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The Band

A Novel

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About The Book

“This could very well be the first great K-Pop literary phenomenon.” —Debutiful, Most Anticipated Books of 2024

Perfect for fans of Mouth to Mouth and Black Buck, this whip-smart, darkly funny, and biting debut follows a psychologist with a savior complex who offers shelter to a recently cancelled K-pop idol on the run.

Sang Duri is the eldest member and “visual” of a Korean boy band at the apex of global superstardom. But when his latest solo single accidentally leads to controversy, he’s abruptly cancelled.

To spare the band from fallout with obsessive fans and overbearing management, Duri disappears from the public eye by hiding out in the McMansion of a Chinese American woman he meets in a Los Angeles H-Mart. But his rescuer is both unhappily married with children and a psychologist with a savior complex, a combination that makes their potential union both seductive and incredibly problematic.

Meanwhile, Duri’s cancellation catapults not only a series of repressed memories from his music producer’s earlier years about the original girl group whose tragic disbanding preceded his current success, but also a spiral of violent interactions that culminates in an award show event with reverberations that forever change the fates of both the band members and the music industry.

In its indicting portrayal of mental health and public obsession, fandom, and cancel culture, The Band considers the many ways in which love and celebrity can devolve into something far more sinister when their demands are unmet.

Excerpt

Chapter 1: Canceled (Let’s Start at the End) 1 Canceled (Let’s Start at the End)
Their first single—people laughed. Perhaps snorted would be more accurate. A quintet of boys, too young to understand protest, yet rapping like they knew the secret—everything you build will be destroyed, so make it beautiful. Between the eyeliner and wraparound shades, no one recognized them as the dickheads and nerds from around the way who were neither cute enough for the Seoul girls (who demanded both shoulders and double lids, Eurocentrism at its best) nor brilliant enough for the country teachers at Gwangju to take note.

It’s true: the youngest one had just walked his eighth-grade graduation and looked it, but no matter—the rhymes paraded out of his still-small mouth so fast I couldn’t tell if he was speaking English or Korean, two languages that have never been confused for each other until The Band made Konglish their mother tongue. Sure, with the exception of their lead, their English was not terrific—not even now, when the world is an older and no wiser place, and every other collaboration of theirs is a pop anthem with some American icon who only does stadium tours. But that was the great forgiveness music afforded: songs demanded their own cadences; in pledging allegiance to its rhythms, other identifiers like age and accent and gender fell away like old skins on a serpent. If I closed my eyes and listened to the latest falsetto bridges the youngest released on SoundCloud, I might mistake him for a lady angel.

It was no accident that the oldest was also the “visual.” To call Sang Duri “the Hot One” would be a failure of translation, the equivalent of equating schadenfreude with simpler joys. For a boy group with a long lineage of feral female fans, sex was not what they were selling. Like the Fab Four of yore,I a gifted tongue could render a man’s looks an afterthought. No matter that the lead recently admitted that those wraparound shades from their debut album were less about appropriating Black fashion and more about hiding his own exceedingly Korean face, which he did not consider his forte. Now they were all beautiful, if for no other reason than the worship they inspired. (Did I mention that half of them were atheists? Two were converted by their lead, whose immaculate command of English after watching a year of MTV convinced them of his singularity in knowing for sure what they themselves could only grasp at. And the other half: the kind of Christian who absolutely believes in storing treasures in heaven but cannot help his Givenchy habit or collection of luxury condos in Hannam-dong with their teak-lined bathrooms and views of the Han River.)

How 22 million Twitter followers—plus threefold that number of additional fans who have a moral, linguistic, age-related, or technical opposition to tweeting—missed the clues to what happened next suggests that we need a God after all, so bad are we at managing our own affairs, or at least those of the ones we love. (By the time I arrived on the scene, it was all a moot point anyway.)

The first hint landed on the day of the eldest’s birthday. As was custom, each boy always released a song he’d written himself on the day commemorating his birth. If you find it surprising that this was their idea of a good time, then perhaps you do not understand that to arrive at global domination, a person’s primary, if not only, joy must be work. (Ask yourself: When was the last time you reached the pinnacle of anything?)

In it, Duri sings about a boy who jumps into the ocean in the hopes of becoming a fish so that he can see his father, a commercial fisherman who loves his son but loves the sea more. Think The Little Mermaid in reverse, without the undercurrent of bestiality and ageism—a sanitized, platonic version of the Disney classic, albeit with a dash of suicide ideation maybe. He titled it something that cannot be translated but loosely means “The Hole.”

He admitted on the day of its release: “Strange song for birthday, no?”

If anybody’s wondering: the boy in the song succeeds. He lands on his father’s liner transformed, his transition successful, wearing nothing but net. He notices the dozen kilo of other fish lying next to him and tries to gauge them for signs of sentience. Are these all his father’s sons? He watches a light-skinned yellowtail get chosen by his progenitor for its glass eyes, bulbous and wet. The man on the boat fingers its gills loosely before filleting the thing whole, then carefully slicing the remains into sashimi-sized pieces. The song ends just as fish boy appears to be next.

In the comments section on YouTube, no one explicitly asks if the father goes through with eating his son. Or if the son had an alternative exit strategy in mind.

What they do ask, over and over, is whether the sashimi meant that the father was Japanese. Really, it was hard not to emphasize the utter importance of this determination and all that it implied. Japan’s cultural minister preemptively tweeted: “We are not cannibals.” The Japanese embassy in Seoul closed for the day, its flag mysteriously gone from its mast.

The Koreans also thought the answer was yes but were not any happier about it. A common refrain: “First they invaded us, now they eat our idols?” Others asked if this meant Duri was a half-breed, and if so, what the hell he was doing being one of South Korea’s prime cultural exports? #HONYOLII trended on Twitter. Korean-American hip-hop loyalists inquired: “Why the dad gotta be Japanese?” TikTok got its first East-East history lesson when #chinilpaIII went viral for a day, then two.

Even the Chinese, in a bout of either FOMO or nationalism, got into the fray: “WW2 Never Forget,” they typed, not needing to reference their Japan conquistadores by name. Not since #MeToo did the word “rape” make it into so many WeChat transcripts (#RapeofNankingIV), so much so that the censor-bots put a moratorium on flagging that keyword, serendipitously letting a handful of survivors live another day.

American fans, for our part, kept mum, maybe because being particular to one brand of racism could make a person oblivious to another, or because recent events suggested that we were not one to talk. Although a few brave ones asked in private messages:

Chinese Japanese Korean remind me the difference again?

You mean besides what country

What’s their beef

And that was just the start of it.

Behind marbled doors, Duri asked, “Should I disappear?”

The lead, who called himself Min, scoffed or swallowed a winged insect—it was impossible to tell which—and said, “Your problems, our problems.” Then, as if citing this as evidence, he added, “Tu casa es mi casa.”

The smartest kid from Gwangju (but evidently not the most brilliant boy in this room) protested, “That’s not English or Korean.”

“Americans say it all the time,” Min assured. “It means we are all together.”

“Some of us are more together than others,” the youngest one replied. Besides being the primary vocalist and maknae of the group, Jae rapped as well as the primary rappers and competed with the only classically trained dancer of the group for the best body rolls, plus was exceptionally good at flirting with girl bands during awards shows and television appearances, striking that perfect alchemy of competence mixed with warmth—a formula potent enough to ward off both the negative stereotypes associated with being less than and the jealousy that comes with being too good. Talent is a burden for which the only relief is attention.V

The professional dancer shot him a glance whose effect rivaled that of the most violent of body rolls. His name (Yoojin) easily sounded American (Eugene) if you screamed it out loud and ignored the spelling; for this reason, he was the target of the most explicit DMs from the progressive-minded white girls of Instagram, who took their own colorblindness—when it came to matters of penis—to be a sure sign that they were anti-racists making the world a better place, one offer of a Very Good Time (wink wink, peach emoji, eggplant) at a time.

Duri repeated, “I could disappear, no problem.”

The sixth person in the room—a guy named Pinocchio—did not say anything. Another clue, maybe? The more powerful a person is, the easier it is for them to simply will their plans into existence, come what may.
  1. I. Paul, John, Ringo, and George.
  2. II. “Mixed blood” (i.e., mixed race)
  3. III. Technically chinilpa means “pro-Japanese collaborator,” but for all intents and purposes, what it really translates into is “traitor,” a slur so cursed ever since Japan annexed Korea more than a century ago that it still has an illustrious history of canceling the lives of not only those it was levied against but also their children and children’s children, because what else are curses good for if not making sons pay for the sins of their fathers?
  4. IV. Rape of Nanking: I’m not one to dramatize history (who is very good at being its own drama queen) but let me just say this: the brutality Japanese soldiers unleashed on the once-capital of the Republic of China was so gory that it allegedly led a Nazi to wring his hands.
  5. V. But is it paying attention or getting it? That is the question.

About The Author

Photograph by Tirza Cubias

Christine Ma-Kellams is a Harvard-trained cultural psychologist, Pushcart-nominated fiction writer, and first-generation American. Her work and writing have appeared in HuffPost, Chicago Tribune, CatapultSalonThe Wall Street Journal, the Rumpus, and many more publications. The Band is her first novel. You can find her in person at one of California’s coastal cities or online at ChristineMa-Kellams.com.

Why We Love It

“No one else could have written this book.”

—Loan L., Senior Editor, on The Bandv

Product Details

  • Publisher: Atria Books (April 16, 2024)
  • Length: 224 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781668018378

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Raves and Reviews

"Ma-Kellams is not the first novelist to examine the supposedly poisoned chalice of fame, or, as her narrator puts it, the 'compulsively addictive thinking' that can make an outward success want to die. She may, though, be one of the first to get at these ideas through a roving, time- and perspective-jumping story that links K-pop with classic psychological research. We all face pressure to succeed, and to look good doing it, she implies, famous or not. Some of us nearly work ourselves to death."—New York Times

"Ma-Kellams takes readers on a gripping exploration of the complexities that accompany fame...This darkly humorous novel examines the more sinister aspects of celebrity and the profound impact it can have on the individuals caught up in global stardom. As K-pop has become a worldwide sensation, this timely book provides a different perspective on societal pressures associated with fame and the dangerous toll they can take on a person’s mental health."—Booklist

"This could very well be the first great K-Pop literary phenomenon. Expect a stylized, pop culture romp."—Debutiful, Most Anticipated Books of 2024

"Equal parts academic and cheeky, Christine Ma-Kellams' debut novel The Band is the perfect companion for brainy pop culture heads, my people." —Anna Dorn, author of Exalted

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