Struggling to Affirm Life: Vapor Trail by Kim Ae-ran

  • onOctober 26, 2014
  • Vol.18 Winter 2012
  • byYi Soo-hyung
Vapor Trail

One of the reasons why Kim Ae-ran is beloved by many readers in Korea is because of her cheerful and upbeat characters that do not give up hope and persevere even under the worst of life’s circumstances. Moreover, the characters in Kim’s novels have resisted despair in their not-so-easy lives because they do not give up their positive attitude toward their existence despite their relative youth.

Through reimagining the possibility of family relationships, the characters in Kim Ae-ran’s novels disclose their unique ways of affirming their lives. They are able to hold on to their hopes and optimistic views of their birth and existence. Questions such as “Why do we live?” Furthermore, “Why were we born?” “For no special reason?” “By chance?” As it turns out, the young female protagonist from Run, Pop, Run! was born by chance but despite that she finds a purpose to her life. This power of imagination, which is both heartrending and admirable, is so powerful in My Palpitating Life that it allows a 17-year-old boy who’s dying of a terminal illness to envision the moment of his conception and his birth in a beautiful manner. Readers, too, will empathize with these characters and also be invigorated with the energy to go on with life.

Yet in her most recently published book, Vapor Trail, a collection of short stories, it seems that this bright and upbeat imagination has vanished from her world. In the short story, “Goliath Underwater,” a boy survives a great flood that is reminiscent of an apocalyptic event. The boy, who is the sole survivor from a tower crane where his father had been killed, signifies the new birth of humanity but he himself does not understand why he had to be reborn in such a place. Because he cannot comprehend how he survived, he also cannot figure out why he has to go on living; consequently, the peril of being susceptible to hopelessness and despair will always be there.

Another short story, “Thirty,” is definitely an epilogue to her story, “Passing the Meridian” that was published a few years earlier. However, whereas the “B-star that was passing through the meridian” was briefly comforted by the shining star in a weary life, the character from “Thirty” is not assisted by any kind of imagination and is exposed to the harsh circumstances of her life, all by herself. The young girl who had not lost laughter and hope in the face of poverty is now, several years later, in despair at the apparent hopelessness of her reality.

In spite of it all, Vapor Trail does not wholly give up hope. In “Night Over There, A Song Here,” the protagonist has lived a not very pleasant life to begin with and now, as an illegal Chinese resident of Korean heritage in Korea, he verges on the precipice of life because of the hospital bill he owes on behalf of his wife. What represents the hopeless situation he’s in is replayed in a Chinese song, which plays from a cassette tape that belonged to his dead wife: “Where is my place?” But as long as he does not stop asking where his place is, it is not completely hopeless. Where will this question lead him? Vapor Trail is a narrative of a struggle to find that place of hope, seemingly beyond reach in a life that has become difficult to bear. 

Author's Profile

Kim Ae-ran has authored four short story collections, most recently Summer Outside (2017), and one essay collection, A Good Name to Forget (2019). Her first novel, My Palpitating Life (2011), was adapted into the movie My Brilliant Life (2014). Kim received the 2014 Prix de Linapercu award for the story “I Go to the Convenience Store.” Her debut work “No Knocking in This House,” excerpted here, won the 2003 Daesan Literary Award.