Into the Minds of Men: Evening Proposal by Pyun Hye Young
- onJanuary 4, 2017
- Vol.34 Winter 2016
- byChristine Dwyer Hickey
- Evening Proposal
Tr. Park Youngsuk and Gloria Cosgrove Smith 2016230pp.
Dalkey Archive Press introduced me to Korean literature a few years ago. It was through their excellent Library of Korean Literature series that I discovered the novels of Lee Kiho, Jang Eun-jin, and the short stories of Jung Young Moon. Other European and American publishing houses have since followed suit and now, with Han Kang’s novel The Vegetarian winning this year’s Man Booker International Prize, it would seem that Korean literature is finally enjoying the worldwide attention it so richly deserves.
The short story collection Evening Proposal is my first encounter with the stories of Pyun Hye Young. It is also the first time in years that I have read an entire collection back-to-back. I say read but devoured would probably be a more accurate description: I simply couldn’t put the book down. Readers be warned—you might do better to avoid such gluttony and confine yourselves to one or maybe two a day from this collection; these are the type of stories that need time to settle in your mind. They are certainly not for the faint-hearted.
The first story opens with that well-loved symbol of innocence, the rabbit. Abandoned in a park, the rabbit is rescued by a man who, like many of the other characters in these stories, is unnamed. He is simply “the man.” Temporarily living in a strange and unidentified city, he plods along in a job that is not only tedious but also utterly pointless and, when eventually he stops going to work, his absence isn’t even noticed. Gradually diminished by loneliness and paranoia, at one stage, he finds himself living much as the rabbit lives, mindlessly munching on tasteless food, crouched in the corner of an apartment that has in effect become his cage. This is an intriguing story full of twists and turns and a very fitting opening indeed for what is about to come.
The work-for-work’s sake theme continues in “Would You Like to Take a Tour Bus?” In this story, two men, known only by their initials, follow a series of instructions that takes them through various stages in a long journey. Their task is to deliver a large plastic sack that is stuffed with an unknown and increasingly odorous substance. As the story progresses the sack begins to take on a sinister presence and becomes almost like a character rather than a prop in the story. The ending has a twist worthy of Alfred Hitchcock, as the two men are driven off in a tour bus, like lambs to the slaughter.
All of the protaganists in this collection are men and all of the stories in one way or another, are concerned with the working life. Or more pointedly, the futility of the working life. Workers go through the motions day after day, following instructions that ultimately come from an unseen authority. It is a world of blind obedience and little reward. Wheels turn and turn again. Stories start and end in the same place. One man falls off the wheel, another man moves into his place. Only Kim, the florist in the title story (and interestingly, the only self-employed man throughout), shows any sort of backbone or at least appears to have some ability to think for himself. And see how that ends! After a long day waiting for someone to die, he witnesses a horrific accident that he may have in fact, caused. Alone in the dark, lost on a highway, he is frightened into making a phone call and declaring his love to a woman he can barely tolerate.
Throughout the collection, the writing is measured and the pace remains calm. This makes the violence and unexpected twists all the more effective. Menace is everywhere, in the red-eyes of the rabbit, in the snorting sounds of a wild boar roaming in the forest. There is a dystopian feel to many of these stories. Others carry the atmosphere of the darkest of fairy-tales. One or two, such as “The Canning Factory ” are downright gruesome.
Evening Proposal is credited with two translators: Park Youngsuk and Gloria Cosgrove Smith and they appear to have done a wonderful job. At no point does a phrase or word seem other than perfectly aligned and that, I suppose, is the ultimate sign of a successful translation.
But all admiration must go to Pyun Hye Young. In the modern literary world, whenever a man writes from a woman’s point of view, there tends to be a great fuss made. Here a female author has effortlessly entered into the psyche of each and every one of her characters. With flawless skill and exceptional flair, she has imagined her way into their troubled lives.
by Christine Dwyer Hickey
Author of nine books, including The Lives of Women
Pyun Hye-Young completed her BA in creative writing and MA in Korean literature from Hanyang University. Her novel The Hole was the winner of the 2017 Shirley Jackson Award, and City of Ash and Red was an NPR Great Read. Her works in English include Evening Proposal (Dalkey Archive, 2016), The Hole (Arcade Publishing, 2017), City of Ash and Red (Arcade Publishing, 2018), and The Law of Lines (Arcade Publishing, 2020). Her short stories have been published in the New Yorker, Harper’s Magazine, and Words Without Borders. She currently teaches creative writing at Myongji University.