In ‘Permanent Record,’ a College Dropout Dates a Pop Star
Pab is treading water, pretending that he’s swimming somewhere.
He works nights at a Brooklyn bodega, passing time while inventing unique snack combinations, dodging bill collectors, and mostly avoiding creation of a Plan B after dropping out of NYU.
The perfect distraction walks in one winter night. She’s cute, underdressed for the weather, and snaps up potato chips, sour cola gummies, and sliced provolone. Pab flirts and re-curates her snack stash, but it’s only after she takes out her black AMEX that he realizes who she is. It’s Leanna Smart, née Carolina Suarez, an Ariana Grande-level pop star.
Pab’s entranced. The two start an affair that stays secret, per Leanna’s stardom level. That makes Mary H.K. Choi’s Permanent Record both a dip into the alternate universe of celebrity as well as a chronicle of how easy it can be to slip off the path for us mere mortals.
Choi adeptly details Leanna’s world from Pab’s gen-pop perspective. “I put my phone away, feeling awkward. At least in massive flights everyone agrees that we’re together but not together. … The rules for private planes are odd. You feel the need to be quiet because it invokes the social contract of an elevator, but if (his roommates) were onboard there’s no way we wouldn’t be running around like hooligans shooting IG stories with Drake captions.”
These peeks into the one percent are enjoyable, particularly the ongoing gag of Leanna’s fake hotel names cribbed from Pokemon characters: “Good afternoon, Mr. Snorlax. … How may we help you today?” But Permanent Record is best when it keeps the focus on Pab and his desultory existence. Choi’s novel will resonate with teens who feel clueless about their personal roadmap and parents who want the scoop on how that feels.
Choi nimbly captures an existence that’s distinctly 2019. Pab and his friends take bets on each other’s Uber rating. He dings his roommate for accepting an acting job as the archetypal “radicalized brown dude.” He mistakenly texts Leanna a corn emoji: “But is it adjacent to an eggplant? Oh god, or the hot dog? Or anything remotely phallic?”
Pab got in to NYU with phenomenal test scores, but no idea of a major and virtually no way to pay. “Of course I bought into a name-brand school. Did I mention my mother is a Korean doctor? Do you know what those expectations feel like? That’s the kind of baggage that comes with those round boxes you put hats in and those hard trunks you see on trains.”
He convinced his dad to co-sign for student loans much to his mother’s chagrin, and then promptly doubled down on his financial gamble by signing up for a few of the assorted credit cards offered to brand-new college students. The result is a financial morass and an accompanying shame that keeps him from fessing up to his parents, Leanna, or even the kind couple who are his bosses.
Pab’s a hot mess most of the time, but an endearing one. Through him, Choi shows us that the obvious route isn’t always the correct one– and that there’s often a way out if you let the right people in.
(Simon & Schuster, September 3, 2019)