The Vegetarian by Han Kang

 

Hardcover, 192 pages
Published February 2nd 2016 by Hogarth (first published October 2007)*

Though the ostensible reason for her not wanting Yeong-hye to be discharged, the reason that she gave the doctor, was this worry about a possible relapse, now she was able to admit to herself what had really been going on. She was no longer able to cope with all that her sister reminded her of. She’d been unable to forgive her for soaring alone over a boundary she herself could never bring herself to cross, unable to forgive that magnificent irresponsibility that had enabled Yeong-hye to shuck off social constraints and leave her behind, still a prisoner. And before Yeong-hye had broken those bars, she’d never even known they were there…”

 

Wow, what can I say about this one except “wow.”

The Vegetarian by Han Kang was everything that we love about Korean and Japanese literature and art—and that’s exactly what this work was: art. Here you will find what we have come to know, to love and to expect from authors in this genre who write in this vein: the vibrancy, the subtle magical realism, the commanding usage of words and the elusive, sinister nature that is unique to these works—all embedded within an established culture of history and mores that has survived and developed for millennia longer than most others.

        The Vegetarian read with a delicious ominousness that was as subtle as a shadow, like a breath at your neck. It was that subtly that made the read so taunt and disquieting, and there was a strange, magical realism to it that almost read like Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84 (no shock there, as they both seem to have been influenced by Kafka). As a work of short literary form (it’s under 200 pages), it was unusual, among other reasons, in that it was told from three different perspectives with almost no perspective from the novel’s subject, Yeong-hye. We see how her vegetarianism, which later leads into a kind of manic catatonia, affects first her callous and at times sexually abusive husband, then her brother-in-law who becomes completely enthralled with her sexually because of her Mongolian mark, and her sister who is the last one standing when Yeong-hye’s psyche begins to peel away.

In addition to the serious topics that The Vegetarian brushed up against: the effect of cultural mores on women, body image, conformism, familial ties and abuse, and, of course, mental illness that ultimately culminated in a way that I could never reveal without spoiling it for you—this was also a tale of family dysfunction. It was a tale of familial ties that were severed painfully, of violent confrontations and realizations, of physical and emotional starvation, and a parable about the woman, the vegetarian, at the center of it all.

          The Vegetarian was sensual, and it meandered toward its climax in a way that was both unsettling and prophetic. It was allegory elevated to the highest level of art, raised to the level of surrealism. The change in tenses and POVs worked well. And even this technique, this simple process of sentence-writing that we learn in grade school, was elevated: the tenses of sentences shifted noticeably, particularly the closer that it came to dénouement, a jolting but brilliant allusion to this descent into mental illness and personal violence, which added to the mystical element of this novel.

Han Kang produced a work, his first to be seen here in the U.S., that was so unhinged, so mystifying, that at times it would slither from your grasp. I had to sit and reflect on several of the passages for a few minutes—not because they were ill-written, but because they were both profound and often just outside of my immediate mental grasp, and that was a wonderful thing. It was an effect that I look for in modern-day writing—that disquietingly ungraspable moment.

“Yeong-hye’s voice, which came to her while she was suspended in that halfway state between sleep and wakefulness, was low and warm at first, then innocent like that of a young child, but the last part was mangled, a distorted animal sound. Her eyes snapped open in fright, and she was stung by a waking hatred the likes of which she’d never felt before, before being thrown back into sleep. This time she was standing in from of the bathroom mirror. In the reflection, blood was trickling from her left eye. She quickly reached up to wipe the blood away, but somehow her reflection in the mirror didn’t move an inch, only stood there, blood running from a staring eye.”

The Vegetarian was unconventional. It broke away from the molds that we find ourselves encumbered in with typical fiction. Here you will not find the typical “rising action, climax, falling action” formula that we’ve become so accustomed to, that we’ve grown to expect and to lean into, though we know how it’ll all end in the end. Honestly, this read left me a little speechless, so you’ll have to excuse the less-than-customary word count here. Definitely, take that as a compliment in the highest sense. 5 stars. *****

 

*The cover used here is not the cover that was released in the U.S., but it is one of the most BEAUTIFUL examples of cover art that I have ever seen, AND it more accurately portrays some of the themes in this novel (much better than the U.S.-released cover art).

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A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

Hardcover, 720 pages
Published March 10th 2015 by Doubleday

First of all, let me say that A Little Life was exactly what I’ve been looking for. This novel was so rich in raw, uninhibited emotion, in the true unveiling of life’s effervescence, horrors and humanity, that I didn’t feel that I was trudging through a thick read—though, believe me, it’s thick!—I felt that I was on a 40-year Hajj with these characters, a journey that, like real life, takes you over lofty and decadent highs then drags you through trough-like lows. It was the lows in A Little Life that made me literally cringe and turn away, re-read at times and stop reading at others just long enough to question what really is humanity?

The theme of lifelong friendship is obviously central to the novel, and I loved that the four focal characters were all male. To get the male perspective on contemporary brotherhood and solidarity was a breath of fresh air; I hardly ever get to experience a literary piece from the viewpoint of modern-day (non-white) men, so if that appeals to you, then this read will be a real treat. Likewise, on that note, I was greatly impressed with the way that Yanagihara handled race in this work, because she flipped the stereotype completely on its head. I remember a feeling of unanticipated surprise, of true and pure admiration of the author’s hand and voice for flipping the script on the typical literary formula.

A Little Life was brilliant in the way that it portrayed the capriciousness and uncertainty of college life through middle-age: the discovery and exploration of their sexuality, life goals, insecurities and the precariousness of their own self-images and the pursuit—often slow and unsure—of their own personal ambitions and aspirations. It all rang so true, so genuine.

     “These were days of self-fullment, where settling for something that was not quite your first choice of a life seemed weak-willed and ignoble…surrendering to what seemed to be your fate had changed from being dignified to being a sign of your own cowardice. There were times when the pressure to achieve happiness felt almost oppressive, as if happiness were something that everyone should and could attain, and that any sort of compromise in its pursuit was somehow your fault.”

Yanagihara’s exploration of religion (Ambition and atheism…only here did you have to apologize for having faith in something other than yourself) and race (Race has always been a challenge for Malcolm, but their sophomore year, he hit upon what he considered a brilliant cop-out: he wasn’t black’ he was post-black…unfortunately, no one was convinced by this explanation, least of all JB, whom Malcom had begun to think of as not so much black but pre-black, as if blackness, like nirvana, was an idealized state that he was constantly striving to erupt into) was modern, realistic and enlightened. This work was full of eloquent, thoughtful and introspective narrative prose, but at the same time, Yanagihara did not hesitate to push the reader beyond their comfort level. Her descriptions of abuse and cruelty, suffering, addiction, fear, and the toll these all take on the human psyche—the way that they impact the human experience—were so vivid, so intensely thought-provoking and emotive.

However, I must admit that I did take a few issues with this one. For one, I was disappointed to not see a single chapter from Malcolm’s sole perspective in the entire piece. With this massive word count, there was certainly ample opportunity to do so. He started off being just as interesting a character as the others, questioning his future and his sexuality, feeling inferior to his sister and entitled while simultaneously, perhaps, feeling a bit embarrassed by his upbringing and entitlement. The groundwork was set for a rich character portrayal of him that could have easily rivaled JB’s and Willem’s, but in all 700+ pages we never heard a peep from his own voice. I also wished that Yanagihara had explored JB more. The chapter that was 100% from his perspective honestly resonates with me louder than any of the other chapters, even those rather disturbing chapters on Jude that are the talk of literary chats everywhere at the moment. I was truly gripped by his sense of terror and self-loathing, his sincere lack of control and, finally, that heart-wrenching scene towards the end of his chapter.

Honestly, I felt that Jude had too many chapters, that the entire novel revolved around him—and I get why it would—but there were several opportunities lost that could have been capitalized on better by the author. Also—gulp, I’m sorry to say—A Little Life could have stood up to a bit of a haircut too. Not a big chop, mind you, but a trim of at least 50 pages would’ve made the novel a less cumbersome read, particularly towards the end, the last few chapters. Chopping some of those arguably useless narrative passages away would have allowed for a feeling of truly running towards something, towards a climax deserving of these wonderful characters. Instead, the novel felt more like it sputtered out (no less heart-breakingly) quietly. In a way, I feel the Fabulous Four deserved better.

Even with all of this, I am truly changed having read this one and thankful that I took the time to sit down and really enjoy it. A Little Life has raised the bar so high for me, I can only hope that my next reads will stand up to the shadow that this tall order may cast over them. Yanagihara has gained herself a lifelong reader and an easy 5 stars. *****