Unsolvable Family Puzzles
- onOctober 20, 2015
- Vol.29 Autumn 2015
- byNathaniel Davis
- A Good Family
Tr. Ally Hwang and Amy Smith 2015350pp.
The stories collected in Seo Hajin’s A Good Family are tied together by several recurring motifs, including illness, deception, disillusionment, sexual harassment, and foundering efforts to do what is right. In most of the stories, these individual themes appear within the larger theme of family relations: not only the internal relations of family members to one another, but also a family’s involvement with outsiders and its general position within society. Although Seo’s prose is light and sometimes whimsical, all of these stories harbor an unsettling, fatalistic implication that the correct decision is always out of reach.
Seo’s stories are most effective when her airy prose merges with a dark realism. The collection’s first story, “What Grows Out of Sadness,” presents a harrowingly realistic depiction of a woman—the mother of a family that has grown somewhat distant—discovering that she has cancer. As her condition worsens, she struggles to come to terms with her own mortality while trying to maintain a sense of social propriety befitting her family role:
“I think I’m dying,” Hee-sook turned her head towards her son. After she said it, she realized too late that it wasn’t an appropriate thing to say as a mother. (15)
The protagonist’s demise is almost played out negatively, reflected in the shifting connections she bears to each of her family members. The story is an affecting meditation on death, as well as a reminder that one’s personal existence always remains inextricably tied up in an intricate web of social, and especially familial, relations.
Yet the vision of Seo’s stories is not always so black. The collection’s second story, “Dad’s Private Life,” is a pop-inflected tale that pulls the reader to the opposite edge of her fictional universe. After discovering a series of incriminating text messages and emails, a teenage girl begins to suspect that her father is having an affair. Her friend convinces her to play detective, and they follow the father as he takes a trip to Hong Kong with the mysterious “Lady Unidentified.” The characters happen across locations they recognize from the films of Wong Kar-Wai, and the story is infused with an atmosphere reminiscent of the director’s works. Like the other stories in the collection, “Dad’s Private Life” mounts steadily to a reflective anticlimax, as the daughter chooses not to confront her father, but instead mulls over memories of her family life and her father’s behavior, and begins to question whether she was right to intrude upon her father’s private life. This denial of the expected conclusion of the tongue-in-cheek detective story is in keeping with the overarching realism and ethical agnosticism of Seo’s stories.
Several stories broach the topic of sexual harassment in the workplace, offering Western readers an enlightening view of the treatment of women in contemporary South Korean society. The collection’s title story tells of a high-ranking director of an international corporation who is also a serial molester of his female employees. When one employee reports him, he is initially forced to resign, but he eventually sues his way back into power, forcing those who opposed him to resign. Another story, “The Little Thing,” offers a more subtle and thought-provoking treatment of the topic. An older, well-respected director at a corporation makes unwelcome comments to a female employee. Feeling violated and confused, she makes a public complaint on the corporation’s online message board. From the outset, she realizes that none of the company officials respect her statements, asking her simply, “Are you sure you weren’t being too sensitive?” (201) When she stands her ground, the director is eventually forced to resign. For him, this is a personal tragedy; for her, it ends up being a rather unsatisfying result, as nothing seems to have changed in the general attitude of the company’s officials, and the male employees still don’t understand what the problem was: “He didn’t even touch her ass or grab her tits. They say he just put his hand on her shoulder. What the hell is he guilty of?” (206) The story’s denouement is not the expected one of “justice served”; rather, it plays out as an ineluctable conclusion to an intolerable situation that ultimately leaves no one happy. Justice remains a distant ideal. Seo’s realism here is to accurately describe the ultimately unsatisfying nature of certain advances made in women’s rights.
The idiosyncratic effect of Seo’s writing stems from its combination of light, easy-to-read prose with an unsettling denial of expectations, refusing to award the reader with a satisfying conclusion that would tie up loose ends and leave one with the feeling that the world makes sense. Her characters are nodes within social networks, serving as unwitting conduits to natural laws that they do not comprehend. The ethical quandaries that are at the base of each story remain there as puzzles, not to be solved, but simply contemplated. The sensation is summed up towards the end of another story, “The Interview.” The protagonist, Manja, a writer, is asked to interview an older female writer she idolizes; eventually, however, she realizes that the writer had ulterior motives for choosing her as the interviewer, being interested in purchasing a plot of land that Manja owns.
In Seo Hajin’s stories, emotions do not rise as the characters, or the reader, hopes or expects—neither joy, nor satisfaction, not even sadness. Like Manja, who is unable to tie the day together with her writing, the reader is left with a sequence of events that require further processing after the book is closed.
by Nathaniel Davis
Assistant Editor, Dalkey Archive Press
Seo Hajin is an assistant professor at Kyung Hee University’s Department of Korean Language and Literature. She has published two novels and six short story collections. The English edition of A Good Family came out from Dalkey Archive Press in 2015. She has received the Hahn Moo-Sook Literary Prize, Baek Shin-ae Literary Award, and Kim Jun Sung Literary Award.