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FICTION

[Review] It’s Impossibly Tough to be “Normal”: Four Neighbors’ Dining Table by Gu Byeong-mo

  • onMarch 13, 2020
  • Vol.47 Spring 2020
  • byAoko Matsuda
四隣人の食卓 (Four Neighbors’ Dining Table)
Tr. Osanai Sonoko
2019
200pp.

I’ve always been bad at being “normal.” Even when
I look at pictures of myself from preschool, there I am, in that bunch of kids standing up straight, the only one slouching unreliably. Japanese society brims with pressure to be the same as others. It’s riddled with strange stereotypes and rules, and being forced to live surrounded by all of that is, in a sense, a nightmare. I’ve always immediately given off the impression that I’m bad at being “normal,” and tended to stand out no matter where I was. And of course, even if others didn’t pick up on that, I still often found myself feeling out of place. Now that I make a living as a freelance writer and translator, I can, to a certain extent, choose how I participate in society, how much to get involved, and who to associate with. Because of that, I’d half-forgotten that sense of living in a nightmare.

Reading Four Neighbors’ Dining Table (Yonrinjin no shokutaku), I found myself recalling the fundamental fear of being caught up in those social rigors. That’s right, I remembered. The nightmare hasn’t ended. It felt like waking from a long dream.

The novel tells the story of four families living in an experimental utopian commune run by the government. Those families were selected from an overwhelming number of applicants, all agreeing to have three children while living in the facility. The result is a disgustingly accurate portrait of society in miniature, packed full of the social ills we face in our day-to-day lives.

While the selected families all live in the same place, there are clear disparities between them, and the differences between each of the families are hard to miss. The detailed depictions of the income inequality are particularly effective, and merciless. The economically well-off couples have time and money to spare. Naturally, they’re the ones who take initiative in the community, and often this winds up putting pressure on the other families. There are always people who demand their own version of “normal” from others, and in this story it’s the wife of the wealthiest of the four couples, Hong Dan-hee. As a freelancer with a child myself, it made my stomach ache to see her lack of understanding tinted with prejudice towards Cho Hyo-nae, who raises her children while freelancing as an illustrator. I had nothing but sympathy for the pain Cho felt when it was decided without her consent that the four families would pitch in to raise their children together. I felt genuine fear and wondered what I’d do if I were forced into the same situation. There was something horrific about some of the scenes, as when Hong Dan-hee gives Kang Gyo-won, who haggles for baby products on flea market apps while playing the happy mother on social media, expensive seasoning to use in the childrens’ food, or when Seo Yo-jin, the target of Hong’s unfaithful husband’s affections, is pressured by him into accepting expensive lunches and limited-edition cosmetics. The less conscious someone like Hong—who plays it casual in these encounters—is of their own influence, the more frightening that influence becomes. The imbalances of power between the neighbors and between the couples themselves feel suffocating to the residents in the story, and gradually it wears them out. The couples can never understand each other, and their loneliness grows deeper. One suggestive scene that appeared more than once was that of a husband spending money without a word to his wife despite their hard-strapped circumstances.

So many of the depictions rang true to life in Japan: the bidding battles on flea market sites, the social media performances of happiness, the delusion that products made in your home country are safe, the wandering in search of a “natural” way to raise children. As the information we all have access to grows more complex, and mistaken beliefs and prejudice run rampant, we all cling desperately to our lives and to raising our children, though we don’t know how it will all end. Was there ever really a right answer? What has long been believed to be the socially acceptable image of a “normal” life has transformed into a curse, and it’s got our families by the throat.

Why is it that when people see others deviating from the “normal” they think to themselves that “those others have a problem, but we’ll be fine”? If people continue to fail to achieve that so-called normalcy, if there’s no end to that deviation, isn’t there a problem with what we’ve cast as “normal”? At the end of this story, I didn’t see the women who left the community as failures. Rather, I felt a sense of hope. Maybe it’s only after you stop worrying about what others think and give up trying to put up with it all that life truly begins. We can’t, however, escape from our society like those who left the community in this book. Maybe now is the time for us to realize that “normal” is impossible, and to begin thinking about how we can do away with this concept.

 

 

Aoko Matsuda
Author, Where The Wild Ladies Are (2020)
 
Translated by Kalau Almony

Author's Profile

The French editions of Gu Byeong-mo’s Greatest Fish (Fils de l’eau) and The Wizard Bakery (Les Petits Pains de la pleine lune) were published by Philippe Picquier. The Wizard Bakery was also published in Taiwan and Mexico, and became a bestseller in Mexico. Gu has won the Changbi Prize for Young Adult Fiction, the Today’s Writer Award, and the Hwang Sun-Won Rising Writer Award.