[Excerpt] Phantom Pain

  • onMarch 16, 2020
  • Vol.47 Spring 2020
  • byLee Heejoo
Phantom Pain
Tr. Rachel Min Park


I first met Manok on the street in front of the SBS building in Deungchon-dong. I had taken a leave of absence from school and was chasing around an idol group and so was Manok. We were standing front to back in a line. Like fans everywhere, we could start conversing for the sole reason of loving the same thing, and after attending the taping, we exchanged greetings and left. Two days later, when we met again at the group’s next scheduled event, we introduced ourselves to each other. I learned her name was “Manok,” comprised of the Chinese characters man, meaning “ten thousand,” and ok, meaning “jade,” and that she slightly recoiled whenever she revealed her name, perhaps because it was a bit old-fashioned, or because it sounded like the name of an actress. Manok also learned that I was from the same province as one of the members, that I became a little more excited whenever I spoke about that member, that I was of an age when I couldn’t call any of them oppa.

Understandably, we talked about the idol group we both loved—whether we’d seen a selfie a member had posted the day before, the way one member had mispronounced a word while rapping during a live show (and how adorable he was because of that!), the swift action of one member as he caught another member who’d stumbled. Apart from that, we talked about how we could tell that Member M had a dignified personality from the way he set his cup down, and how from the way Member B waved his hand two extra times to fans, we could tell he had grown up loved and well-educated. With a special knack for observation, Manok could even discern the contents of a conversation between the members captured in the corner of the screen, or how certain members alternated clothes with each other based on the collar of one of their stage costumes. This skill cultivated my favorable impression of the person known as Manok.

Whenever I spoke, Manok added something, and whenever Manok added something, I chimed in, and in this manner, there was no possibility of the conversation ever waning. I was overjoyed when I saw her, as one tends to be with a new friend. During check-in for a TV music program, I saw Manok approaching from a distance and found myself as thrilled to see her as I would have been to see a member.

Before I met Manok, I would utter these precious feelings to other people when it felt like there was no way to contain the love that was overflowing in my heart. The majority of them listened silently, but I could sense their indifference and quiet mockery. Blunt people did not bother to conceal that they found me pathetic. Polite people smiled and made great efforts so that their magnanimity would be noticed. More than contempt, it was this tolerance that exhausted me. But having fallen in love, I was capable of uttering only one thing, and was gradually reduced to a person of few words.

As soon as I mentioned these experiences, Manok expressed much empathy. Out of a desire to share her interests, she had also discussed the idol group members with her friends, but each time received a chilly response and was unable to conceal her hurt.

“Even though people understand the behavior of somebody in love—the talkativeness, the lost-in-daydreams state—they can’t seem to stand our chattiness. Even though they understand that the more impossible the love, the greater the desperation. The love affairs of others are always a laughing matter, but ours in particular becomes an easy target for criticism. Simply because our love is for people in a specific occupation. Our words and behavior are treated as if they were age-inappropriate, or some kind of sickness. I know what they say about us. ‘Crazy bitch, she’s lost her mind . . .’ Because they consider us a flock of young girls, because they don’t think we pose a direct threat, they’re even more like this. But people who love are strong. Whenever someone sneers at our love, I silently pray to myself. In the way that only those who know devotion and passion can so desperately pray, I know my prayers are the most effective. Whenever people cast scornful glances at us or swear as they pass by us in front of the broadcast station, I always think: ‘You’ll never know what it’s like to love this much.’”

When the members were active, new information gushed forth on a daily basis, and the conversations between me and Manok stretched on without end. Like travelers that had set out on a holy pilgrimage together, we recited endless catechisms. New stages, new broadcasts, new events—we were always there with the members. We voraciously devoured the information pouring out. But as with all sacred pronouncements, everything merely testified to the images of the members we already possessed and thus, our conversations were nearly always the same. The “cute” image we had of one member did not collapse even when we saw how he carried an entire water cooler jug by himself, his hairy knuckles at a signing event, or other various pieces of information. We called him a “twenty-month baby” when he was in his twenties and a “thirty-month baby” in his thirties, and as long as we had our rose-colored glasses on, for us he would never change.

Of course, after living the life of a fan for some time, there inevitably came moments when we realized what we had seen were lies. When Manok recalled how an idol group member she had previously loved had become entangled in a scandal in complete contrast to his pure image, she confessed that the shock then—though it seemed funny when she looked back on it now—was one of the biggest she had ever received in her life. Positive discussions related to the members could be done anywhere, but the only thing fans could choose with regard to that member’s mistake was silence. Having essentially stabbed herself by reading malicious online comments, Manok kept a diary—to endure the pain she could not otherwise bear if she did not speak. Even now, when Manok opened her diary to that time, she could still see the tear stains. The faded yellow hue of the page was not from the passage of time, but because the paper had swallowed the sadness of then.



“That day, the moment when I saw the news on TV, is still vivid in my mind. In an instant, my heart shriveled like a dried fig. The wail of ‘What do we do?’ sounded like it was streaming in from a distant place . . . I could sense time continuing to flow, but I was unable to accept it and remained frozen in a standstill. My heart raced to do its part, but by then, it was already too late and my heart reeled, unable to cope with my leaden blood. My dense and sticky blood swelled and raged, unable to dilute any pain—or maybe in order to convey my pain. Fast, so fast . . .

“On the internet, the user platforms had dissolved into chaos. In contrast to the television news, which had conveyed the news briefly and wrapped everything up neatly, the online sites were rife with all sorts of theories, with the tiniest of mistakes he’d ever committed surfacing to become a kind of prophecy of the present. It goes without saying that various materials were deliberately edited with evil intent and repeatedly uploaded during this time as well. That the original mistake was committed by the member was indisputable and there was nothing more to be said, but so many comments were uploaded—to the extent that it made one wonder who on earth would ever post such things. On top of all this, there was an onslaught of criticism from both the quickly divided fandom and the public, as well as comments left by people who claimed they could not bear it and quit the fandom, and I remember it being noisy all day.

“That night, I was seized by the thought that everything I’d seen until then had been a lie and my whole body trembled from a sense of betrayal. Even when a few days passed and all those comments turned out to be false—despite turning out to be false—they felt closer to the truth than what I’d seen for a long time, and I consoled myself by thinking that his mistake was only a brief slip, like a sliding door that’d been temporarily dislodged or the blade of a skate slipping on ice. In other words, I was trying to kindle a fire in a frozen brazier, to pour water into a dried up well. Yet words are easier than actions, and I tried to do my very best throughout that difficult time. But things didn’t work out as I’d hoped . . . Shortly afterwards, I quit being a fan. Trust, once lost, is difficult to recover. During those few months, I cried so much. If I hadn’t wiped away the tears I shed then, all the furniture in my room would’ve likely rotted.

“In that sense, coming to like group N is a huge relief for me. Unlike the previous group which had a ‘bad boy’ concept, group N’s concept is that of ‘innocent boys,’ and they’re actually innocent because they know their fans love them for it. And as long as we love them, the members won’t forsake our perception in the slightest. If they continue in this manner, even in the distant future, they’ll be preserved in our memories in their most beautiful form, like the dew that arrives at dawn, or some being that can survive on a single drop of honey voluntarily offered up by a bee. In the idol market these days, in which even coarse words and actions are permitted under the pretext of ‘naturalness,’ even aiming for purity makes me feel the members are precious.”

Despite our words, we still wanted to validate the members for ourselves. We believed that the appearance we were exposed to was the truth. They didn’t hide anything about themselves on reality show programs, and showed us their honest selves. However, that alone was insufficient. We wanted to see them outside the media—that is, we wanted to see everything possible. Even then, we earnestly wanted to be able to confirm their “true selves”—their purity. This was also why we staked our lives on every single item we could get our hands on, all of them equally important, from comments uploaded by former school alumni, to notes left by ordinary people who had seen them by chance.

Perhaps this behavior also meant we were foolish believers who absolutely needed to touch a tangible sleeve in order to believe. But isn’t a fan originally “one who loves” rather than “one who believes,” and doesn’t one endlessly suffer and doubt in love? To construct belief out of a single contact instead of an invisible miracle, it was only proper for the Messiah to readily push forth their sleeve. I agonized over not being able to touch that sleeve.

Manok always claimed she got her information from an acquaintance, but I knew she sometimes purposefully loitered in front of the group’s rehearsal studio or their dormitory. She insisted that she had a prior engagement, that she was at the café by pure chance, but we both knew very well that there was no reason for Manok, who lived on the outskirts of Seoul, to go all the way to Gangnam just for a cup of coffee.

If there are a hundred fans, then a hundred ways of loving exist, but our policy was that the sasaeng fans who went so far as to stalk the members’ private lives had to be eliminated. As a result, whenever Manok talked about such things, I quietly hinted at my discomfort, but—I must confess—out of everything Manok talked about, nothing was as captivating as those insights. I kept repeating “personal lives are off-limits, personal lives are off-limits,” but she reasoned with me. And when I finally relented to listen to her stories, the surrender was so sweet and even Manok’s gasps for breath felt as seductive as a chalice filled with poison. I could feel the ecstasy rising from the tips of my ears, penetrating all the way to my insides.

There were occasionally thrilling bits of information embedded within the stories she told me, but truthfully, more often than not, most of it was lowbrow and crass. To truly become a sasaeng, a lot of time and money was required. In particular, in order to stalk members’ private lives, one needed a car of one’s own or a verbal contract with a taxi driver, but Manok did not have the financial means for such things. All Manok had was an endurance far greater than others, and the patience to withstand both heat and cold. However, even that became useless when it came to doing even the absolute minimum requirements of the job, such as determining when the members would soon come out and when to leave them behind and give up. In this kind of situation, there was naturally a limit to the kind of information that could be gathered from chasing them on foot.

However, Manok treated all her information, regardless of importance—for instance, a picture of an empty dish in front of their rehearsal space and the statement “M seems to like spicy seafood noodle soup with oysters. He orders it all the time”—as top-secret. In retrospect, all those stories could have been from Manok’s own delusion or even straight-out lies. I felt that Manok, who had invested far more time in the members than me, was my wiser seonbae. My seonbae’s words, though there was no need to engrave them onto my heart, were still meaningful in their own way.

Though she might have specified “spicy seafood noodle soup with oysters,” the extent of Manok’s knowledge was merely that M had been in the rehearsal room that day, and there was an empty dish placed in front of the room. It could have been that the delivery person forgot to retrieve the dish, or that another employee had ordered it. Yet Manok stubbornly clung to a single answer, maybe because this was the greatest reward she could bestow upon herself, or maybe for my sake, as I could not hide my look of admiration at her words. Whatever the case may have been, just following the shape of her lips in forming those words was alluring.

Conversations brimming with intentional misinterpretations and suppositions were fun, but above all else, what thrilled me was the group’s beauty. Their beauty was like an exceedingly well-constructed castle wall. A sturdy castle that refused to succumb to powerful winds. I wanted to make the world aware of that image, which even had an aloof elegance to it, though the word “beautiful” always seemed insufficient to describe it. I wanted praise for their beauty.

Like a medieval knight, I yearned to trace each and every one of their veins and forever sing their praises, of their perfection, the precise symmetry of their faces, the luster of their blemish-free complexions. Like endless ivy that crawled up a castle wall in its attempts to conquer it, I wanted to find, with all my strength, the words to explain that beauty.

But in trying to find the right words, and perhaps because I was too old and tired for this generation, I felt how quickly language withered. How weak I was in front of beauty—my body shaking from despair and impotence, I wanted to tear out the roots of my pain from my mouth, but all my language disintegrated into coldly spectral words, like a corpse sunk into a swamp. So that even though I frequently went to see the members, the only words I could utter when I was actually in front of them were incoherent exclamations. Occasionally, I shrieked or hysterically cried, “I love you!” but upon spitting that out, my pent-up resentment came out as tears. When I explained how I felt, Manok said she understood.

“How is it that we can only express the most beautiful existence we know in this manner? Why can we only communicate the most beautiful existence with the most vulgar of words? Sometimes, without even knowing it, I end up swearing loudly, not even realizing that the words I’m shouting are profanities, and stand there in a daze. Maybe because those curses are the most extreme words I know? Or because I can’t find a way to properly respond to the images flooding my eyes in the moment? When I see the members, the words I most frequently use are ‘Fuck, I’m so happy I could die.’ Like a robot: ‘Fuck, I’m so happy I could die.’ Without a single incorrect letter. Over and over, I repeat those words until I return to my senses. In those moments, the whites of my eyes are probably glazed over like a person gone mad. Yet I somehow manage to speak and when I do, those words, weirdly enough, don’t wear me down; rather, more than any other words, I feel they bring me closer to the truth.”

Author's Profile

Lee Heejoo was born in Seoul in 1992 and graduated from the Korean literature department at Chung-Ang University. Phantom Limb (2016) is her debut novel and received Munhakdongne’s 
 College Fiction Prize.