates and communicates the specific nuances of K-Pop to readers like myself who know very little about it. K-Pop fans will, I imagine, find much here that speaks to them too.

What makes this more interesting than your average novel of bad romance, tho, is the amount of attention paid to cross-cultural interactions, whether they be between Asians, Asian Americans and/or white Americans. I love the acknowledgment of the broad differences between all three — as someone who straddles both of the first two categories, I always find it desperately irritating when Asian Americans pretend that we are a monolith, and then try to extend that to people from Asia as well. It always feels like a capitulation to the kind of white people who can’t be bothered to learn cultural nuances beyond othering everyone who looks racially different from themselves. The fact that Duri’s “cancellation” comes about not because of being a sex pest or worse, but stems from ancient ethno-nationalistic grudges, is both a refreshing change from the usual way fame is discussed in Western culture, as well as a distinctly Asian form of ridiculousness. I drank down Christine Ma-Kellams’ wry depiction of it all as if it were nourishing broth.

Because she gets it. She knows that Asian and American relations can be difficult and weird, and that Asian Americans straddling the two correctly form their own entity, a unique synthesis of both cultures that doesn’t need to be wholeheartedly endorsed by either parent group to be perfectly valid. As a “younger” or perhaps I should say less established culture, Asian Americanness is allowed to choose differently from any of its inputs.

Besides her excellent observations on culture, Ms Ma-Kellams also writes with maturity and verve on the subject of love and, especially, marriage and its modern-day socioeconomic underpinnings. And, man, I get it. Raising kids is expensive and hard here in America, where the social net is so frayed that a core nuclear family often has little choice but to grimly stick together in order to pay all the bills. The author deftly and often hilariously explores the complicated feelings that necessarily arise from this status quo.

For being only a little over 200 pages, this was a very dense book that felt like a gossipy, entertaining and scandalous chat with an old friend. In much the same way that pop bands in particular encourage parasocial relationships with their fans, this book really draws in the reader with an intimacy that feels almost entirely authentic. It’s an astonishingly clever feat of writing that examines, too, the perils of fame, advances in technology, and the meaning of justice. There’s so much to this book that I don’t even know how to categorize it really, and can only recommend it as an excellent read for any polymath who enjoys a healthy dose of pop culture with their contemporary socioeconomic musings.

The Band by Christine Ma-Kellams was published April 16 2024 by Atria Books and is available from all good booksellers, including

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  1. This sounds really good!

    1. In much the same way that I, as a person, am not for everyone, this book won’t be either. I really enjoyed it tho!

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