Coming-of-Age Novels Offer Solace: In Search of Self-Healing and Inner Growth

The unprecedented economic downturn is prompting people to rethink their lost values – values that they have ignored in the pursuit of success. This fresh development suggests that a growing number of readers are now ready to pick up coming-of-age novels rather than self-help books. 

 

The buzz word in the Korean publishing industry of 2008 was self-healing. To find a way to heal their wounds, readers opted for coming-of-age novels rather than trendy self-help or personal finance titles. This reflects the sad reality that survival, not success, is what matters most for the public amid the protracted economic slowdown. The neo-liberalism that emerged in the aftermath of the Asian financial crisis in the late 1990s no longer offers a message of hope, at least for most Koreans. Local readers have begun to think about what has been sacrificed in the name of seeking success. The popularity of coming-ofage stories in Korea, therefore, illustrates the pent-up desire for a book that can assuage the innermost wounds of the public – something that cannot be satisfied by the much-hyped expectations about success. Testifying to the comingof- age novel boom are Hwang Sokyong’s Hesperus, Gong Ji-Young’s My Happy House, Kim Ryeo-ryeong’s Wandeuki, and Kim Hyoung-kyoung’s The Flowering Whale.

Hwang Sok-yong’s Hesperus is a fresh experiment aimed at testing the potential of old-school writers in the era of the Internet. Hwang, age 65, stirred up the Korean literary circles by adopting a revolutionary way to introduce his new novel to the public: serialization through his personal blog on the web. His bold – and successful – attempt to toy with the new digital media underscored the importance of a willingness to adopt a new medium to meet with readers. Hwang’s serialization was a smashing hit. He spent plenty of time responding to readers’ comments on his blog, a reflection of an explosive reaction from young readers familiar with Internet-based communications.

Hesperus centers upon the life of Yu-jun in the turbulent years between 1959 and 1966 – from his high school days to his dispatch to the Vietnam War. Yu-jun grew up in a wealthy family. His life seems perfect in every way, but there is one big problem: his friends belong to the working class, working for factories or railroad companies. Yu-jun, at one point, realizes that everything surrounding his life – polite manners, clean dress shirts, white handkerchiefs – seem “unbearable.” Adults want Yu-jun to become a medical doctor, a judge, a scholar, or a successful businessman. Each month, students take a standardized test, the results of which include the rankings of individual students that are publicly announced. Schools enforce a strict dress code. All of this comes off as a system of suppression for a boy in his fragile adolescence.

Yu-jun describes why he has decided to quit school in a formal letter, which lays bare the toxic problems of the Korean education system: “I believe that I’m not the only victim of the monthly academic test. Whenever students’ scores and rankings are posted in the school hall, I don’t feel it’s humiliating or embarrassing because I feel it’s simply a total waste of time and energy. The test is designed to train students endlessly so that they can adapt to whatever society demands. How obediently you follow the demands decides your future career, and which school you attend decides your social status. … The current school education produces not creative minds but obedient students who just follow the existing rules without any question in a way that reinforces the current social system.” (Hesperus, p. 89)

As richly illustrated in Yu-jun’s argument, the novel focuses on the importance of thinking outside the box instead of adaptation, depicting a process in which the main character explores and develops his own perspective rather than accepting conventional views.

Gong Ji-Young’s My Happy House concerns a Korean mother with three children. In the story, the mother has divorced three times, an unusual condition that leaves her children with three different fathers. One of her children is a girl named Ui-nyeong, who observers her mother, a famous writer. Her mother is upbeat and lively, but a conservative Korean society hostile to divorcees does not accept her as she is. This novel reveals how rapidly the concept of maternal love has changed in Korea in recent years. In a traditional Korean family, mothers represent unconditional sacrifice for their husbands and children. Ui-nyeong’s mother, however, is not a mother who is willing to sacrifice herself unconditionally. In contrast, she is like a friend to her children because she strives to live together with them while making mistakes and feeling the same pain. Uinyeong loves her mother chiefly because her mother recognizes her children as they are without trying to shape them into preset images.

The mother’s message to her daughter is telling: “It finally dawned on her that the Blessed Mary is admired not because she’s the mother of a savior but because she let her precious son die. The ultimate consummation of ...