Walter Benjamin begins his famous essay “The Storyteller: Reflections on the Works of Nikolai Leskov” with the fact that soldiers returning from the First World War were reluctant to talk about their experiences. According to him, they were a generation that went to school in horse-drawn streetcars, and now faced a country where everything had utterly changed, save the passing of clouds in the sky.1 The eternal and unchanging European pastoral landscape was no more; the violent waves of modernity transformed all that they touched, too quickly and too easily. The ability to listen to someone else’s story and empathize with it also became a casualty of the times.
Korea was not exempt from the kind of transformative forces that assaulted Germany. Our changes began with the Korean War in the 1950s, with the government-led economic development policies adding fuel to the fire in the 1960s and 1970s. The voices of the 1980s that demanded democratization and the equal distribution of wealth managed to slow these forces of change for a while, but the tides of modernization could not be kept at bay. The Asian Financial Crisis that sparked in 1997 proved to be the culmination of such forces, but also provided us with the opportunity to think about where we were going as a nation.
Kim Keum Hee’s short story, “Too Bright Outside for Love,” can be taken as an early damage report on the “IMF generation.”2 Pilyong, who is demoted from his sales manager position at a conglomerate to the maintenance section and then asked to hand in his resignation, avoids his coworkers by going to lunch alone. One day, nearby a McDonald’s in the Jongno district, he stumbles upon an advertisement for a play starring Yanghee, a girl he (thought he) loved sixteen years ago. While Pilyong had been preparing to study in the US by attending English conversation classes at a cram school in Jongno before getting hired by a conglomerate and becoming a “middle-aged geezer” salesman who goes about handing out his name card at his son’s school and doing slimy sales deals, Yanghee apparently stuck to being a penniless stage actor. Upon learning this, he goes to see her play every time he feels his aching wounds, and at one point realizes that “there were things that did not become completely absent but were instead simply submerged in a state of indeterminate lack.” In the end, he is able to look about him with the “far-off expression of someone who has just emerged after crying for a long time.”
Can the hard-earned epiphanies of that generation who were college students in the late nineties still ring true for young people in 2017? Chang Kang-myoung’s “Fired” casts doubt on such assumptions. Chang—known for his novel Because I Hate Korea, featuring a character in her late twenties dreaming of escaping her “second-class citizenship” in Korea—clearly illustrates through the fierce conflict between a thirtysomething manager and a twentysomething part-timer that such epiphanies are rarer than ever. The middle-aged are more prone to expose their paranoia instead of doling out cheap sympathy toward the “girls,” which is how the twentysomething part-timer is referred to in the story. And twentysomethings are pushed into a situation where they have to fight a lonely fight just to support themselves.