The Bleak Future of Korean Youth: Génération B by Chang Kang-myoung
- onMarch 26, 2019
- Vol.43 Spring 2019
- byMiriam Bridenne
- Génération B (The Bleached)
Tr. Hwang Jihae and Veronique Cavallasca 2019248pp.
Chang Kang-myoung began his career as a journalist, and those years of training surely explain this Korean writer’s observational style and remarkable penchant for exploration and experimentation. In his new novel Génération B, one of the central characters, Seyeon, gives us an inspiring definition of journalism: “It keeps you on your feet, and it might make you feel like you’re doing something good. At the very least it’ll constantly give you something to think about.” The author’s own voice can clearly be heard behind the young woman’s words. Fiction, in all its forms (comedy, short stories, drama), is for Chang Kang-myoung above all a way of questioning Korean society, its tendencies and changes, and confronting its dilemmas. With Génération B, the writer adds a new literary genre to his repertoire, giving us a thriller set against the backdrop of a suicide epidemic sweeping the country’s youth.
The first lines of the novel set the tone: a journalist’s report on the suicide of Park Sunwoo, the eldest son and favorite child of a major South Korean industrialist. The narrator, a young middle-class man nicknamed Antichrist by his friends, begins his story by referring to this unexplained act. Perhaps “friends” isn’t the right term: Byeonggwon, Hwiyeong, Seyeon, and Chu are bound together less by friendship than by their shared fascination for the beautiful Seyeon, a brilliant student who seems to be successful in everything she does and who reigns as the absolute mistress of the group, to the point of coercing its members into careers and relationships that can only end in disappointment and humiliation.
Despite the glorious future that seems to await her, Seyeon commits suicide, leaving behind mysterious files for Antichrist and his companions, which may—or so our anti-hero hopes —reveal the reasons for her actions.
While Antichrist embarks on a passionate and destructive relationship with Chu and does his best to pass a junior civil service examination, we eventually discover the contents of the mysterious files left behind by Seyeon. Invoking Dostoevsky, de Beauvoir, and Orwell, she has left behind a manifesto for suicide.
But is Seyeon the sole author of this manifesto in the form of an intimate journal? And why do the members of the group—who begin to commit suicide one by one—keep receiving e-mails from her address, years after her death?
Chang sets up an ingenious hall of mirrors with the identity of this “serial killer” who orchestrates a vast number of suicides from the shadows, hidden behind a baffling series of masks.
The novelist may have adopted a playful and entertaining form, but the reality he explores—the future of South Korea’s youth—and the questions he raises through fiction are no less serious and moving as a result. His characters belong to “Generation R,” the “Resigned Generation,” which he describes as follows:
Since South Korea joined the ranks of developed countries, the social system has stabilised. But compared to the 70s or 80s, there isn’t much of the cake left to go round these days. It is difficult for the next generation to take its place within overly bureaucratic organisations where most of the departmental jobs on offer constitute mere labour.
The members of this golden generation, far better educated than their parents, search in vain for a chance to prove their worth, but find nowhere to go, nowhere to shine. After beating off merciless competition to secure their spots at the best universities in the country followed by positions in prestigious companies, they are forced into junior roles that barely enable them to survive, with no hope of advancement.
Chang gives us a scathing and lucid portrayal of the confusion suffered by a generation that worships success, excellence, and the merits of ultra-competitiveness, only to find themselves completely at a loss in the face of unemployment and the impenetrability of the world of work. Suicide then appears to be the only way of doing something heroic and standing out—of making their mark, even if they can’t quite make history.
(The book will be published in June.)
Chang Kang-myoung has published eight novels, one short story collection, and one essay collection. He has received the Surim Literary Award, Jeju 4•3 Peace Prize, and Munhakdongne Writer Award. Before turning to writing, he worked as a journalist for over a decade and received the Journalist of the Month Award from the Journalists Association of Korea, Kwanhun Club Press Award, and Dong-A Ilbo Press Award.