In Stitches by Anthony Youn is a memoir chronicling Youn’s journey from a nerdy Korean American childhood in the rural midwest (Greenville, MI; population: 7945) to becoming a plastic surgeon.This journey will eventually end in celebrity status -- with an acclaimed plastic surgery practice in Detroit, a national TV debut on Dr 90210, rave reviews from various TV personalities (including Rachael Ray who features him on her show and puns: “he’s a cut above the rest!”), a popular blog, and now a memoir.
In the beginning, Youn’s reason for going to medical school is clear enough to him: “to get laid” since “chicks love doctors.” Also because his father, himself a doctor, in a typical first-generation Korean-immigrant patriarchal manner, encourages him to do so: “One surgery. Ten thousand dollah. For one hour.” By the end of the memoir, after four years of medical school, and before embarking on a plastic surgery residency at the hospital of his choice, Youn has a different answer. “I want to fix people, I want to make them look different if they need to, or even if they want to. Because maybe I can make them better.” The memoir lays the groundwork for this transformation.
As a child, Youn is out of place in the white midwest: eyes closed, you’d never know he was Asian because of his impeccable English and midwestern twang, yet he’s the butt of jokes because of his looks and his Korean heritage. As a teenager, his jaw won’t stop growing, and he undergoes jaw reconstruction surgery to stop looking like a “jawzilla.” In his third year at medical school, he assists with a face reconstruction surgery of a baby mauled by a raccoon. The baby gets a new lease on life, and Youn gets the first inklings of his calling.
Alongside these developments, we get paeans to friendships and male bonding, rants about living in a dorm that reeks of Thai food and teems with Asian students, laments about unrequited infatuations and long fallow periods with no sex, broadsides about difficult professors and slave-driver residents, and crazy patients. All this is narrated in a breezy, self-deprecating style reminiscent of Scrubs, with the same facetious attitude, easy sentimentality, and, for the most part, risk-free candor.
Perhaps risk-free is not the right adjective. It does take some courage to admit to being horny, to looking to score and wanting to fall in love, to having poor self-image, to being scared of failure. But these admissions have long been mainstream, the fodder for many memoirs and standup routines (Margaret Cho, anyone?). It takes even more courage to write the following (about the dorm Youn’s assigned to during the first year of medical school): “I prowl the halls in search of Caucasians. I see none. I’m only asking for one lousy non-Asian. One. I know I look like I belong. But I don’t! I’m an American in a Korean person’s body!”
But while the memoir has other passages that echo this frustration, he never does address the issue with any depth, even though this is excellent material for a memoir that deals with feelings of being the outsider because of the way one looks. It’s therefore never clear to me how Youn intends these passages to be read: as performed hyperbolic self-loathing (in the manner of standup comedy), or as admission of real issues with his Korean background.
I’m inclined to blame this ambiguity on a few different reasons. For one, unlike a standup comedy routine, Youn does not have recourse to facial gestures and other performance tics to make his intentions clearer. Also, the memoir is co-written by Alan Eisenstock for an audience that I suspect is to be primarily composed of Youn’s past and future clients and therefore not likely to be interested in cultural and racial baggage. Finally, the breezy tone of the memoir is intended mainly to elicit quick laughs and not earnest consideration.
A similar ambiguity exists when the memoir addresses attractiveness (again an issue central to the narrative arc of the memoir). An aging professor is called an “an old witch,” a Chinese neighbor is described as having a “mountain range of hairless flab,” and women are either “Penthouse hot” and “knockouts” or “dwarfish” and “homely.” Youn’s belittling of his own former looks does not act as counterbalance, because anyone who’s seen him now on TV will know of his clean-cut good looks. We can excuse these excesses as intended to represent past youthful shallowness that Youn outgrows by the end of medical school, but then what to make of the lines in the prologue, which are designed to demonstrate Youn’s current empathy for a fellow sufferer: “What a pair. Double Ds. Poking up at me like twin peaks. Pam Anderson eat your heart out. Too bad it belongs to a fourteen-year-old boy”?
The memoir works best when it’s serious. There are some truly moving scenes when Youn describes interactions with his parents (at dinner, in a hospital when his mother has a heart attack, during discussion about Youn’s future, etc.). Some of these are funny, but they’re not overwritten for laughs as the rest of the memoir is. “Although I take my job seriously, I try not to take myself too seriously,” Youn says. I wish though that he had taken his subject matter more seriously. There’s a wonderful memoir to be written about his journey, but this book doesn’t quite capture it.
Nawaaz Ahmed is a transplant from Tamil Nadu, India. He holds a Ph.D. in Computer Science from Cornell University, and an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, where he won Hopwood awards for his short stories, non-fiction, and his novel-in-progress.