Can You Handle the Truth?
- onSeptember 5, 2018
- Vol.41 Autumn 2018
- byJeong You-jeong
Growing up, I was taught that murder was wrong—that taking another person’s life was the most atrocious of all wrongs committed by human beings, which is why murderers received the severest punishment. And I believed it was an absolute moral law beyond a shadow of doubt.
I was fifteen years old when my belief was shaken. It was after reading Ken Kesey’s famous novel, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. The protagonist’s friend becomes a vegetable after being lobotomized for rebelling against the practices of a psychiatric hospital, and to help him reclaim his dignity, the protagonist smothers him with a pillow. The shock of that scene was branded onto my mind. I realized that murder was not always an absolute evil, but could sometimes be salvation.
“Carol” explores this fine line. It is a story that questions the morality of truth. The Korean dictionary defines “truth” as a fact devoid of falsehood. Most of us have been taught since childhood to always, in whatever situation, pursue the truth. We’ve learned that truth is the noblest of values, that it is a “moral value.” But is it really?
Through the story, the author asks: what if truth is pursued to the extreme? Can people handle its weight? She poses the questions by putting a man to the test of truth.
This man, a renowned thirty-three-year-old lyricist who has no dating experience and is skeptical of love, goes on a radio show on Christmas Eve. His job is to give advice to the listeners who call in and tell him their stories. Incidentally, every call he gets is about a topic he hates: love. He breaks out in a cold sweat and shudders in disgust, yet he must take the sixth call, a call from a woman. She reads to him the lyrics of a song he wrote before he became famous, which is to say, a work from an embarrassing past he would rather keep hidden.
Let holes riddle my body, let it tear up into rags, for you I’ll toss this body. For you I won’t regret dying. Love you to the point of dying. Ooh-ooh-hoo. I’ll take the bullets of your love. Shoot me. Shoot me.
The woman asks if the lyrics are true. Swayed by the seriousness of her tone and the expectant feeling in the room, and under the pressure of a live broadcast, he replies offhand, “Well . . . yeah . . . I guess . . .”
That night, he gets drunk and throws himself in front of a speeding motorcycle when he is rescued by a mysterious young woman. He falls in love for the first time in his life. The man and woman find “true” love and a year passes “truthfully.” It is Christmas Eve again. The man buys a ring to propose to her but to his utter surprise, he finds himself held at gunpoint by truth. The woman asks: the truth you told me a year ago, can you prove it?
Only then does he realize her identity, but it’s too late. Whether he speaks the truth or not, he cannot escape this spine-tingling game of truth or dare. His resentful last answer makes readers genuinely question the value of truth.
When truth is stretched to extremes, is it still the highest good we believe it to be? Are the values we live by always absolute?
Published in Literature Today, this short story is the debut of a new writer, but it won’t take you too long to forget that fact. Instead, you will remember the thriller-like suspense, tongue-in-cheek humor, daring conceit, and arresting narrative for a long, long time.
To doubt what no one else doubts: isn’t that precisely what literature is?
Translated by Sung Ryu
Jeong You-jeong has authored the novels Shoot Me in the Heart, Seven Years of Darkness, and 28. Most recently, The Origin of Species was published in English in 2018 as The Good Son by Little, Brown in the UK and Penguin Random House in the US and was shortlisted for The Tonight Show’s Summer Reads. The thriller has been turned into a webtoon and is also being adapted into a movie.