Metamorphosing Identity: Beauty Looks Down on Me by Eun Heekyung
- onSeptember 22, 2017
- Vol.37 Autumn 2017
- byAriell Cacciola
- Beauty Looks Down on Me
Tr. Yoonjin Park / Craig Bott / Sora Kim-Russell / Jae Won Chung 2017160pp.
A melange of nameless narrators, changing bodies, a floating woman, and Dostoevsky-style doubles charge through Eun Heekyung’s short story collection Beauty Looks Down on Me. These six stories weave through the characters’ everyday lives, which often feel as if they are teetering between the common and elements plucked from fairy tales. Characters are obsessed with both their bodies and their identities, the main fascinations of each of the stories.
Although the settings are rooted in the prosaic—train carriages, offices, cafés—some of the stories tread into mild dream-like atmospheres. In “Discovery of Solitude,” the unnamed narrator is a loner. He even spends his birthday alone musing to himself that he “felt the distinct comfort of knowing there was nobody in the world who was thinking of [him] at that moment.” While in thought, he also reminisces of an unnamed fairy tale—no doubt, Pinocchio—with a wooden boy whose nose grows when he lies. The narrator proffers a rewrite: What if, instead of having his nose grow, he floated into the air? He would be able to see more of the world and live a literal lighter existence. Through literary happenstance, the loner narrator meets a woman who tells him of her divided selves:
“There are several me’s spread out all over the world, living in different places and at different times. They’re all very different. . . . They all exist separately, but if at one point they all think the same thought, we suddenly become apparent to other people.”
As the woman continues to describe her split self, she and the narrator begin to float above, he holding on to the hem of her dress. The story could be read literally, but the theme of identity (is the narrator the woman or vice versa or both?) is surely Eun’s foremost thought to the reader.
It could be trivial to say that Eun’s stories all deal with identity. It is a broad stroke to strike against the collection, but the identity of the narrators and the lack of identities of the majority of the characters around them is prominent. Even place names are replaced with single letters instead of proper names. It is less about the mundane surroundings.
“Praising Doubt,” a later story in the collection, is the most explicit when conveying Eun’s propensity toward identity. The main character, who is actually named Yoojin, organizes strangers together so that she may receive discount group train tickets. While on one journey, she sees a pair of twins. It is then that Yoojin meets up with the twin brother of a man that might possibly share her full name or the name of his brother, or possibly the translator of the book that she is reading when she meets him. Their names are the same, they live in twin apartment buildings which are one letter different to demarcate them, they are both left-handed, and a package arrives on Yoojin’s apartment instead of the apartment of the first twin. Yoojin and the man’s identity overlap to such an extent that if it weren’t for the gender distinction, it could be intimated that they are the same person, much like the characters in “Discovery of Solitude.”
The writing is strong and direct in all six stories. Eun is confident in her storytelling, and the reader never feels lost even when the characters themselves are lost in their own imaginations, their daydreams of what could come, and the machinations that derive from these schemes.
However, at points, the stories feel like ephemera. Finishing the final pages leaves a clipped sense that their intentions haven’t stuck the way they were suppose to and there is nothing further for the reader to consider. The characters’ transformations and journeys weren’t enough to knock the impression of incompleteness. The collection is technically favorable, but the overall wanting was hard to shake.
Still the stories of Beauty Looks Down on Me find strength, no doubt, in their ability to hold something unique for each reader. Eun’s writing has confidence and draw, which will intrigue readers, beguiling them into the strange worlds of her characters.
by Ariell Cacciola
Writer and Translator
Eun Heekyung has won several literary awards such as the Munhakdongne Novel Award, the Yi Sang Literary Award, and the Dongin Literary Award. The French edition of My Wife’s Boxes (Les Boîtes de ma femme) was published by Zulma. Her works have appeared in German, Spanish, Russian, Chinese, and Japanese. She also participated in the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa.