Monday, November 2, 2015

Where Are the Hui-Jae's of Yesteryear?

I just finished reading The Girl Who Wrote Loneliness, the third novel by the Korean writer Kyung-sook Shin to be translated into English.  It doesn't seem to me as solid a work as Please Look After Mom and I'll Be Right There, but then it was originally published in 1995, before either of them.  But I'm not sure that's quite fair, because it doesn't feel like a beginner's work either: in particular, Shin uses time very skillfully -- she clearly put a lot of thought into the novel's structure.

So why doesn't The Girl Who Wrote Loneliness work as well for me as its sister novels?  I may have to reread it to answer that question, but one thing that occurs to me is its use of the death of one of the narrator's friends, which Shin circles around very much as Joseph Heller did with Snowden's death in Catch-22.  The character and her situation feel real enough, but I had the feeling that I've seen this done too often before, though offhand I can't name many examples.  It's a horror-story convention, I think, where something too awful to think about haunts the protagonist, and is only faced near the end, as the climax.  Yet what happens to that character, while I can understand why it haunts the narrator, is not, unfortunately, that out-of-the-way.  It reminds me of a similar revelation scene in Marge Piercy's novel Braided Lives, which like The Girl Who Wrote Loneliness is also semi-autobiographical, the story of a poor working-class girl who achieved her ambition of becoming a writer.  Given the far greater horrors of the period Shin is writing about, namely the late 1970s and early 1980s, the climax feels anti-climactic to me, and its political dimensions are not developed. It's probably unfair to judge Shin by the standards of US second-wave feminism, but I guess that's what I'm doing.  Since Shin is sensitive to politics in general, and she's certainly concerned about the vulnerability to abuse of her young factory girls, I don't think it's really that unfair to ask for more thought in this case.

Which doesn't mean I think Girl is a bad book.  Like Shin's other novels I've read, it's packed with period detail, the feel and sounds and smells of moving from the South Korean countryside to an electronics factory in South Korea under the Park Chung-hee dictatorship.  The characters are fascinating and credible. The workers' attempts to unionize, though legal under the Republic's constitution, are fought tooth and nail by the company, with government backing of course.  The narrator is also stunned by national events: the assassination of President Park by one of his men in 1979, just a few years after his wife was assassinated, the Gwangju uprising and the heightened repression of the 1980s.  When the narrator describes watching Park's funeral on TV and reacts to the sight of his young daughter Geun-hye, now orphaned by violence, I was stunned, because I remembered that Shin was talking about Park Geun-hye, who is now, since 2013 the President of South Korea.  (First woman president there, too.) The novel was written in 1995, so the ramifications of that fact weren't and couldn't have been intended at the time.  It's like a surreal coincidence, too outrageous to be invented for fiction -- it can only be mentioned because it's true.

Shin's narrator jumps around in time from her youth in the 70s and early 80s to her present, as a succesful and respected novelist in the 1990s.  She reflects a great deal on her writing, and on Writing; these reflections are for me the weak parts of the book.  She struggles with the book she's writing, which is the book we're reading; she struggles with her past and the nation's past; she struggles with her craft; she's ambivalent about her public.  And the climactic revelation, which is meant to "explain" the writer's block she contends with, seems anti-climactic, even or especially if it's true.

One aspect of the book that pleased and moved me was the narrator's relationships with other women, mostly her co-workers but also her cousin, who lives in a single rented room in Seoul with the narrator and two of the latter's brothers.  (Since I know that part of Seoul somewhat, I enjoyed trying to visualize it thirty-five years ago, as Shin evoked and described it.)  Though the narrator has a forbidden romance going with Chang, a young fellow from her village, it doesn't really seem to engage her that much, nor do other entanglements with men that she alludes to now and then during the novel.  Women alone stir her imagination, and she writes with remarkable intensity about her feelings for them, about their bodies: how they look, how they move, what they do.  It's what I think Eve Kosovsky Sedgwick meant by homosocial desire: a desire that isn't erotic/genital but is no less compelling and even consuming for that.

And yet there's a striking scene near the story's end, when the narrator (I'm not sure we ever learn her name, and I hesitate to identify her with Shin), riding the train from her village to Seoul, encounters a young man both sensuously concrete and as resonantly symbolic as a visitation from Hermes:
In the seat next to mine, a boy sat sound sleep.  His hands grasped the armrest to keep from rocking.  He had dirty fingernails.  They looked like they were stained with oil, or were unwashed, filled with scum.  His profile gave off a cold impression, his forehead covered by his locks.  The boy slept and slept until the train pulled into Suwon.  When they announced that next stop was Yeongdeungpo Station, I stirred him awake.

"Have we passed Yeongdeungpo?"  Only then the boy opened his eyes, startled.  His body was frail but his eyes were big and bright.  I told the flustered boy that we'd made a step at Suwon Station a while back and would be arriving soon at Yeongdeungpo, and the boy folded himself into his seat again, saying "Oh," sounding relieved.  "If I get off at Yeongdeungpo Station, I can go there by subway."
The boy offers to help her take down her heavy bag, full of food packed by her mother.
He effortlessly fetched the bag and placed it on the floor. His body giving off the scent of a skilled steel worker.


The boy smiled shyly.  Revealing a row of teeth, white like pomegranate seeds.  He didn't sit back down but headed straight to the door.  He carried nothing, not a single bag, and I noticed from behind that he had a sturdy build.  While I oscillated between hesitation, anticipation, and resignation, the train arrived at Yeongdeungpo Station.  I shifted seats to where the boy had been sitting.  How nimble.  He had already made it to the far end of the platform.  When he was asleep, crumpled up in his seat, he had seemed pitiful, but now, striding down the platform, he was full of vigor.  It occurred to me that perhaps he was no longer a boy.  With his mop of hair lifted off his forehead, his long profile, which had seemed cold somehow, reminded me of a giraffe.  The train started and he began to run, as if he were racing the train.

Ah! My eyes opened wide.  Was this a mirage?  They were a beautiful pair of legs.  Faster than the steel wheels on the train.  They were perfectly toned and tempered, ready to run at the speed of seventy miles an hour.  The boy's beautiful legs left the platform before the train got out of Yeongdeungpo Station. A sigh of relief escaped from my mouth.
I'm not sure what to make of the clumsiness of the writing here, whether to blame Shin or the translator for it. (A giraffe?)  But the scene is powerfully vivid despite the writing, and I have no idea what it means or how it fits into the book as a whole.  It seems to connect to nothing else, in this novel or in the other books of Shin's I've read.  It may be one of those visionary outbursts that lift a story into the stratosphere for no reason but the sheer rush of it.  It works, even if it makes no sense.