Popular Culture Connects with Literature: Kim Young-ha, Park Min-gyu, Kim Kyung-uk, Kim Junghyuk

  • onOctober 31, 2014
  • Vol.12 Summer 2011
  • byKim Young-ha

1. Seek Within Popular Culture and Deliberate Through Literature

Novels provide us with a multi-dimensional rendering of society’s cultural landscapes and desires. The language of the novel harnesses and gives form to desires drifting in reality; characters in novels and their conversations, sex, jobs, and lifestyles reflect the desires and deficiencies of their contemporaries. One great change that took place in Korean novels after 1987 was that personal desire was brought to the foreground. Contemporary novels began when the one-dimensional specimen of a fictional character evolved into an entity with individuality.

Along those lines, it is notable that in Korean novels after 1987, a major part of personal desire is inspired by outside stimuli. One could argue that traditional novels such as Honggildongjeon are spawned by social circumstances of discriminating against second wives’ children, but the desire of novels after 1987 come in greater variety and class including objects represented by brand names.

The desire of novels from 1990 and beyond preserves character types and their lifestyles. They turn on the computer the moment they wake up in the morning, listen to music on the Internet, and prefer the anonymity of 24-hour convenience stores. They are more comfortable around manmade structures than nature, and prefer the no-hassle relationships they form online than ones offline. The interesting thing is that a great part of this manmade world consists of a cultural form called popular culture. Their memories are shared with songs of popular singers, the names of fashionable clothing brands, and commercial film productions. Popular culture provides a well from which to draw one’s literary sensibility.

The important question is whether to use popular culture as a prop, or reevaluate and adopt it as a serious source of literary sensibility. Adopting it would first require self-reflection because adoption is a means of showing active support or rejection. Some writers who have adopted popular culture into their works include Kim Young-ha, Kim Kyung-uk, Park Min-gyu, and Kim Junghyuk. All four writers use popular culture as a crucial ingredient but the reason or context for this usage varies. While Kim Young-ha recruits popular culture to protest against the hegemonic ideology of a stratified society, Kim Junghyuk chooses aspects of popular culture fit for those with non-mainstream tastes. For Park Min-gyu, on the other hand, the use of popular culture is meant to bring in marginalized subcultures rather than the major items and issues of the day, which sets itself apart from popular culture as a generation marker in Kim Kyung-uk’s stories. The variety of uses thus divides popular culture and puts them in different dimensions, and in the process popular culture formerly thought of as a habit or a custom is re-examined. As such, the critical examination of popular culture produces literature.


2. Kim Young-ha: Popular Culture as Anti-Ideology

1. What Happened to the Guy Stuck in the Elevator?
Kim Young-ha
Munhakdongne Publishing Corp.
2010, 290p, ISBN 9788954610117

2. I Have the Right to Destroy Myself
Kim Young-ha
Munhakdongne Publishing Corp.
2010, 134p, ISBN 9788954611770

Popular culture shows us the polar opposite of sobriety in Kim Young-ha’s novels. For instance, the children in the story “Emergency Exit” have received no education in traditional culture widely considered common sense. They are more accustomed to making spontaneous decisions we consider vulgar. The popular culture Kim Young-ha is interested in can be found in places that have nothing to do with lofty cultural elitism.

The backdrops of these stories are spaces popular but at the same time isolated like someone alone with a computer. As the ironic title, I Have the Right to Destroy Myself, reveals, the rules of the world as we know it do not apply in Kim’s world. Kim does not attempt to hide his desire to simply snuff the values and rules of the world. His indulging in anti-normative desires becomes a reality through the Internet. His characters are anonymous creatures in a parasitic relationship with the Internet rather than social individuals, with their otaku sensibilities satisfying desires through online play forbidden offline in real life. They work as online suicide helpers or form secret societies that go on trips to get hit by lightning, and live in the confines of a room with a computer in order to illegally copy and sell software. They enjoy strictly nonsensical, private lives far removed from pesky rules. Relationships, love, and sex are all possible with a computer and a little bit of imagination.

In other words, what Kim Young-ha’s characters eat, wear, and drive represent their identity. Their beloved items created by popular culture are modern and cutting-edge. The myriad cultural items we use speak for life itself.

Park Min-gyu’s use of popular culture is similar to recycling. In other words, Park adopts the language of popular culture but transforms it, like in the short story, “Jeol,” that adopts the grammar of fantasy historical novels. “Gip” adopts the SF genre, and “Rudi” has a dash of apocalyptic narrative. “The generation of heroes has gone. It’s now “Girls’ Generation,” the author says, and attacks our popular culture of cookie cutter pop groups. In a sense, “Girls’ Generation” is a space of arrival.

One cannot tell if it is a shame, a relief, or simply an outcome, but we now live in a time where “we learn about making babies through friends, the end of the world through magazines, the match between Ali and Inoki through TV, and Macs through encyclopedias.” Popular culture is our teacher now, whether or not it is qualified to teach.


3. Park Min-gyu: The Aesthetics of Recycling

Park Min-gyu, Changbi Publishers, Inc.
2010, 620p, ISBN 9788936435882

The characters of Park Min-gyu’s novels are addicted to Pac Man, obsessed with baseball, and captivated by superheroes. But the memories of popular culture in Park’s stories lurk in the margins. For example, the boss addicted to Pac Man actually becomes a video game character, and the baseball team disappears from the history of baseball after circling the margins. The Earth Heroes they look up to are nothing like the superheroes from DC Comics. They are reminiscent of what we expect them to be, but more, pitiful and awkward.


4. Kim Kyung-uk: Chronicles of Experience and Collective Sensibility

1. Is Leslie Cheung Really Dead?
Kim Kyung-uk, Moonji Publishing Co., Ltd.
2005, 304p, ISBN 9788932016030

2. Who Killed Kurt Cobain?
Kim Kyung-uk, Moonji Publishing Co., Ltd.
2003, 350p, ISBN 8932014116

There is a generation of people who aren’t supposed to make jokes on April 1st—that is the day Leslie Cheung suddenly died. There are people who wish the news of his death were a prank. Anyone who watched “Days of Being Wild,” especially if they are in their early 20s, will not say that Leslie Cheung is just another Hong Kong actor. Leslie Cheung was a cultural symbol. Kim Kyung-uk’s “Is Leslie Cheung Really Dead?” evokes the sensibility of a generation through the cultural code of Leslie Cheung. Two college sweethearts remember each other through ABBA songs or “Red Roses on Wednesdays” and it is impossible for them to connect with people who are not familiar with Baghdad Café, “Betty,” or Kurt Cobain.

The cultural icons and tastes of the 1990s function as certificates of authentication in Kim Kyung-uk’s stories. This depicts the self discovery and maturity of Kim’s generation that occur along with popular culture. In other words, Kurt Cobain and Leslie Cheung are culture itself as well as mediums that expressed in the form of culture a sense of loss and loneliness deep within the generation.


5. Kim Junghyuk: Ethics of Minor Tastes 

3. The Library of Instruments
Kim Junghyuk, Munhakdongne Publishing Corp.
2008, 308p, ISBN 9788954605670

4. Penguin News
Kim Junghyuk, Moonji Publishing Co., Ltd.
2006, 377p, ISBN 8932016755

The popular culture of Kim Junghyuk comes with the label “B-,” technically popular culture of little value. His characters are attached to this B- culture, somewhat similar to the unusual behavior of outcasts such as otaku and enthusiasts of unusual things.

But upon closer examination we find that Kim is occupied with the issue of unconventional taste outside the uniformity of popular culture. By being obsessed with inconsequential things, he critiques a reality where all things have been trivialized as disposable material. Just as the language of an extinct tribe is at risk of disappearing right with it, usefulness is the criterion that determines life and death in contemporary society where market value is everything. Thanks to the few the useless are imbued with other values. Through such exercise, we re-examine a society where everything loses its value after a single use.

To construct an ideological world of his own design, Kim Junghyuk invokes objects we waste. Surprisingly, when the object enthusiast Kim draws our attention to an object and gives it a name, the object turns into something else entirely. Popular culture is no exception. He is interested in marginalized popular culture such as graffiti and skateboarding. Through this ‘unpopular’ popular culture, he begins to take apart the uniform culture wearing the mask of the public.