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FICTION

A Shape-Shifting Collection of Conundrums and Emotion: Nobody Checks the Time When They’re Happy by Eun Heekyung

  • onDecember 21, 2017
  • Vol.38 Winter 2017
  • byCatherine Chung
Nobody Checks the Time When They’re Happy (Collection of Short Stories)
Tr. Amber Kim
2017
190pp.

Eun Heekyung opens her wonderful and layered collection of short stories, Nobody Checks the Time When They’re Happy, with a tale within a tale that also poses a riddle. She begins with a summary of a short story about the calamity that follows when a man announces to his family that he’s been having an affair and wants a divorce. Everyone is implicated in the ensuing tragedy, and then the narrative abruptly pans out to deliver this puzzle: “The story ends with the author returning home to brood over the unfortunate family. Which member of the family does he write about?”

And so the central conceits of this story and the collection are introduced. There are individual desires and familial obligations, rules that maintain order and yet chafe at the hearts of those who follow them—the tragedy that follows giving in to desire, and the tragedy that follows when you numbly conform to the rules. There’s the betrayal of family versus the betrayal of self. There’s self-determination and fate, and an occasional glimpse of the author’s shadow, compelling each narrator to speak. “In every family,” the narrator of “An Obviously Immoral Love,” declares, “the members have their teeth sunk into each other’s backs. If they loosen their bite, everyone will scatter and the family will break apart. But if they bite down too hard, they’ll rip each other apart. That’s love.”

The narrator has fallen in love with a married man who declares he will leave his wife to be with her. On the same night, her mother reveals that her father has left to be with a younger woman. What follows is a brilliant series of reversals as the narrator says to her lover “the things my mom wanted to hear,” while she tells her mother “the things he [her lover] wanted to hear.” A blurring of positions bleeds into a blurring of identities: when she speaks to her mother, she argues on behalf of her father for his freedom, his right to live in accordance with his desires, and against submitting to a life of concessions and disappointments. When she speaks to her lover, she argues from the point of view of the faithful and jilted spouse. “How am I different from your wife?” she asks. This conflation escalates until later when she wonders, “Does that mean Mom should let the other woman have Dad? Does that mean I should steal from my mom’s share of happiness?”

This uneasiness is echoed again in the title story, “Nobody Checks the Time When They’re Happy,” when another character ruminates, “I wondered whether I’d stolen my mom’s share of luck . . ., as if there’s a limit to the amount of luck one family is allotted and I’ve maxed out ours.” Other themes are repeated throughout the collection—the unreliability of narrative, of identity, of morality; the dangerous, even catastrophic, nature of love; the way we are made to pay for the sins of others; and the unknowability of the other as a mirror for the unknowability of the self. “I was confused,” says a wife to her husband in “Bruise.” “There must be more me’s inside of me than the woman I know. Sometimes, I don’t even know who I am.”

The title story and “The Other Side of the World” are more offbeat. “Nobody Checks the Time When They’re Happy” directly addresses the narrator’s deceased lover, and the story is a mystery that is unpacked backwards in time. “The Other Side of the World” presents a character who is dug out by a nameless woman’s red pocketknife (from what, into what, we are never told). Still, despite their unconventional styles, the stories pack fewer surprises, and for that reason feel less satisfying and more predictable in substance.

In this collection, Eun is at her most striking when upending the narratives she has painstakingly set up. Misunderstandings abound, as do contradictory understandings of events and of character, both between different people, and between past and present selves. The closely entangled relationships she describes ultimately underscore a deep and unquenchable solitude. What is most satisfying about the stories here is the way the mundane accretes into the profound, and Eun’s virtuosity lies in her ability to orchestrate a series of subtle and dazzling shifts, like turning the knob of a kaleidoscope, so that one pattern transforms seamlessly into the next, and from moment to moment we are filled—like her characters—with both bewilderment and understanding, resignation and yearning. 

 

by Catherine Chung
Author, Forgotten Country
Fiction Editor, Guernica Magazine