Confronting Danger Through Apocalyptic Literature: Kim Insuk, Park Min-gyu, Yun I-Hyeong, and Pyun Hye-Young

The Realities of a Risk Society

Korean writers have been producing an increasing number of works that deal with the end of civilization or disasters of apocalyptic scale. In particular, authors who have emerged after the new millennia—Park Min-gyu, Yun I-Hyeong, Pyun Hye-Young, Cho Hahyeong, and Yun Ko-eun—have delivered straightforward depictions of the horrors of a post-apocalyptic dystopia instead of extracting messages of hope or salvation from the rubble. One common denominator of post-2000 works that depict catastrophes is their intensification of the tragic notion that reality is itself a catastrophic phenomenon.

Apocalyptic literature in a society of danger stems from a radically critical view of reality. Recent works that depict virtual disasters reveal an allegorical imagination of the here and now. Through the horrendous disasters of societies yet to come, writers direct our attention to the everyday disasters of contemporary society. These works also re-investigate the question of “What is reality?” Novels that depict virtual disasters have strong characteristics of sci-fi or fantasy literature, and are also particularly experimental. Contemporary apocalyptic literature gives us visions of the future as grotesque and grim as the ones we meet in Brave New World or 1984.


Kim Insuk, Can You Go Insane?

Kim Insuk’s new novel, Can You Go Insane? depicts the tedious hours people spend in the aftermath of a disaster. Before their lives were torn asunder in the earthquake and tsunami, they had already constructing manmade, everyday disasters. As the novel progresses, the characters come to the painful realization that their lives were already destroyed in unseen ways before calamity struck. What remained in the wake of the earthquake and the tsunami was awful, but not as harrowing as the disintegration of human relationships, a life without passion, and of love composed of empty gestures. The disasters crack open the customs of everyday life that once allowed for a mechanical life which obscured the lethal truth within. Disasters incite horror, but Kim Insuk’s characters demonstrate that a fate more horrifying than disasters is the death of the soul that cannot love this life, the world we live in, and the time we are given. Through this piece, the readers meet a lucid reflection of themselves slowly going insane, not a catastrophe happening in a faraway land. To rebuild a destroyed building, one needs capital, technology, and labor. But how does one rebuild a broken life, relationship, and soul? Can You Go Insane? is about an invisible reconstruction and an elusive salvation.


Park Min-gyu, Ping Pong

In Park Min-gyu’s Ping Pong, the problem of social ostracism is amplified to catastrophic levels. Social ostracism, which occurs in various social groups, is not just violence directed at an individual, but a serious social problem that is a precursor to the maladies of the society itself. Especially for young boys and girls, ostracism gives them a horrifying sense of despair even before they become active participants in society. The boy protagonist of Ping Pong, also ostracized from his peers, believes that he is a being that “has been blotted out by the world.” To the boys who cannot find “a safe, comfortable place” in the world whether they are at home or at school, the world is as frightening as a flood or earthquake. In a world that does not guarantee individuals the basic respect they deserve as human beings, each feels he lives in a dangerous world.

This novel features not just the ostracized boys but also those labeled by society as failures, affectionately referred to as “losers.” The ostracized boys know that what scares them more are not the bullies who torture them and take their lunch money, but the silence of those who pretend to be in the mainstream.

The ostracized boys and loser adults from Ping Pong illustrate that a social climate that leaves everything to the decision of the majority and the mainstream is also a form of violence. The theme of Ping Pong starts with the realities of ostracized people and losers to whether the “application” humanity should remain “installed.” Of course, civilization cannot be wiped out as one would install or uninstall a program, but the novel uses elements of the fantastic and reminds us that civilization could indeed be suddenly wiped out one day from a catastrophe of epic proportions.

Michael Sandel’s Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do? has been wildly popular in Korea. But survival, not justice, is the main issue in Korea where the fear of a dangerous society has reached its peak. It is ironic that a society struggling to preserve justice has such an explosive interest in “What is justice?” But the ostracized boy’s troubles do not stop at being mere trouble. The boy who ends up with a hairline fracture on his skull from being so battered has an important realization that “the individual is more important than humanity.” Ping Pong communicates the desire for a ...