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When Twentysomethings Begin Storytelling: Korean Literature Since the Asian Financial Crisis

  • onJuly 27, 2017
  • Vol.36 Summer 2017
  • byShin Soojeong

 

Walter Benjamin begins his famous essay “The Storyteller: Reflections on the Works of Nikolai Leskov” with the fact that soldiers returning from the First World War were reluctant to talk about their experiences. According to him, they were a generation that went to school in horse-drawn streetcars, and now faced a country where everything had utterly changed, save the passing of clouds in the sky.1 The eternal and unchanging European pastoral landscape was no more; the violent waves of modernity transformed all that they touched, too quickly and too easily. The ability to listen to someone else’s story and empathize with it also became a casualty of the times.

Korea was not exempt from the kind of transformative forces that assaulted Germany. Our changes began with the Korean War in the 1950s, with the government-led economic development policies adding fuel to the fire in the 1960s and 1970s. The voices of the 1980s that demanded democratization and the equal distribution of wealth managed to slow these forces of change for a while, but the tides of modernization could not be kept at bay. The Asian Financial Crisis that sparked in 1997 proved to be the culmination of such forces, but also provided us with the opportunity to think about where we were going as a nation.

Kim Keum Hee’s short story, “Too Bright Outside for Love,” can be taken as an early damage report on the “IMF generation.”2 Pilyong, who is demoted from his sales manager position at a conglomerate to the maintenance section and then asked to hand in his resignation, avoids his coworkers by going to lunch alone. One day, nearby a McDonald’s in the Jongno district, he stumbles upon an advertisement for a play starring Yanghee, a girl he (thought he) loved sixteen years ago. While Pilyong had been preparing to study in the US by attending English conversation classes at a cram school in Jongno before getting hired by a conglomerate and becoming a “middle-aged geezer” salesman who goes about handing out his name card at his son’s school and doing slimy sales deals, Yanghee apparently stuck to being a penniless stage actor. Upon learning this, he goes to see her play every time he feels his aching wounds, and at one point realizes that “there were things that did not become completely absent but were instead simply submerged in a state of indeterminate lack.” In the end, he is able to look about him with the “far-off expression of someone who has just emerged after crying for a long time.”

Can the hard-earned epiphanies of that generation who were college students in the late nineties still ring true for young people in 2017? Chang Kang-myoung’s “Fired” casts doubt on such assumptions. Chang—known for his novel Because I Hate Korea, featuring a character in her late twenties dreaming of escaping her “second-class citizenship” in Korea—clearly illustrates through the fierce conflict between a thirtysomething manager and a twentysomething part-timer that such epiphanies are rarer than ever. The middle-aged are more prone to expose their paranoia instead of doling out cheap sympathy toward the “girls,” which is how the twentysomething part-timer is referred to in the story. And twentysomethings are pushed into a situation where they have to fight a lonely fight just to support themselves.

This hostile relationship between generations augurs the breakdown of society itself. Apple Kim’s “Curry on a Desk” portrays such a reality. The unnamed first-person narrator lives in a poorly insulated gosiwon (a tiny studio apartment barely large enough for a table and a bed, with no private bathroom or kitchen). This “I” does not bother with the effort to impress others or the effort to improve one’s life, instead does piecemeal work at construction sites whenever he runs out of money. The gosiwon setting is the residential zone of an economic strata that is stripped of even the aspirational vanities of the likes of Pilyong in “Too Bright Outside for Love” or the middle manager in “Fired.” The people who dwell here have no pretentions of joining the middle class. The only thing that is allotted to them is instant curry and a narrow room. These rooms fester neighborly hate instead of love. The gosiwon neighbors abhor each other, gang up on each other, and sometimes lynch one another, in the end driving one of their victims into a hate-filled life of crime that surprises even themselves. This “I” in the end is no more than a monster created by our own society.

Poet Park Soran’s home is at the “end of the line” on a bus. The “peak” that the bus can reach only when pulling in “with all their might” can be read as a symbol of where the twentysomethings of today are pushed out to. The young people trapped in that isolating place ask themselves, “Is this why everyone / Makes haste to disembark from me.” Lim Solah calls her own life “Rent” as she is unable to settle down with a job, instead being forced to make a living stringing together part-time work. She cannot participate in the real business of life, and is relegated to watching “the people go by,” standing in the store all day as the rest of the world “passes by.” Her eyes happen to meet those of a man who then enters the store, but nothing happens. He buys a loaf of bread and all that remains is the umbrella he forgot, which at the end of the poem is standing with the speaker. This lonely scene is clearly foreshadowed by the poem’s first line.

“Evening Study Hall” by poet Park Joon also illustrates such loneliness. Evening study hall is a practice unique to Korean high schools, where unlike its literal translation “free study,” there is nothing free about being incarcerated in a classroom until 10 p.m. or midnight. At least the kids in evening study halls have that very middle-class goal of getting into college; those without such privilege must change out of their uniforms and become delivery boys. Girls run away to Seoul and are never heard from again, graduations are deferred indefinitely, and the alleys are full of “cackling” boys and empty jokes that proliferate as if “spat from my yawning craw.”

Are the stories of these twentysomethings in 2017 really that unfamiliar or chilling? Perhaps they are filled with experiences we cannot possibly emphasize with, like the stories of the German soldiers who came back from the Great War. But these stories, totally devoid of any surface hope or passion or effort, can be read like the rantings of neurotic patients, as efforts to cover up wounds and desperation and defeat. These rantings at least show us how far we have come as a society. If so, shouldn’t we pause to look back on the crazy path that we’ve taken with such blinding speed? Perhaps what we need to do as a society is to listen to these stories and try to take in these narratives as our own. Our young writers today are trying hard to start this conversation.

 

Shin Soojeong
Literary Critic
Professor of Creative Writing
Myongji University

 


1. Walter Benjamin, Iluminations (New York: Vintage Digital, 2011), Kindle edition
2. Koreans refer to the youth who grew up during the Asian Financial Crisis of the late 1990s as the IMF generation.