Nowhere to Be Found by Bae Suah
- onDecember 22, 2015
- Vol.30 Winter 2015
- byBae Suah
In Nowhere to Be Found, her second work translated into English following Highway with Green Apples, Bae Suah does more with character and narrative in 60 pages than most novelists accomplish in 300. With concise, evocative prose, Bae merges the mundane with the strange in a way that leaves the reader fulfilled yet bewildered, pondering how exactly the author managed to pull this all off.
Plot-wise, Nowhere to Be Found is pretty straightforward. Set, for the most part, in 1988, the unnamed narrator is a young temporary worker at a university in Gyeonggi Province as a sort of administrative assistant and works part-time at a nearby restaurant, running herself ragged in order to support her semi-appreciative family. Not much of the narrator’s life outside of work is depicted. Although she does have a boyfriend of sorts, it’s complicated both by his being away in the military and by the fact that his mother thoroughly dislikes her for being lower class.
While her boyfriend, Kim Cheolsu, is finishing up his military duties, our narrator takes off a day to visit him where he’s stationed, but things go awry, and she is led on a wild goose chase after an officer tells her that the Kim Cheolsu she’s looking for is off on a special training mission. When, after a lengthy bus mix-up during which she reads a long “Wanted” flier about three persons suspected of murder, she finally arrives at another camp, where the soldiers there tell her that there are two Kim Cheolsus—one who is stationed at the base she went to first and another who was in an accident and didn’t show up for training. Worried, she returns to the first base, finds her boyfriend Cheolsu there, breaks things off, and then goes home.
That’s not to say this is a simple, straightforward story. On the contrary, there are several strange sequences that complicate the characterization of the narrator. The first odd moment pops up, when, after a meticulously realistic description of the narrator’s two dead-end jobs, she answers a call at the university from a guest lecturer on criminal sociology. After opening the conversation in a startling way—“This week’s topic is murder”—the two converse about practical matters and it becomes clear that the narrator had mistaken this lecturer for a different professor and failed to send him the proper forms. They banter a bit:
“If you’re free on Saturday, would you like to come to my lecture? It’ll be an interesting one—”
I cut him off. “What kinds of people commit murder?”
“Murderers, I suppose.”
“Why do they do it?”
“I’m sure they have their reasons.”
“Is this how all your lectures go?”
Functioning almost as a rom-com cute-meet, this conversation is repeated near the end of the book when, a decade later, she meets a man who claims to have seen her when he was completing his compulsory military service back in 1988.
“Wow, that was already ten years ago. I teach sociology courses at a university, but I’m not a full professor. I’m what you might call an after-hours club performer—a part-time outsider lecturer who teaches night classes. By day I’m an ordinary company employee. The official title of my course is criminal sociology; I lecture for three hours straight. The topic changes every week: murder, robbery, burglary, rape, domestic violence.”
“What kinds of people commit murder?”
“Murderers, I suppose.”
Repetition like this, in a novella as short as Nowhere to Be Found, begs the reader’s attention, especially when it’s paired with the one other repeated scene—an abstract sex scene tinged with violence:
Rain falls inside the dark, abandoned house. It streams down the walls of the kitchen and front door like a waterfall. Burn me. Pour gasoline over me and set my body on fire. Burn me at the stake like a witch. (pp. 19-20)
When the lighter hovers by my crotch, he asks, “Can I burn you a little?”
I nod and shut my eyes. Burn me. Pour gasoline over me and set my body on fire. Burn me at the stake like a witch. (p. 57)
This self-destructive violence arrives from almost nowhere, puncturing the placid tone of the narration, which, aside from these sections and the ones where the narrator is lambasted by her mother and her boyfriend’s mother, is disaffected and almost flat. These disruptions—juxtaposed with the “Wanted” poster and the criminal sociologist— add a significant dimension to the narrator’s sense of being, culminating in a haunting last line that will make you want to re-read the story again.
by Chad W. Post
Publisher, Open Letter Books