Elly McDonald

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Reviews: Seven Years of Darkness by Jeong You-Jeong (translated by Kim Chi-young 2020), and The Only Child by Seo Mi-ae (translated by Jung Ye-won 2020)

Two Korean psychological thrillers.

They’re both best sellers in South Korea and well-reviewed internationally. They’re neither of them particularly demanding, nor ambitious beyond the thriller genre.

I enjoyed Seven Years of Darkness better simply because it gallivants along at a ripping pace and is entertainingly told, focusing on So-won (Sowon), at age 11, when he survived a catastrophe that wiped out his community and removed him from everyone he cared for, and at age 18, when the events of seven years before come home to roost.

So-won has three guardian angels, which is more than most of us, but he needs them. There is a moustache-twirlingly villainous antagonist, some flawed parents, and a cat named Ernie.

The classic K-drama (Korean TV series) trope of The Drowning Boy features prominently. I learned some interesting things about Korean underwater rescue scuba diving. I learned a bit about safety mechanisms for giant hydroelectric dams. Having read this book and viewed the French TV series Les Revenants I’ll pass on ever living downstream of a hydraulic dam, thank you.

The final sequences of Seven Years of Darkness were ludicrous but satisfying. There are worse ways to pass time.

Next: The Only Child. I don’t know whether to blame the Korean original or the translation for the somewhat leaden writing style. But The Only Child has its virtues.

The Only Child features several only-children as main characters. There is Yi Seon-kyeong, a lecturer in criminal psychology who is likened by herself and others to a Korean Clarice Starling (in reference to the FBI rookie profiler in The Silence of the Lambs). There is Yi Byeong-do, the Ted Bundy-like glamorous serial killer. There is Yun Ha-yeong, an 11 year-old whose near and dear drop dead with statistically improbable frequency. Don’t let her near pets.

The novel alternates between first-person as told by Byeong-do and third-person, mostly from the POVs of Seon-kyeong or Ha-yeong. It says something when this reader relates more sympathetically to an adult male who has murdered perhaps a score of women than to a neglected pubescent girl.

The author isn’t really all that fussed to keep us in suspense about whodunnit. She’s more interested in psychological development, the unfolding understandings of the main characters. The real suspense is in how the plot will pan out.

To my great pleasure, the ending is a direct homage to Alfred Hitchcock, to his original ending of his film Suspicion.

Was that a spoiler? Whoops.

Joan Fontaine in Suspicion.


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Review: The Disaster Tourist (2020) by Yun Ko-eun, translated from Korean by Lizzie Buehler

The Disaster Tourist is a short (185 pages) novel, a surreal satire translated from Korean in a crisp tone. I was about to say it’s deadpan and heartless -“The deaths were unadvertised disasters, unexpected by the travellers” – but instead I’ll say it’s angry. Funny, but angry. Appalling and appalled.

It makes me feel much better about not being able to travel. And much worse about previous holidays in other people’s misery.

The Disaster Tourist looks at the contemporary (pre-COVID) model of Third World tourism, specifically Pacific island tourism, and lays bare the commercial drivers and marketing strategies, in catastrophically exaggerated form.

The premise is this: A disaster occurs. Lives are lost. But a catastrophe is also an opportunity. A sensational disaster will attract foreign funding (foreign aid) and put an otherwise obscure location on the map (even as it wipes it off the map). Righteous tourists will come to put things right. They will come to experience authenticity, what life is really all about (death). They will come to rubber-neck: to gape, to tut-tut, to experience shock and awe.

If a community has nothing else to offer, being poor, not scenic, its indigenous culture beaten down or dismissed as unremarkable, might it not make sense to manufacture a disaster? To script a catastrophe? To create spectacle? Might that not also provide vested interests an opportunity to rewrite the narrative, to rebuild to design, eliminating or minimising undesirable elements?

Ko Yo-na – or Yona Ko, as the translation insists – is clinging precariously to a ten-year career designing and promoting “Disaster Tourist” travel packages. She’s on the out at work, possibly for reporting her manager for sexual harassment. Her resignation is not accepted. Instead, management proposes she tests out one of their holiday packages, as a guest (expenses paid by the company), writes a token report, then reports back at work refreshed after her “break”.

Yona chooses the Mui package: an island off the coast of Vietnam where an ethnic massacre occurred decades ago. It has sinkholes and a dormant volcano.

Things go terribly wrong for Yona, her own personal disaster tour. But even more terribly wrong is the context: Mui is run by a shadowy corporation known as Paul, and the mechanics of what Paul has planned for Mui’s people and its future is something most tourists would wish to shut their eyes to.

By the time Yona realises she is living within the constraints of a script – an actual script, written by an actual scriptwriter – she’s lost all control of her circumstances.

What is her assigned role? What is the role of Luck? And what of the crocodiles?

The Disaster Tourist recalls for me Amy Tan’s novel Saving Fish From Drowning, and some of J.G. Ballard’s satire. Also the 1998 film Wag the Dog, and its precursor The Mouse That Roared (1959).

Did I enjoy reading it? Not hugely. It was hard and cold, like a pebble. Like a pebble in my shoe, it disturbed my comfort.


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Review: Untold Night and Day by Bae Suah (2013) translated from the Korean by Deborah Smith (2020)

I knew nothing about this novel when I opened the first page and for much of the following 152 pages I still felt I knew almost nothing.

Yet when I finished page 152 I was in love with this text. I kept reading and re-reading the final pages. I didn’t want it to end.

I read Untold Night and Day in 50 page chunks (yes, I’m obsessed with the numbers). To me it reads like a prose poem, so 50 pages was as much as I could take in at a time.

After the first 50 pages, I read Deborah Smith’s Translator’s Notes, at the end, which I found helpful:

Bae’s oppositions are emphatically not binaries. Her books are filled with repetition, mirroring, echoing, overlapping […] Simultaneously is another thread-word studding the text.

Many years ago, when I was a poet, an editor described my poems as “games of rhythm and repetition”, which was apt. I came to enjoy the circularity of Bae’s world in Untold Night and Day, and the chunks of repetition.

The quotes on the book jacket are similarly apt:

“As cryptic and compelling as a fever dream […] a vivid and disorientating exploration of identity, artifice and compulsion” – Sharlene Tao

“I loved its uncanny beauty, its startling occurrences. As it unravels you feel […] yourself unravelling too” – Daisy Johnson

“Haunting and poetic […] holds the reader in a suspended state, allowing us to explore the tension of the threshold” – Chloe Aridjis

Untold Night and Day is filled with oppressive heat and damp, small concrete rooms, dank alleys, circling traffic, recurrences, identity switches, blocks to communication, temporal distortions…

Very early on, I recognised the figure of a girl in a coarse white hanbok (traditional dress), wearing woven hemp sandals, with her hair tied back in a low pony-tail, as a figure from the Korean spirit world: the young girl ghost, or supernatural entity.

The main female character is called Ayami (and sometimes other names). Bae has explained that “According to Siberian shamanism [the forebear of Korean shamanism], ayami is the name for the spirit that enters the shaman’s body and communicates matters of the other world to them.”

But Deborah Smith rightly points out that Untold Night and Day does not proclaim or labor its “Koreanness”. She quotes the self-mocking Korean joke rejecting Other-ing: “Oh, let me go put on some hanbok.

So it’s contemporary experimental literary writing, rather than a hanbok tale.

What strikes me, reading during COVID-19 uncertainty and a wave of job losses and business failures, is that the narrative commences with two central characters being made redundant.

Ayami could be a spirit guide escorting a man to another world. Or they could both be casualties, on a more mundane level:

“Ayami [comforted him] for a long time, as though the repetitive gesture might conjure a shamanic power – the only way of keeping together, in the same place and time, two human beings in the process of disintegrating.”

Untold_Night_and_Day_Bae_Suah


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Re-blogs: Convenience Store Woman (2016) by Sayaka Murata (trans Ginny Tabley Takemori 2018) – Literally Literary blog by Xi Chen; The Nakano Thrift Shop (2017) by Hiromi Kawakami trans Allison Markin Powell – LA Review of Books review by M W Larson

Convenience_Store_Woman_Sayaka_Murata

This is not the cover art of the edition I read #1: the edition I read had quotes from reviewers suggesting Convenience Store Woman is “irresistibly quirky”, “hilarious”, “intoxicating”, “exhilarating… funny”.
I loved it, but I found it dark and disquieting.

I hadn’t been reading for a while and felt the need to ease my way back in via very short novels.  These two – Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata, and The Nakano Thrift Shop by Hiromi Kawakami – are both written in simple, deadpan styles that make for fast reads, the Murata novel in a somewhat mechanical tone suited to its themes, the Kawakami novel delicate, sometimes verging on twee. They’re linked thematically, both being told in the first person by young women narrators who work in retail, and both addressing sexual behaviours, relationship options, relationship to employments.

Both present contemporary young Japanese people shying away from sexual relations and intimacy, instead seeking identity in service transactions, workplace routines, and (at least in Kawakami) objects imbued with emotional significance.

Although I have visited Japan, and although I have a decades-long interest in East Asian arts and cultures, I am very far from being equipped to report meaningfully on these narratives. Instead, after organising my own thoughts I sought out reviews that opened up the narratives for me.

There is nothing I can write that could better present these two texts than the two reviews linked here. I thank both Xi Chen and MW Larson.

What I will say: Reading Convenience Store Woman, I occasionally laughed wryly, with some discomfort; reading The Nakano Thrift Shop, I quite often laughed out loud, screenshotting pages to text to my sister. Ultimately, The Nakano Thrift Shop was a feel-good light read. I couldn’t say that of Convenience Store Woman, but it spoke to me more strongly.

Convenience Store Woman as read by Xi Chen: https://medium.com/literally-literary/sayaka-muratas-parable-of-alienation-25a188337adb

The Nakano Thrift Shop as read by MW Larson: https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/the-anxiety-of-intimacy-in-hiromi-kawakamis-the-nakano-thrift-shop/

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This is not the cover art of the edition I read #2: the edition I read had an image of a hip bright young thing leaping onto a commuter train.
I loved the narrator, but she struck me as much more introvert than that image.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


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Reviews: The Vegetarian by Han Kang (2007, trans Deborah Smith); I am Ji-young, Born 1982 by Cho Nam-joo (2016, trans Jamie Chang) – translated from Korean

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I had formed the impression from publicity I’d seen that The Vegetarian, by Han Kang, was a novel about patriarchy pushing back when one woman attempts to make a relatively mild assertion of will: woman goes vegetarian, male state goes mad.

I suppose the first section, at least, of this book, can be read that way. Woman does indeed go vegetarian. Male relatives do indeed get mad.

But there are other things going on here. British novelist Ian McEwan sums it up well, describing The Vegetarian as “a novel of sexuality and madness”. Mostly madness, for me.

The narrative unfolds through three sections, from three perspectives: Yeong-hye’s husband; her brother-in-law; and her sister. I found the final section, the sister’s perspective, most compelling.

In keeping with a feminist reading, neither of the two men have any interest in Yeong-hye’s personhood. She’s an object, for both. The book’s opening line is “Before my wife turned vegetarian, I’d always thought of her as completely unremarkable in every way.” The husband (“Mr Cheong”) goes on to innumerate the many ways Yeong-hye seemed to him entirely ordinary, and why this very ordinariness qualified her to be his wife. (In short: inadequate man seeks woman he can disregard.) He only ever refers to her as “my wife”.

Her brother-in-law, in contrast, sees Yeong-hye as distinct, even unique, and exotic.  For him, she embodies sexuality. Vitality.

Both men are projecting like crazy. (“Crazy” being a technical term.)

In her marriage, Yeong-hye goes mad. Pointedly, her husband reports this in terms of her ceasing to dedicate her being to his service. He has no feelings of concern or compassion. Instead he feels revulsion.

Witnessing Yeong-hye’s madness, her brother-in-law goes mad. He conflates his madness with “art”. He feels he’s come alive. The comedown is – how shall I say? – deflating.

In the final section, Yeong-hye is certifiably mad and confined to a secure psychiatric ward. Her sister is the only family remaining by her side, figuratively and in fact. Her sister meditates on the nature of madness, its origins, and concludes that only a fine string ties us to sanity. Any one of us could untie that string and be ”absorbed” by our dark dreams.

When Yeong-hye is asked why she rejects meat, she can only say, in a perverse of echo of Martin Luther King, “I had a dream”. As someone who watches Korean TV drama, I recognise this notion of “What is your dream?” as a catechism of aspiration. What do you want for your life? What is your ambition?

What Yeong-hye had (and has) is not a dream but a night terror. Her only apparent desire is to disappear into a forest, to join the plant world. This is her survival strategy, even if it kills her.

Yeong-hye’s older sister recognises she too pursued a survival strategy. In her case, she adopted the persona of the sane one, the capable, conscientious older sister. She had cosmetic surgery (double eyelids), promoted a pleasing demeanour, and built a business selling cosmetics. None of that ensures her psychic survival.

The most troubling character, for me, is the older sister’s young son. With the adults gone mad, he is abandoned. Who will protect his survival?

I_Am_Kim_JiYoung_Born_1982

The Vegetarian begs comparison with Cho Nam-joo’s controversial 2016 Korean novel, I am Kim Ji-young, Born 1982. Cho Nam-joo is a former TV scriptwriter who took a career break after having a child. She wrote her book fast, apparently in just two weeks, using elements of her own experiences. Footnote sociological research citations firmly anchor anecdote and individual composite in statistics and legislation.

The novel is presented as a case study – a psychiatric case study, as we come to realise. Stylistically it’s a very straightforward, not to say clinical, read. By stepping us through Kim Ji-young’s life history, Cho shows the ways a female in Korea is disadvantaged from birth relative to her male peers.

Inevitably, the book prompted a backlash of ‘Whataboutism’, intergenerational beefs and male resentments, as did the film adaptation.

I lent the novel to my mother, born 1934, knowing some of Kim Ji-young’s workplace experiences mirrored hers. My mother read it, handed it back, commented wryly, “All women, all over the world.”

Like Yeong-hye, Kim Ji-young (a common name, a kind of Jane Doe) goes mad. As at the novel’s conclusion, her prognosis does not look good. The male psychiatrist who is purportedly writing her case study reflects privately on how her story relates to his own experience. He, like Ji-young’s husband, is a caring and intelligent man. He believes his desire to help is sincere.

The sting in the tail? Even recognising the structural and systemic inequities that resulted in his patient’s breakdown, as his attention moves elsewhere, the male authority figure disregards what he might have learned. Instead of being a change agent, he perpetuates the way things are.


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Review: The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa (1994 trans 2020) – translated from the Japanese by Stephen Snyder

The_Memory_Police_Yoko_Ogawa

The Memory Police, by Yoko Ogawa, was published in Japanese in 1994, then in 2019 in an English translation by Stephen Snyder (nominated for the International Booker 2020).

It’s a bleak, Kafkaesque piece of speculative fiction, or allegory, or dark folk tale.

A novelist, writing in the first person, recounts how on the island where she lives, over a period of 15+ years, there has been a series of “disappearances”: the population wakes up some days with a shared sense of loss, that something from their familiar lives has ceased to exist, has been erased.

The objects of these disappearances don’t physically cease to be manifest, or become physically invisible. Instead, they remain as tangible presences, at least initially, but they cease to have meaning – their associations, their functions, are lost to recall, and eventually the very concept of those objects ceases to exist for most people, except in occasional flashes of semi-recollection.

To aid in this process, to make this process efficient, a fascist squad called the Memory Police ensures people dispose of the tangible physical remains of these objects promptly. Retaining relics of disappeared objects is forbidden, policed by house to house searches. Individuals who retain memories, who are not subject to the collective amnesia and do not collude in erasure, are frogmarched away by the Memory Police and themselves “disappeared”. As are those who attempt to hide those who remember.

At first, the objects the novelist notes as having disappeared are objects of joy: ribbons, perfume, gemstones, millinery, roses, music boxes, boiled sweets, fruit. So at first I was thinking this might be an allegory about loss of pleasure, of anhedonia (loss of joy). I was thinking in terms of depression, especially as the novelist telling the story appears to be suffering from imminent writer’s block: her novel in progress starts out as a tale of a typist who loses her voice but is still able to communicate with her lover (her typing instructor) via typewriter, until her typewriter breaks down.

The narrator-novelist within The Memory Police has a close professional relationship with her long-time editor, who has nursed her previous three novels through to publication. She learns her editor is one of the few who retains memory of the disappeared objects, and her immediate thought is that she must hide him to protect him, and also to protect her writing project.

Typewriters themselves are however obviously a “disappeared” artefact in our contemporary world, so the novel seems to be asking us to consider what, in our lifetimes, has “disappeared” and been erased. In the way that the category “hats”, and therefore the concept “millinery”, has been disappeared within The Memory Police, whole categories of consumer goods and therefore work skills and workplaces have become redundant in real life, often all but forgotten.

Some reviewers have broadened that thought to consider how elements of our natural environments are disappearing: animals, plants whole eco-chains.

Other reviewers home in on cultural erasure: cultures where language and traditional practices are banned, forcibly suppressed, resulting in actual absolute or incremental erasure of cultural identity.

There is also a layer of gender-based allegory. The narrator within The Memory Police feels her way through her narratives through her fingers, through typing, and sometimes her stories takes unforeseen turns. Her work-in-progress switches from being a gentle love story, with a supportive lover, to a Bluebeard-like contemporary horror story of captivity, domination, perversion and erasure of a woman’s will, faculties and ultimately existence.

The perverted parallelism of the novel-within-the-novel vis-à-vis the narrative that is The Memory Police is troubling. In the novel-within-the-novel the captive is the female first-person narrator, the malevolent entity is her male lover/abuser. In the actual novel, the person imprisoned is the writer’s male editor, and his story is told from the female narrator-novelist’s perspective. Is her version, in which she is his ‘savior’, self-serving? We have no direct access to how he really feels about being removed from his wife and his newborn, never-seen son. The editor has been persuaded by his novelist that it is in his best interests to abandon his wife and newborn and instead focus solely on assisting her stalled manuscript through to completion. He is always represented as grateful and acquiescent – but he’s dependent on his novelist for food and sanctuary. How do we, as readers, feel about the writer and her editor as lovers, given the typing teacher enacts the role ‘lover’ towards his typist captive?

The captive in the novel-within-the-novel is imprisoned in a turret (like Rapunzel). The captive in the main narrative is imprisoned in a too-small cavity between house storeys (‘stories’), beneath a trapdoor. Is this gendered symbolism: the woman imprisoned in a tower by a man; the man imprisoned in a dark enclosed space by a woman?

The ‘love’ story elements were, to me, disturbing. (I kept thinking of John Fowles’ novel, The Collector.)

The novelist-narrator has, on the face of it, a less disquieting relationship with a surrogate father, an older man who assists (aids and abets) her. He doesn’t have a name, and nor does the editor: they are “the old man” and “R” respectively. But then, the narrator has no name, either.

There are layers. Ultimately, I read The Memory Police as an allegory about mortality, ageing, and death – at its most blunt, as an allegory of dementia.

[SPOILERS AHEAD]

Life on the island diminishes through a series of small losses, loss of small joys; the loss of staples (food types, loss of appetite, as the remaining foods are increasingly unappealing); the loss of time and seasons, when “calendars” disappear, resulting in endless snow, snow that buries all it covers; loss of story-telling, of narratives, when “novels” disappear; then increasingly intimate losses. How does one adapt to the felt-loss of body parts – of a left leg, a right arm?

Once loss has progressed that far, how is it policed? If people retain the awareness of what was a left leg, but have no recall of its function, have lost any sense of relatedness, instead recognising the “disappeared” limb at best as a “tumour”, how is that policed? Can left legs be physically disposed of, the way rose petals can be? Can left legs be set free, as caged birds can be?

What will be the ultimate loss? What, at the last, will be left, will disappear?

I referred to “perverted parallelism” but in fact the relationship between the novel-within-the-novel and the main narrative is a chiasmus (if I remember Lit 101 Poetry correctly). It’s not parallel lines, it’s a ‘X’ cross-shape.

The first thing lost by the typist-victim in the novel-within-the-novel is her voice. More accurately, her voice is taken from her, as happens in totalitarian states and patriarchies, and as happens with writer’s block. But in the main narrative, the last element of the narrator’s being to be erased is voice. As her voice ends, so does the text.

As her voice evaporates, her editor climbs out of the cavity between floorboards.

He emerges to a ruined world, but he does not look back.

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