Mary H.K. Choi’s Permanent Record is a uniquely told, dazzling experience about sudden gifts of serendipity and happenstance as well as the workaday grinding world that surrounds us. The beautiful character work and realistic portrait of New York enchant, but with a heroine who feels more like a paper fantasy than a real person I couldn’t really give it a higher grade.
Pablo Rind does not work at a bodega, okay? It’s a night shift at a twenty four hour health food store – M&A Juice Bar – and as he deals with the anxiety and superstition that rule his life by…well, he’s not dealing with them. His Korean mother – a doctor – is aghast at him working a nine to five job when he should be in college (which he dropped out of after year because he couldn’t afford his student loans), while his Pakistani Muslim father – an Ivy League educated engineer – is chill and laid back, attempting to launch a screenwriting career. His parents are now divorced, but their inattentive and conflicting child-rearing styles have resulted in Pablo’s younger brother, Rain, selling vibrators in the schoolyard and Pablo’s having moved out the second he entered NYU. Half-raising Rain on his own, and with anxiety issues, credit card debt and student loans dogging him, plus the racial prejudice he faces, Pablo has experienced plenty of the cruelties the world has to offer. He happens to be late on the night that fate walks through the door in the form of internationally known former child star Leanna – Lee – Smart. His birthday.
While Pablo has been flailing about trying to figure out how his life works, Leanna has spent her youth achieving. She became world famous at age nine as the lead on a Disneycom, which led into a pop music career that saw her notch ten number one singles before the age of eighteen With a merchandise army behind her and an army of screaming tween girl fans before her (called, ‘Smarties’ as in ‘Swifties’), Leanna is exhausted, as she faces down her twenties.
When Pablo and Leanna fall into like over her junk food purchases at four am, something special seems to be brewing between them, but she doesn’t leave behind her number. It should be a simple, random encounter. But while Pablo think he’s never going to see her again, he can’t stop himself from Googling her. A hashtag on an Instagram post when she’s in town draws her closer, and soon Lee and Pablo are jetting off on her private plane for clandestine weekends together. Even better, his flair for remaking junk food and leftovers into gourmet treats leads him to an idea for a business that might solve all of his financial problems. But is their love the real thing or a twenty-first century fantasy?
Permanent Record is very much a Cinderfella fairytale complicated by flawed and real protagonists, complete with manic pixie dream-girl actress who loves our quirky hero no matter what; who trusts him enough to take off her padding and show off her heavily processed real hair, to talk about her selfish parents and her loving grandmother.
The best parts of the book try to deconstruct the modern culture of fame and the difference between worship and real romance. Does Pablo love the real Lee most of the time? He thinks so, but the waters muddy and the reader is left to wonder on occasion. On the other hand, the nightmarish series of hoops Lee and Pablo have to jump through simply to send one another text messages will make you happy that you’re not dating a famous person.
I liked the warm, lively atmosphere of the bodega, and learning about Pablo’s friends as he spent the night working. I liked his roommates and his friends – actor Tice and stand-up comic Dara especially. The complicated relationship between jealous, mischievous Pablo and Rain was also an interesting and well-handled dynamic, as was the relationship between Pablo and his exasperated mother. The book does a good job exploring the horrors of student loan debt, and the sensation of not knowing your true purpose or your goal in life. Its examination of what it’s like to be Pakistani-Vietnamese with talent battling against a racist world was true and honest. And once Pablo finds his path and career, following him becomes a joy.
Leanna is the book’s only flaw, honestly. I really needed more of her point of view, to peek at things through her eyes. Because we’re rooted in Pablo’s point of view, she comes off as kind of shallow, a graven image of Selena Gomez combined with Taylor Swift. She’s trapped in her prison cell of fame; she wants to be taken seriously as a Real Actress in a Good Indie Film. She has lousy parents (she was emancipated from them). But she never feels like a fully real person, never feels more than like a classic Goddess With a Heart Visiting The Moral World. She just needs more flesh on her bones that never materializes. And sometimes her platitude-itis spreads to Pablo, who gets away with a couple of moralizing speeches that Choi should have resisted.
But Permanent Record is an engrossing, deep dive into the life of a twenty-year-old on the verge of solidifying his life. Essential and smart, even with its flaws, it’s worth reading.