Towards Rupturing the Symbolic Order

Korean Fiction After the Mid-90s

Korean literature underwent significant change in the mid-1990s. With the cessation of the Cold War, which had sharply polarized the world after the Second World War, South Korean society was freed from the anxiety of being stuck in a quasi-state of war. Moreover, the South was formally released from a “state of exception,” as postulated by Giorgio Agamben, in which a state power can arbitrarily suspend the rule of law. With the transition from analog to digital, Korean society also underwent a great upheaval. In sum, post mid-1990s, Korean literature moved on from the issue of national division that had preoccupied it for such a long time and started confronting the problems of being a post-industrial society.

     Yet, the epistemic topography of literature does not change simply due to changes in the times. Someone has to bring about that change. Kim Young-ha was this agent of change in post mid-90s literature. In his debut novel, I Have the Right to Destroy Myself, Kim presents a so-called “suicide advisor” as his narrator. The narrator contends that in this (post)modern age in which only a life controlled by the big Other is possible, the only autonomous action that humans can take is voluntary death. Kim’s narrator assists in the suicide of those who lack the courage to take their own lives. His shocking, contradictory protagonist signals the passing of Korean society into a new dimension.

     In a similar vein, Black Flower, also by Kim, uses magic realism to portray the peculiarity of Korean modernization through the perspective of Korean laborers who immigrated to Mexico, representing how Korea assimilated unilaterally into Western universalism without inheriting almost any of the uniqueness of Korean culture. In another novel, Your Republic Is Calling You, Kim chronicles a day in the life of a North Korean spy who, after sneaking into the South decades prior, has turned into another docile body obedient to the South’s symbolic order. The protagonist is left in a daze after receiving a sudden directive from the North. It is a gripping account of the exhaustion and suppression of Korean people’s freedom on account of the state of exception due to the division of the peninsula. How a Murderer Remembers presents a serial killer battling Alzheimer’s disease, who, while sensitive to the gaze of others, feels no guilt about the murders he has committed. Through the murderer’s “way of remembering,” Kim gives us a surprising portrayal of how modern man’s compulsion to simply survive in a society of endless competition turns him into a monster.

Another representative author of post mid-90s work is Park Min-gyu, by far the most exotic among the current crop of Korean writers. Park is a sort of mutant. Influenced by foreign pop culture while growing up, he syncretizes Korea’s age-old ethos with the soul of foreign pop culture in an entirely new way. In stories like “Near,” “Yellow River and a Boat,” and “Nap,” he paints the pathos of the lonesome declining years of the elderly who die after having lived without resistance to a traditional way of life. Years ahead of the Avengers movies, Park gathered the icons of American popular culture together and novelized their stories in Legends of the World's Heroes. Then, by transposing the hero of martial arts novels to the modern age in “Jeol,” he symbolically showed how modern society enervates al...