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

  • onNovember 1, 2014
  • Vol.13 Autumn 2011
  • byKim Insuk

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 society where the majority does not oppress the minority by sheer numbers, where even the weakest members can be heard. If society gives up on individual rights because it involves too great a struggle, the horrors of a risk society will grow.

 

Yun I-Hyeong, The Big Wolf, Blue

Yun I-Hyeong’s The Big Wolf, Blue is about a virtual disaster born of contemporary man’s mindset that seeks to resolve all problems via cyberspace. Yun experiments with sci-fi and fantasy to explore new literary horizons in her second novel, The Big Wolf, Blue. Sara the protagonist is not in the least surprised when she hears news of zombies consuming human flesh and growing in number by inflicting harm on others. Her lukewarm response to news of the catastrophe reminds us of our reality where disasters strike so often we have become desensitized to calamity. When her cable and electricity are cut off, she senses that she, too, will soon be eaten by a zombie. The problem that Blue, a virtual image created by a computer program, must resolve, is not one that pertains to future societies far off in the future, but the bewilderment and despair of today’s young men and women.

As horrifying as the cataclysm that is turning the entire human race into zombies is the despair of the four young protagonists who realized that they are growing old without ever having lived the way they had wanted to. In a world where no one can save them, the young protagonists believe that the virtual wolf they have made with the computer program will one day jump out of the computer and save them.

 

Pyun Hye-Young, Ashes and Red

Ashes and Red is the story of a man accused of being his ex-wife’s murderer and suspected of being a carrier of an infectious disease on his way into C, a country suffering from an epidemic. He becomes homeless once he arrives in country C and lives like a ghost in the sewers. On the surface, the crux of the conflict is in the outbreak of the epidemic, but the force that drives the protagonist to doom can be found in the protagonist himself. The more efficient he becomes at his job, the more he assimilates into the system and takes a step closer to his own ruin. Members of contemporary society who have absorbed the lessons of capitalism as a given may seem like harmless people who would not do evil on purpose, but in truth, these people can be the very source of someone’s downfall.

The main characters in the calamities that Pyun conjures up are run-of-the-mill people who think that they are mere cogs in the larger system. Humans who are loyal to commands coming from above and adapt to follow the rules of the system are the ones with the potential to facilitate disaster.

While Robinson Crusoe succeeds in surviving in order to return to civilization and society, and reclaims his identity in the end, the main character of Ashes and Red does survive but deteriorates into a surplus human being for whom belonging has no meaning. While Robinson Crusoe’s survival was for the purpose of rejoining civilization, the protagonist in Ashes and Red becomes a stranger in the city he so longed to be a part of.

 

Beyond Blinding Fear and False Hope

The popularity of modern motherhood myths, as seen in the success of Shin Kyung-sook’s Please Look After Mom, can be traced back to the mass psychology of general anxiety and depression, which in turn stems from the sensational rhetoric of the “Era of the End” or the “Time of Annihilation.” The virtual ruination we see in recent literary works is never absolute but relative. Instead of depicting complete annihilation where all of human civilization has turned into Ground Zero, disasters strike sporadically, or the victims of disasters are generally the socially marginalized. Some works focus more on criticizing the uniformity with which society responds to disaster rather than depicting different kinds of disasters such as epidemics, war, and volcanic eruptions. Another scene that appears frequently is one where a civilization built for the convenience of man turns on humanity and strikes with unimaginable horror.

Today people face an unprecedented variety of disasters without so much as a trustworthy survival manual. A proverb from Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching goes, “Value disaster as highly as your body.” The realities in dystopian literature are described as reality itself rather than extenuating circumstances. The exit will present itself to us when people stop avoiding disasters and start recognizing disaster as a primary condition of life. In this society of danger the question of how to coexist with others, rather than how individuals can survive, is a budding literary theme.

 

 


1. Ashes and Red
Pyun Hye-Young, Changbi Publishers, Inc.
2010, 260p, ISBN 9788936433734
2. Ping Pong
Park Min-gyu, Changbi Publishers, Inc.
2006, 258p, ISBN 9788936433550
3. The Big Wolf, Blue
Yun I-Hyeong, Changbi Publishers, Inc.
2011, 330p, ISBN 9788936437176
4. Can You Go Insane?
Kim Insuk, Hankyoreh Publishing Co.
2011, 302p, ISBN 9788984314726