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To Observe, Observe, and Observe

  • onMarch 8, 2016
  • Vol.31 Spring 2016
  • byCho Yeonjung

Kim Junghyuk, who is in the vanguard of contemporary Korean literature along with writers like Kim Ae-ran, Pyun Hye Young, and Yoon Sunghee, made his debut sixteen years ago. The jacket of his latest book, Embracing with Fake Arms, which won the Dongin Literary Award last year, sports a rather unusual author bio: a listing of his published titles, numbering around thirty short-stories and three novels, and nothing more. Kim is a versatile artist, having tried his hand at a number of roles like magazine reporter, illustrator, and web designer before debuting as a writer, and he’s still very much active as an essayist and podcaster. He once mentioned in an interview that he’s in a constant state of preparation for his writing, and that all this preparation entails is: “Observe, observe, and observe.” He said he enjoys talking to people and likes to note down the impression they make on him and the conversations they share. There’s nothing really surprising about his admission that these notes help him breathe new life into his characters, but it gives you an idea of how special the pleasure and gift of practicing the craft of writing is to him, as well as the significance of characters to his novels.

     I’m a devoted reader of Kim’s books but I’ve only met him a couple of times in person-chance encounters at literary gatherings where we happened to share the same table. The impression I formed of him from only this handful of meetings is that he’s a likable guy, perhaps because of his natural affability, or, to be precise, his easygoing and well-balanced nature. Like any of us, he looks more comfortable in the company of close friends, but that doesn’t mean he feels uncomfortable or anxious in the midst of strangers. His demeanor betrays no hint of pretense or detachment meant to cover up the awkwardness of new introductions. He is gifted with a facility to make those around him feel comfortable. Perhaps, it’s better to call it naturalness, but that naturalness stems from a concern and affection for people or, more accurately, for relationships.

     In a paper titled “The ‘Human Evolution’ of Gamelike Realism” that I wrote when Kim won the Lee Hyoseok Literary Award for his short-story “Yo-yo,” I posited that the story marked a watershed in his body of work. “Yo-yo” is a story about one man’s solitude, about loss, about emotion, and about time. Unlike his earlier works that were more concerned with the world of “objects,” “gaming,” or “play,” characters in this story deal with real emotions in their relationships. His subsequent work “There Are Snakes” reveals a nuanced portrayal of jealousy and shows glimpses of his effort to deal with social pain. Kim continues to write stories that capture different aspects of human relationships without losing the warm humor and structural soundness that are the characteristic charm of his novels. He carries on doing what he does best: “Observe, observe, and observe.”