Navigating Korea’s Modern Mazes
- onMarch 7, 2016
- Vol.31 Spring 2016
- byNathaniel Davis
- God Has No Grandchildren
Tr. Sunok Kang and Melissa Thomson 2015256pp.
Characters in many works of contemporary Korean fiction bear a resemblance to those of Southern Gothic literature in that they are complex, ambivalent, insecure, and f lawed individuals struggling to navigate a social landscape that is indecipherable and sometimes hostile toward them. They make their way through modernity’s maze in stories marked by dark humor and the absurd, and they rarely end up any more enlightened in the end. But instead of focusing on poverty, oppression, and violence, the aspect of the grotesque in Korean fiction corresponds more to the technocratic and monetized structure of a culture floundering between East and West.
The protagonists populating the stories of Kim Kyung-uk’s collection God Has No Grandchildren are no different. From the beginning of his career, Kim has explored the psyche of society’s outcasts in his writing—and indeed, he first gained recognition through a prize-winning story called “Outsider.” Powerless individuals face the numbing squall of late-capitalist popular culture in his works, from the disillusioned students of Acropolis to the young music fans witnessing the commodification of their rebellious heroes in Who Killed Kurt Cobain? The stories that make up God Has No Grandchildren revolve around the epistemological struggle that confuses the modern subject’s attempt to make ethical and aesthetic judgments about a world governed by media, bureaucracy, and money.
In “Ninety-Nine Percent,” the protagonist is a moderately successful employee of an advertising firm. When the firm brings in a young, handsome, American-educated vice-president, the protagonist’s envy renders him paranoid about the newcomer’s identity and his role in the corporation. Kim has said he wanted to depict the psychology of the “Average Joes” of the ninety-nine percent who despise the privileged one percent while simultaneously aspiring to rise to their level. The protagonist believes that the vice-president is stealing his ideas, lying on his resume, and hiding his true identity; as his paranoia deepens, he begins to lose the balanced rhythm of his previously contented middle-class existence.
Toward the end of the story the vice-president, knowing the protagonist’s weakness for chocolate, offers him one of the popular new high-cacao dark chocolate bars—of course, the chocolate is ninetynine percent cacao. “As it melted on my tongue, the chocolate released a bitter taste that grew terribly strong. It felt like I was eating lead or had taken a gulp of brandy. I frowned and they all giggled” (85). While this metaphor neatly summarizes the protagonist’s sorry state—his envy of the vice-president turns his middling position (as part of the ninety-nine percent) sour, or bitter, as it were, leaving him dismayed and ashamed—it comes off as slightly too clever.
The collection’s eponymous story concerns a man whose granddaughter has been molested by young boys at her school. The boys’ parents are wealthy, and the school principal protects them, appealing to the grandfather’s Christian faith, beseeching him to forgive “for they know not what they do,” and simultaneously offers a cynical bribe. The man must now decide between taking the rich men’s money, which he badly needs, and demanding that justice be done—or even going out to get it himself. The man’s predicament is a miniature of the human condition: to be in an intolerable situation, and to be surrounded by only wrong choices, and to see no right way out.
The man is unable to decide, and ultimately leaves it to chance—which is essentially the same as leaving it to God to decide—and his throw of the dice determines his fate.
In “The Queen of Romance,” one of the collection’s high points, a young photographer gets an assignment to take pictures of the library of one of the country’s most famous romance novelists. Not knowing quite what to expect from his visit—having read all her books in preparation and found them to be lowbrow schlock—he is surprised by the elegance of her writer’s hideaway and her erudition in speaking about literature. But while she fits his image of writerly refinement, she is incapable of producing anything more than tawdry tales of romantic encounters, something even she seems unaware of: “I have never written a romance novel,” she says in reply to one of the photographer’s questions. “I just write novels. Or to be more accurate, I just write” (145). This disconnect between reality and expectations pops up constantly in Kim’s stories: “The Queen of Romance’s speech was eloquent and well reasoned . . . I had trouble picturing her as the same person who had written five successful romance novels” (146).
While this is taking place, the photographer is going through his romantic drama—struggling with his excruciating inability to decide to make a commitment to his girlfriend.
In “The Runner,” Kim offers a depiction of modern paranoia that is both darker and funnier than the other stories. The element of the grotesque is also more pronounced here, although it is a sanitized, plasticand-aluminum grotesque befitting modern Korea. The protagonist is in the process of masturbating when he receives a call from one of his students asking if he wants to meet up. The libidinal disconnect is established already in the first lines of the story, which proceeds as a corrupted love story lacking the slightest sense of sex or attraction. Chemistry—the essential element of any engaging romance—is fully absent here, and in a larger sense this extends to the protagonist’s relation to the world as a whole: there’s no harmony, no easy relation between the young man and the city he navigates. This manifests itself primarily as his paranoia regarding the individuals he passes as they bike along a pathway. His irrational fears shape his perspectives on his fellow citizens, and in the end he digs himself into a hole and ends up alone, lost in an alien urban landscape.
While some stories come across as more lightweight than others—for instance, “Bastille Day,” whose emotional element seems like a slightly forced addition to what is essentially a comic story of a tour guide’s “bad day at the office”—Kim’s writing succeeds best when it hovers in the ambiguous spaces, avoiding clever turns and convenient coincidences, and leaving the reader essentially as clueless and confounded as the story’s protagonists: wandering through a strange and ornate literary landscape, looking for the threads that lead one forward.
by Nathaniel Davis
Assistant Editor, Dalkey Archive Press
Kim Kyung-uk debuted in 1993 with the novella Outsider published in the quarterly review Writer’s World. His short story collections are Is Leslie Cheung Really Dead? (2005), Risky Reading (2008), God Has No Grandchildren (2011), and Young Hearts Never Grow (2014). His novels are Like a Fairytale (2010) and What Is Baseball? (2013). He won both the Hyundae Literary Award and the Dong-in Literary Award.