Experimenting with the Imagination: Hwang Jung-eun, Kim Tae-yong, Pyun Hye-Young, Yun Ko-eun, and Han Yujoo

  • onNovember 1, 2014
  • Vol.12 Summer 2011
  • byHwang Jungeun

Prologue: Young Writers Examine Korean Society After the Democratization Movement

Young Korean writers who have emerged in the 21st century charm readers through their imagination and literary experimentation. Hwang Jung-eun, Pyun Hye-young, Kim Tae-yong, and Han Yujoo represent the group of young writers who have overturned the unwavering tradition of realism in Korean literature. These writers experiment with narrative in unusual ways and create works that are unconventional compared to a traditional Korean narrative. Depicting a multifaceted portrait of Korean society where “structural democracy” is permitted but “democracy in practice” is still miles away, the writers render characters fighting against the “desire to consume,” which takes hold of the masses with a powerful influence no match for democracy.


1. Hwang Jung-eun: Chased to the Periphery of the City

For Hwang Jung-eun’s wretched characters, survival is such a pressing issue that democracy is the least of their problems. With real estate prices through the roof and the cost of living changing daily in a metropolis, especially in Seoul, one has to first and foremost survive in the struggle to secure a living space. The winds of redevelopment tear through the city under the guise of “designing a stylish city.” The laws of capitalism continue to push for something newer and more efficient, and the majority who cannot stay on top of these trends must suffer under the high cost of living and housing. In “One Hundred Shadows,” Hwang Jung-eun gives us shrewd commentary on a ruthless society that defines someone’s neighborhood as a trivializing “slum:” “Don’t they simply label the area “slum” because it’s an area to be leveled at some point, and things get too complicated if you think of it in terms of someone’s livelihood or living space?” Can we violently label a space where someone eats, sleeps, and raises children with the term, “slum?” Society has too easily integrated the term into its vocabulary and “othered” the space referred to as such, because the slums are nothing more than future sites for fancy apartment complexes, where even the memories of the so-called slums will disappear without a trace.


1. One Hundred Shadows
Hwang Jung-eun
Minumsa Publishing Group
2010, 196p, ISBN 9788937483059
2. The Seven Thirty-two Elephant Train
Hwang Jung-eun
Munhakdongne Publishing Corp.
2008, 293p, ISBN 9788954606080


Hwang perceptively portrays the pain of those living in a space that cannot possibly be represented by the word “slum,” a space always in danger of falling into ruin. She illustrates the fiery trace of lives that cannot be compensated for, and life’s suffering that cannot be converted into money. The stories from her collection The Seven Thirty-two Elephant Train also depict the marginalized pushed out to the edge of the city lines. Her stories lend voice to the small, frail voices drowned out by the extravagant noise of the city and the groaning of the masses barely audible under the sound of cell phones and TVs—voices so painful to hear that one is tempted to cover the ears. Her stories contain these disappearing voices. Hwang Jung-eun’s novels are an open-mic rally for the homeless and the abandoned children.


2. Kim Tae-yong: Pushed Out to the Margins of “Family” and “Us”

The world Kim Tae-yong paints is a wasteland where the expectation of closeness or drive for common emotions such as love or friendship has disappeared, Kim Tae-yong’s works take a critical look at the demise of all human relationships through characters that are already free from the pressures of having to search for meaning in life. The lives of Kim Tae-yong’s characters do not progress in chronological order. They appear to be living without purpose or meaning, and sometimes enjoy schizophrenic delusions like the main character of Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Underground. What does it mean to live with “your wits about you” in a society where depression and mental illnesses spread like diseases? Kim Tae-yong’s characters makes the very effort of normal vs. abnormal meaningless. Through characters that cannot communicate with others or escape from pain and anxiety no matter how hard they try, Kim shows us the extremes of modern man’s isolation and disconnectedness. In Pig on the Grass, a father who cannot communicate with his son ironically feels he can talk to his pig by oinking at it. The dejection of a father who cannot communicate at all with his closest kin but feels he has formed a connection with an animal satirizes the impossibility of the modern man’s inability to communicate in a strangely comic way.


1. Pig on the Grass
Kim Tae-yong, Moonji Publishing Co., Ltd.
2007, 304p, ISBN 9788932018201
2. Straight Out
Kim Tae-yong, Jaeum&Moeum Publishing Co.
2010, 408p, ISBN 9788957074961

Kim Tae-yong’s full-length novel Straight Out reexamines the meaning of reading and writing, the reader and the writer, and the novel and the story. His novel casts doubt on the premise of “language as a means of communication.” Kim Tae-yong is a writer who understands deep down how easily words are misunderstood, how quickly stories fall apart, and how easily the world is distorted. For a perfectionist dreaming of the perfect form of communication, perhaps silence is the most effective way of communicating. However, human beings are fated to use language to work through the very impossibility of communication. Kim’s novel examines the fate of man where one has no choice but to use language to retain thought in a world where language invariably betrays intention.


3. Pyun Hye-young: The Terror of Death, the Catastrophe of the City

Pyun Hye-young’s novels are about people who wander inside a labyrinth for eternity. Her protagonists are people who do not know where to go even when presented with the opportunity to escape from their humdrum routines. Corpses, ghouls, monsters, and other uncanny characters roam about her narratives as though it is the most natural thing. Her novels are teeming with characters like zombies or Frankenstein-like creatures that pose a threat to normal life. She has an unsurpassed talent for depicting the grotesqueness of life through the perspective of death. Her novels are also portraits of the powerless modern man who has been robbed of the opportunity for normal life.


3. Heading for a Breeding Farm
Pyun Hye-young, Munhakdongne Publishing Corp.
2007, 252p, ISBN 9788954603591
4. AOI Garden
Pyun Hye-young, Moonji Publishing Co., Ltd.
2005, 266p, ISBN 9788932016207

Pyun’s story collection, AOI Garden is so full of corpses that it would be appropriate to say that corpses, rather than people, are the main characters. The modern man makes financial preparations for death with insurance policies and braces for death scientifically through medicine. But mankind today is more terrified of death than ever, and there is also the intensified horror of a life more painful than death. Pyun’s work seeks to get to the problem of life through issues with death. Dead bodies and patients connected to unwarranted deaths, incomprehensible deaths, and inexplicable deaths that occur far too often in contemporary society but cannot be explained appear in Pyun’s work. If only a part of one’s husband, wife, or close friend’s corpse turned up, would one recognize the body? Pyun’s “Corpses” makes the readers ask themselves this awful question. Her stories deal with death, corpses, and ghosts with more composure than Hollywood horror movies such as “The Others” or “Sixth Sense.” Her works are also reminiscent of Antonin Artaud’s “theatre of cruelty” or Francis Bacon’s cold, grotesque paintings. Further comparison of Pyun’s novels with films brings one’s attention to the apocalyptic of “I Am Legend” or “The Road.” The height of Pyun’s end-of-the-world imagination is found in Ashes and Red, her first full-length novel about the bloodcurdling end of a city taken over by an epidemic with unknown causes.

The city takes on an important meaning in Pyun’s works. The city provides various conveniences, but we never know when a wolf might escape from the zoo. An earthquake or a fire can turn all manmade structures into weapons that destroy those they were meant to serve. The city is at once a blessing and curse of civilization. Pyun illustrates city inhabitants through her composed narrative as they struggle to survive and walk the path of doom without realizing just how dependent they are on modern conveniences the city provides. These city people who follow trends like others, as others do, afraid of what others might think, are becoming increasingly accustomed to a uniform life, dream, and tastes.


4. Yun Ko-eun: A Lighthearted Imagination

The moon suddenly becoming two and the Earth multiplying to six Earths, a school that teaches people how to eat alone, a fortuneteller one can pay to dream on one’s behalf, a self-run motel where a guest isolated in a snowstorm ends up the victim of road kill, paranoia inspired by a sudden outbreak of bedbugs, and a novelist who writes on toilet paper at a department store bathroom are some creations of Yun Ko-eun’s lighthearted imagination. Depicting unwelcome situations in life told in a lively tone, Yun successfully creates an alienating effect by depicting various ailments of contemporary society. Through her writing, readers meet their world rendered in a new, unfamiliar light.


Table for One
Yun Ko-eun, Moonji Publishing Co., Ltd.
2010, 398p, ISBN 9788932020495


In “Table for One,” we see a woman who cannot get along with her co-workers and eats lunch alone. She signs up for classes at a school that teaches people how to eat alone. She meets other students at the school who share the same fear of “ending up alone” and becomes accustomed to the fear. “Invader Graphics” is about a writer who has made her debut but has yet to write a hit. The last writing space she finds as refuge from her disapproving family is the fancy bathroom at a department store, which she finds to be the ideal writing space with its endless supply of toilet paper to write on, not to mention “free” electricity and Internet. But she cannot tell when this place, too, will be taken away from her. At “The Park Hyeon-mong Dream Co.,” customers get custom-made dreams and someone to dream for them. Like everything else, dreams can be chosen, bought, and sold. The greatest appeal of Yun’s stories is the transforming power that turns a grim reality into a charming story, turning a miserable world into a space where captivating stories unfold.


5. Han Yujoo: Questioning Language and Stories

Han Yujoo’s characters watch superman and ponder the finite nature of time, feel ashamed of the violence of civilization watching footage of the 9/11 attacks, and question the future of civilization at the news of whales committing mass suicide. They are fed up with living in a media-addicted society where all human experiences are translated into the language of media and images. The author herself is a “media child” raised in cyberspace, but dreams of a world of music in which novels cannot be easily translated into “other languages” and storytelling itself hardly communicates the whole of the story. Han Yujoo dreams of a novel that, like music, knows when to keep silent and does not hope to be completely understood.


To the Moon
Han Yujoo, Moonji Publishing Co., Ltd.
2006, 246p, ISBN 9788932016962


She attempts to speak through the novel, one of the most flexible media forms available, but is keenly aware that the novel is composed of a limiting medium we call language. As a result, her novels accept the irony that they are using language to reject language, just as mankind is enslaved by mass media whose original intention was to aid communication. In her story “Death Fugue” she astutely points out that, "The photo albums own people, not the other way around."


Epilogue: A Tattered World, a New Story

What new paths of resistance can the novel take in the face of the nation and the capitalist powerhouses that invent increasingly sophisticated technologies of oppression? Young writers of the new millennium continue to experiment between the sense of responsibility that urges them to write new stories illustrating the reality today in which the revolution of democracy’s success is being undermined by capitalism, and the desire to revive old stories that continue to this day. These writers keep readers on the edge of their seats with stories that defeat our conventional beliefs about the novel form, and use experimental styles that no longer put storytelling in the forefront.