The Measurement of Grief

The beauty of Steph Cha’s symphonic crime novel Your House Will Pay, the June CBC selection, is its portrayal of two families over time.

steph cha
Dustin Snipes

Vengeance is a field, not an act, and as such, it requires a story to tell it right. It’s all too obvious that life is not equally valued in America, but how do you measure grief? What about sleepless nights? The years it takes to return to work after, say, being released from prison? Thirty years ago, when the Los Angeles uprising began and burned for days, a line was often neatly drawn between the vicious beating of Rodney King and the spectacle of fury of those five days. Burning buildings. Looters. As if some people looting weren’t, as Héctor Tobar pointed out recently in the New York Times, carrying milk and diapers and some of those store owners weren’t themselves victims of discrimination as recent Americans.

The multiplicity of that moment hasn’t ended. Its instabilities—not just racial, but those of class and religion—are one of the defining features of Los Angeles. In her fourth novel, Your House Will Pay, Steph Cha has written a symphonic tale of two families fatally entwined in these dynamics and their melodies of violence and retribution, vengeance and forgiveness. Straddling 1991 and 2019, spanning the city from Northridge to Silver Lake and South Central, the book has geographic and temporal sprawl yet is compact. Drawn from real-life events, it depicts a terrible act of violence and how it reverberates over time, disrupting two families—the Parks and the Matthewses—trying to start over. Ultimately, each must decide if that is possible.

Labor is the forge of this project, of beginning again, for both families. Cha’s portrait of how each stokes the fires of improvement—of sustainability—is a profound update to the binaries of bootstraps and failure. In the Park family, the cornerstone of their life upon arriving in America from Korea was first a liquor store, then the pharmacy business Grace’s father, Paul, runs in the San Fernando Valley. Unlike her sister, Miriam, Grace has followed her father into the business but doesn’t share his pride in it.

She was grateful, and she had a lot of affection for the place, but she saw it for what it was: a two-hundred-square-foot glass box adjoining a Korean food court and supermarket in an ugly deep Valley strip mall. The walls were glass, see-through where they weren’t covered with vitamins and ointments and print outs ads for shampoos and Powerball tickets, but none of them faced the outside world. They got no sun, only the artificial light of the Hanin Market, a complex they shared with a Korean bank, a Korean bakery, a Korean cosmetics shop, even a fully Koreanized branch of the U.S. Post Office.

Your House Will Pay is a complex ode to the unglamorous but dependable pleasures of this world, of the shelter it provides, the food, and the different layers of kinship—many born from sacrifice. Not everyone can bear to witness this sacrifice. Miriam has decamped for Silver Lake and a white boyfriend, so Grace receives some of her best emotional support from her father’s business partner, an uncle in name only. He is the first elder to tell Grace the full truth about a long-ago secret—one Grace grows up so sheltered not to learn—that precipitated their family’s move to the Valley and out of convenience stores into the pharmacy.

Meanwhile, over in Palmdale, the Matthews family reassembles after a series of terrible losses. Cousins Ray and Shawn have grown up together in the aftermath of Shawn’s mother’s death and the murder of Shawn’s sister just before the L.A. riots. Both men would wind up flirting with gang life and go to prison. Shawn for a few years, after which he is scared straight into a moving business, and Ray for a decade. As the book opens, Ray has just been released and warily greets his family, his wife, his two teenage kids, unsure whether his place in the family has been usurped by Shawn.

The families at the heart of Your House Will Pay are among the most indelibly drawn in recent American literature, in part because Cha shows them being families. It is not incidental to the plot what they eat and where, who fills in for whom when babysitting is needed, and which elders wear compression socks on their legs from years of standing at work. How much such a business matters to a family that has started over in a whole new country, in a whole new language. On a fundamental level, to read Your House Will Pay feels, for one of the first times, to be truly brought into a contemporary American household.

Cha also gives each family space to be many things to one another. Ray and Shawn, for example, are at once rivals and friends, depending on the circumstances. When a local murder brings a wrenching loss zooming back, they celebrate, grimly, that a retribution has been delivered, if several decades later. But in the morning, Shawn is annoyed to begin his workday with a hangover and that his cousin is nowhere to be found. Still, Shawn knows he might be picking up the parenting slack and steels himself to get ready for it. Then the police show up.

Powerfully and with great subtlety, Your House Will Pay demonstrates how these two families, united by a tragedy, can have fundamentally different experiences with the police. When a detective visits the Parks, Grace’s sister is frank and abrupt and talks to the detective as if he were in the service industry. When the officer visits Shawn in his own home, years of experience in dealing with cops, from a very young age, means he makes no sudden moves, for fear of being shot, and answers only questions that are directly asked.

Out of this wariness, dearly learned, Shawn and his mother and their family have wound up far more open to extrajudicial justice. In so much crime fiction, the media hullabaloo of spectating about crime is poorly drawn. Your House Will Pay brings a bevy of newer news sources into the plot and gives each their blind spots, their complexities. For example, 30 years on from her niece’s murder, Ray’s mother maintains close ties with a white reporter who wrote a book about the event, a relationship that strikes Shawn as exploitative.

In Your House Will Pay, telling the truth isn’t so simple as uncovering what happened. Grace, Shawn, Ray, and everyone in this book must factor in how something happened and who did the telling. Who watched and why? Who made money off it? As the long-ago murder of Cha’s tale is drawn together with a present-tense one, these questions become crucial. They cut to the core of who is to be trusted and not, a flexion that tears at the fabric of each of these families.

Three decades after the L.A. uprising, it was common for the media to speak of Rodney King as a symbol of forgiveness. It’s a hopeful idea, but the question remains: For whom? Who is being forgiven? Into these abstractions, Your House Will Pay arrives like a wrecking ball, demolishing the notion that a symbol can mean the same thing to people living under different pressures, and also that fates in a city like Los Angeles are separate. Ultimately, for the Matthewses and the Parks, forgiveness is as intimate as vengeance. It is like a stain. A taste that does not go away. Something that can only be tasted on the tongue.

Our California Book Club event on June 16 at 5 p.m. Pacific time will feature author Steph Cha, host John Freeman, and special guest Tod Goldberg in conversation about Your House Will Pay. Goldberg has published more than a dozen books, including Gangsterland and, most recently, The Low Desert: Gangster Stories. Please visit the Alta Clubhouse to discuss Cha’s book. Register for the upcoming Zoom conversation here.

John Freeman is the host of the California Book Club.
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