Death Drives the Weary: Liver and Gallbladder by Kim Soom

  • onOctober 23, 2014
  • Vol.12 Summer 2011
  • byKim Hyoung-joong
Liver and Gallbladder

If sentences had ambition (which they certainly do), the prose in Kim Soom's Liver and Gallbladder would be given a perfect score of 10. Rhetorical flourishes are absent in Kim’s writing. Subject, verb, and object are the only elements to be found, and descriptive modifiers such as adjectives and adverbs are almost totally absent.

Kim Soom’s writing is free from pretension, staying away from beautifying embellishment. In addition, her sentences do not reveal the thoughts and feelings of speakers and other characters. Let’s consider the following examples. “Mom cried, then went to the beauty salon to get her hair done. Her nephews ate some ramen noodles and then shut themselves in each of their rooms. Dad was asleep in the bedroom. I tried to wake him up, but he wouldn’t stir. He was so fast asleep that I wondered if he might be dead... When I arrived at home, my husband was already there. He sat idly on the couch watching television while drinking beer.” (“My Mysterious Neighbors”) Why mom was crying, why dad was fast asleep, the reason for the nephews’ poor nutritional state, and the husband’s ennui are not commented or critiqued upon in the speaker’s narrative. Instead, the speaker’s terse and dry descriptions record Kim’s indifference to the scene. This tone shows the speaker’s lack of emotional investment in all things, which is a symptom of depression. Kim Soom’s characters feature detachment that doesn’t stem from some stoic philosophical outlook or sense of superiority. Rather it comes from an utter lack of interest and libido. They expect nothing from the world, and their utterances are Kim Soom’s.

This subdued tone is often accom-panied by a universal and philosophical system of logic. The protagonist Gwok-no’s mineral-centric view of the world in “The North Room” is a prime example. A former geology teacher, he is only interested in minerals and ores. His obsession stems from the following: “Compared to the weather, earthquakes, or the ocean, minerals are relatively concrete and real. Atmospheric phenomena such as clouds, wind, temperature, barometric pressure, snow, and rain are too spontaneous and volatile. Clouds and wind are the motifs of change. They are no more than ‘forms’ that can change at any moment.”

If Freud could have read such lines he would have found them to be good illustrations of his theory regarding thanatos, the death drive. Existence tends toward stability that doesn’t require energy flow. Once a stable living thing dies, it still cannot compare to minerals and ores. Ultimately mankind desires death.

Not surprisingly, the protagonists of Kim Soom’s novels are all dying or ill. Cancer, pneumonia, and old age are par for the course, and even 3,000-year-old mummies can become protagonists in her novels. However none of them yearn for health. Confining themselves to sickbeds or dark rooms, her characters calmly face death’s fast approach without fear or regret over the short time remaining in their lives. As usual they live each day with barely any movement, in subdued tones. Neither mammals nor primates, they practically exist in a mineral-like state.

What is the background behind their state? Although it is difficult to presume that the world they enjoy is excessively confined, beyond their death drive they appear to be a part of a “community” of patients. Almost all the characters in Kim Soom’s novels suffer life's vicissitudes due to poverty, and are obsessed over small sums of money, in debt, constantly struggling to make ends meet, and without income. Amidst such poverty, her characters have no hope of improving their lot. In such situations, her characters choose to escape into depression and a state of death. Kim Soom’s novels are a depressing photo negative depicting the current state of capitalist Korean society. 

Author's Profile

Kim Soom has published thirteen novels, most recently When Has a Soldier Wanted to Be an Angel? (2018) and Sublime is Looking Inward (2018), the third and fourth novels in her Comfort Women series, and six short story collections. She has received the Yi Sang Literary Award, Hyundae Literary Award, Daesan Literary Award, Heo Gyun Literary Award, and the Tong-ni Literature Prize. One Left (2016), the first novel in her Comfort Woman series, was translated and published in Japan in 2018. Her story "Divorce" is out from Strangers Press, UK as part of their Yeoyu Korean Literature series (2019)