[Spanish] Have You Ever Cried at Work?*: Neon Labyrinths by Baik Soulinne et al.
- onJuly 2, 2021
- Vol.52 Summer 2021
- byAndrea Abreu
- Neon Labyrinths
Tr. Sun-me Yoon 2021164pp.
* Phrase borrowed from the story “The Joys and Sorrows of Work” by Jang Ryujin.
The other day, I saw a post on Instagram that explained the existence of a phenomenon called internalized capitalism, which consists of bringing a hyperproductive mentality into all areas of life. Thousands of people shared the post and it made me think that the entire world—myself included—suffers from that brutal syndrome. Over the next few days, as in a revelation, I realized that this was just one more way of putting the weight of an entire system on top of the wobbly pillar of individual responsibility, branding us as workaholics.
Not long after, I began reading the book that concerns me here, Neon Labyrinths, and I found myself with six stories like six simulacra of worlds very similar to this world. Of all the themes I could identify, there was one that ran through the pages of the anthology, from beginning to end, like a sort of clothesline that kept each of the texts aligned: work; the characters’ relationship with the office, their salary, or promotions.
A living corpse who continues going to the office out of pure inertia; a character who begins collecting her salary in loyalty point cards; a journalist whose life is ruined yet still trusts in meritocracy; a man who falls in love with his ex-colleague; a contingent worker in higher education; two co-workers who are going to celebrate their respective weddings. Everything revolves around work: life, death, love.
At various times, throughout the collection, the characters are described, beyond their physical qualities, by their aptitudes for the world of work. I identified a tendency to employ language lifted from coaching slang, marketing, apps and new supposedly horizontal work dynamics. The landscapes of the six texts share, besides a high level of plasticity, an urban setting. The narratives tend toward precision, in accordance with the rectilinear figure of Seoul’s skyscrapers or the austerity and perfectly domesticated nature of places like Pangyo—the Korean Silicon Valley. In this sense, I can’t help but think of Uncanny Valley by Anna Wiener.
Chung Serang (1984), Jang Ryujin (1986), and Baik Soulinne (1982), the three authors selected, share the same period of birth: the eighties. They are women in their thirties, the period of consolidation into adulthood, the epitome of the productive subject of capitalism. Under these texts beat the anxieties of a generation of Korean millennials: globalization, the culture of dieting or frustrated love, among others.
Chung Serang seemed to me, without a doubt, the most poetic. She is a master of the genre as can be seen by the dexterity with which she employs the tools of narrative: one example is her use of the device of the found manuscript in “As Everyone Knows, Eunyeol,” a text in which she develops, masterfully, two parallel stories set in very distant time periods. Her imagery is very vivid and, occasionally, unpleasant. She reminds me of the Ecuadorian author Mónica Ojeda, since both have the capacity to generate their own universes. I must note that, although I enjoyed her writing, I think the first story of the anthology—“Size L for All Eternity”—seems out of place with the rest.
Between the other two authors I found great connections. Baik Soulinne possesses the power of the gaze. Her metaphors and comparisons are sublime. I must admit, however, that my two favorite stories were “The Joys and Sorrows of Work” and “We’ll Be Happy and Eat Partridges,” both by Jang Ryujin. The way in which she constructs pathetic characters and is able to move the reader with their humanity transported me to works by Lorrie Moore or Miranda July. I adore that tendency to ratchet up the tension in everyday situations until it reaches unforeseen limits. That sensation where the realistic ends up becoming far-fetched and quasi-supernatural.
In the three authors I discovered a kind of “anti-system” gaze that they demonstrate through the use of absurd humor. Their characters tend to behave in unexpected ways, rebelling against the very universe they inhabit. They are required to separate, categorically, the private sphere from the public in the workplace, but their lives enter the office irremediably. They can’t help but act emotionally. They end up getting up from their chairs and locking themselves in the bathroom in order to cry at work.
Translated by Lucina Schell
Author, Panza de burro [Donkey’s Belly]
(Editorial Barrett, 2020)
Featured in Granta’s “The Best of Young Spanish-Language Novelists 2” Spring 2021 issue