Review of The Hundred-Year Flood by Matthew Salesses
August 30, 2015
by matthew manning, prose reader
During a cold New Year's Eve fireworks celebration in Prague, the Czech Republic, Tee, drunk and "dizzy with the idea of starting out clean of his past," strips himself of his clothes and begins a drunken jig that is greeted with cheers, mimicry, and, most notably, a request by a Czech painter that the seemingly expressive Tee sit for a few modeling sessions. So begins, more or less, the true introduction to the Czech Republic for the young, disillusioned protagonist of Matthew Salesses's first full-length novel, The Hundred-Year Flood.
The novel follows the twenty-two year old Korean-American adoptee's escapist attempt to find meaning in his identity, his family, and the unsettled world around him while in Prague. It is 2002, and Tee is still shaken from the suicide of his pilot uncle which occurred separately from, but on the same day of the September 11th terror attacks. He takes a leave of absence from his Boston-based college in a last-ditch attempt to abandon his past and reinvent himself in a city he admires "for its resistance," a quality that he is looking to cultivate for himself. We quickly learn Tee struggles with his own identity as a result of his adoption—he does not know his birth mother, and has a questionable relationship with his adoptive father. Armed with a three hundred thousand dollar inheritance from his deceased uncle, Tee's attempts to flee from his past and sculpt a new future.
We see his accidental acquaintance with the painter, Pavel Picasso, and Pavel's wife, Katka, and learn Picasso was elevated to celebrity status in Prague during the Velvet Revolution for his political art that protested Communism. Now largely forgotten, he is a fraction of the man he once was. Tee, a young stranger and a sharp contrast to the fiery Pavel, begins an affair with the man's wife that runs through the length of the novel and powers a conflict that both propels the plot and adds further doubt and moral ambiguity to Tee's already muddled personal life.
Structurally, The Hundred-Year Flood is non-linear, bringing the reader between Tee’s home in the Boston area and Prague. While it is a structure that properly embodies the global connectivity that is so easily seen thematically, it can be choppy, abrupt, and slightly disorienting. Of course, one could easily view this prose style as effective rather than hindering due to its parallelism with Tee’s scattered psychological state. Regardless of the technique’s success, it is clear Salesses is fully aware of the contemporary implications of the globalized world and the challenges that this world creates for its diverse inhabitants.
The biggest challenge that The Hundred-Year Flood faces, though, creating a sympathy for Tee from readers. Salesses, adopted from Korea himself, is more than qualified to investigate the intricacies and psychology of adoption—this itself is not the concern. Rather, it is that Tee toes the line between the standard young-adult investigation of self and a non-standard naiveté and childishness that forces readers to question whether or not his psychological discord is a result of negative circumstances, or a startling lack of experience and self-awareness. He can come off as a millennial Holden Caulfield with a nationalistic twist. But Tee is Caulfield five years too old, at twenty-two. The difficulty is determining when this innocence is an endearing, humanizing trait, and when it begins to become ridiculous or unbelievable, which is a potential danger to the narrative.
On the whole, Salesses has crafted something original and truly contemporary. It is a book that embodies many conflicts in the contemporary consciousness—issues of identity, of nationalism and globalism, and the plight of youth attempting to navigate a new era in world history.