Psychic Wounds and the Body’s Rebellion: The Hole by Pyun Hye Young
- onSeptember 25, 2017
- Vol.37 Autumn 2017
- byKatrina Dodson
- The Hole
Tr. Sora Kim-Russell 2017208pp.
Pyun Hye Young’s novel The Hole is a claustrophobic, riveting story calculated to get under your skin. Its opening chapter unfurls with disarming and cinematic swiftness. A man named Oghi wakes from a coma and experiences the disorientation giving way to horror that one would expect to feel upon realizing the body has become a prison—and has been all along. Locked in near-total paralysis, in which blinking is now an act worthy of praise, Oghi becomes acutely aware of the smells, sounds, and functions of the bodies that occupy his newly constricted world. Of a nurse, he notices, “It wasn’t a nice smell. Sharp. Like she’d just finished eating.” Later, the familiar smell of Oghi’s wife closes in on him, despite the fact that she’s been killed in the same car crash that put him in the hospital. It is one of the arresting, never-quite-explained moments in a novel that gradually walls in the reader with haunting ambiguities.
The story alternates between Oghi’s flashbacks that dwell on the pressure points of his forty-seven years and his present struggles to navigate lying vulnerable to the whims of able-bodied people he disdains but relies on for survival. These include Oghi’s mother-in-law, now his closest thing to kin. An attractive, demure widow, her poise cracks under the weight of her grief at losing her only child and attending to the man who crashed the car, and who she bitterly admits is also the only family she has left.
A bestseller in South Korea, where it was published last year, The Hole occupies multiple in-between spaces, like a disturbing itch that can’t be scratched. Information about the fatal car crash and what drove Oghi’s wife to become fixated on her garden emerges in tantalizing bits, pointing toward the ultimate resolution of these puzzles. Yet as the narrative expands in several directions, it threatens to leave readers with the lingering, hollow feeling of an unsolved mystery, a gaping hole if you will. The jacket copy for Pyun’s second novel to be translated into English, in the sure hands of Sora Kim-Russell, describes it as a “gripping psychological thriller.” Yet the book goes less for the shocking violence of Stephen King’s Misery, to which it will draw comparisons, and resides more in a mode of suspense held taut by the threat of abuse.
The Hole veers into the territory of feminist revenge plot, with a curious mix of sensationalism and banality and a spare style that feels both commanding and restrained. Pyun takes aim at entitled, carelessly destructive men and the social structures that serve them at the expense of women. Yet by inhabiting the central male character’s perspective in a close third-person narration, the writer adeptly renders him as both sympathetic victim and insufferable narcissist. The latter is underscored by the fact that only Oghi gets a name, while others are identified through their relation to him: Oghi’s wife, Oghi’s mother-in-law, the doctor, the live-in caregiver, the physical therapist. Oghi’s colleagues from graduate school and the university where he is a professor appear interchangeable at first, as just M, K, J, and S.
Methodical as a spider weaving its web, Pyun initially invites the reader into Oghi’s tale of woe. His mother commits suicide during his childhood, while his working class father derides his career as a cartography scholar and dies early from cancer. A bit of a loner, Oghi finds his alienation reinforced by his post-accident inability to communicate. The body’s sudden rebellion is a universally understood terror that Jean-Dominique Bauby explores in his 1997 memoir The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, which he dictated through roughly 200,000 blinks of one eye, all he could move after waking from a stroke-induced coma. Bauby wistfully describes the deluxe trappings of his life as editor-in-chief of French Elle, whereas Oghi yearns for his hard-earned tokens of upward mobility: premium whiskeys, his Ethan Allen rosewood bed, suits purchased in Italy.
All the while, Pyun lays clues to Oghi’s casual misogyny and mercenary morals, which turn against him in the novel’s accelerating final third. He judges women harshly on their appearance and reads his wife’s idolization of iconic female writers as a shallow desire for glamor. He regards her failures to achieve her goals with a mix of bemused affection and condescension. It is only after Oghi’s mother-in-law discovers his wife’s manuscripts and slips into her daughter’s persona while digging ever larger holes in the garden that a fuller portrait of his wife and their fraught marriage emerges.
Pyun is among a group of Korean women writers whose psychologically intense fiction has increasingly been translated into English in recent years. This includes Bae Suah and Han Kang, whose novel The Vegetarian shot to prominence after winning the 2016 Man Booker International Prize in Deborah Smith’s translation. The Vegetarian is another thriller of sorts that portrays a “difficult” woman through the eyes of an uncomprehending husband and other relatives. Han’s heroine imagines becoming a tree as a way to refuse violence, while The Hole, which grew out of Pyun’s short story “Caring for Plants,” draws a more elusive connection between the plant world and rejection of masculine dominance.
The Hole finds momentum in visceral imaginings of physical trauma, yet its underlying current rests on questions surrounding true knowledge in romantic relationships and family ties, sacrifice and selfishness, and the limits of care as paid service and as duty. Pyun confronts us with the ways we lose ourselves in everyday motion—in its absence, psychic wounds pounce harder.
by Katrina Dodson
Translator, The Complete Stories
by Clarice Lispector
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.