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WRITERS' NOTES

Life’s Levitas

  • onSeptember 4, 2018
  • Vol.41 Autumn 2018
  • byPyun Hye-Young

Every now and then, Yoon Sung-hee and I talk about writing. Of course, most of the time we talk about other things—fun things, things we’re worried about, places we want to go, places we’ve traveled to together. But every once in a while, we talk about a story or novel we’re working on. Not things like, The writing isn’t going well, or I’m buried under deadlines, or Writing is hard. We both know well enough that fiction doesn’t always go the way you think it will and that sometimes you just hit a block, so we don’t bother whining about that. Nevertheless, when you are in the middle of working on a new story, you can’t help but think of nothing but that story, so when you do happen to meet someone, the story tends to find its own way out of you, like a yawn or a cough escaping.

That was the case with Sung-hee’s story, “While They Laughed.” We were hanging out and chatting and having a good time when she casually mentioned the title. Smiling and laughing was what we did every time we met. That time as well, we had eaten our fill of delicious food, exchanged funny stories, and planned our next trip together. Meanwhile, I found myself feeling more relaxed about the writing that wasn’t going the way I wanted it to, about the deadline bearing down on me, and even about the uncertainty of making a living as a writer.

After she told me the title, I couldn’t stop repeating it to myself. It was a fun phrase to say out loud, and it made me curious to know what happens in the story. We moved on to talk about something else, but in the back of my mind I was still imagining what might follow a phrase like “while they laughed.” The characters in Sung-hee’s stories love to smile and laugh: they smile at the small things, laugh at jokes, smile to hide their embarrassment, smile before apologizing, and laugh instead of cry. They laugh as if laughter is their only duty in life. I assumed that this story, too, would feature more smiles and laughter than frowns and tears. In fact, I couldn’t help thinking that this wonderful title was a perfect fit for every one of her stories.

When I finally did get to read the story, I paused for a long time between the first and second paragraphs. Yoon Sung-hee has a very elliptical writing style. Her stories have to be read slowly to give readers time to fill in what happens in the white spaces between her sentences. In this story, the narrator falls asleep while remembering dipping his big toe into the water the first time he went swimming, after which his nephew calls the narrator’s friends with some sort of news. You have to keep reading to find out what the news is. Once you do, you realize that the opening scene, in which the narrator and his nephew appear to be having a funny chat about the nicknames the nephew uses for people in his cell phone’s contacts list, was probably him instructing his nephew on who to contact after he dies. You belatedly realize the sadness of witnessing a man’s dying wish.

The narrator’s funeral is attended by three friends: Yeong-jae, Min-gi, and Seong-min. The story revolves around the three of them moving the narrator’s green sofa to each of their homes in turn—the same green sofa that they had stolen ten years earlier from a theater in a fit of anger at a boring movie that they’d watched on the day of the college entrance exam. After his death, his friends fight over who will get the sofa. They decide that it should go to whoever can prove he was the bigger fool in life, and Min-gi wins. Together, they carry the sofa-turned-keepsake to Min-gi’s house. But Min-gi’s mother objects, and the sofa is taken to Yeong-jae’s house instead. Yeong-jae’s room turns out to be too small for the sofa, so they carry it one last time to Seong-min’s rooftop patio.

Meanwhile, the narrator, unseen by the others, has become a ghost and is seated on the sofa as it is moved from Min-gi’s to Yeong-jae’s to Seong-min’s homes. The journey of the sofa is also the four friends’ final journey together, as well as the narrator’s opportunity to bid farewell to each friend in turn. Korea has a unique mourning tradition called noje, which refers to carrying the funeral bier to a close friend’s or relative’s house for a simple, informal memorial service. In that sense, the green sofa becomes the narrator’s funeral bier, carried to his friends’ homes as part of this noje tradition.

At Seong-min’s place, the three friends sit on the sofa under a stolen parasol, stare at a potted plant, and share the food they’ve brought with them. Japchae noodles, pollock fritters, green chili pancakes, seasoned bracken—the kinds of foods you’re just as likely to find at a feast as at a funeral. As they eat, they laugh uproariously over every little thing for no reason.

While they laugh, the narrator’s ghost sees their futures. Long after the main character has died, his friends’ lives continue on, dull, boring, and unlucky at times, but always accompanied by laughter. Min-gi, who’d long been a shut-in, emerges from his house and begins to explore the world. He becomes a middle-aged man who feels at peace even while struggling to change a flat tire during his journeys. Yeong-jae, who takes fifteen pills a day, studies hard and masters a great deal of trivia, which enables him to win a TV quiz show and become the quiz king. Seong-min, unfortunately, dies young after becoming a father and is reunited with the main character.

Life cannot be solved through laughter alone, and we cannot spend our days doing nothing but laughing. But if laughter vanishes, then we are forced to walk through life alone and lonely, over a road unevenly paved with blessings and coincidences, happiness and unhappiness. And yet, when we laugh together, sadness, weariness, and failure lift their weights from our hearts ever so slightly. That is why laughter can make us feel as if we are floating. Sung-hee never claims that pain and sorrow have passed, or that laughter will solve everything. She knows that optimism of that kind isn’t very trustworthy and is too distant from the truth, so she only hints at the failures experienced one after the other by the dead and the soon-to-be dead. Nevertheless, just like laughter, even the sorrow of losing a friend and experiencing life’s loneliness can bring on the trustworthy consolation of momentary levity. In this way, Sung-hee’s stories are the closest thing to real life.

 

Translated by Sora Kim-Russell