Tuesday, January 09, 2018

Reading group: the Vegetarian by Han Kang

We approached Han Kang's The Vegetarian, suggested by Doug, with interest and even excitement. In translation it won the South Korean author the 2016 International Man Booker Prize, and the classy Portobello paperback edition carries rave comments from, among others, linguistically innovative novelist Eimar McBride, Deborah Levy, the Independent and the Irish Times.

A very short novel, it concerns a female protagonist, Yeong-hye, who one day, seemingly out of the blue, defies social convention and her own previous conforming nature by stopping eating meat, disconcerting her conventional and disapproving husband and family. Her father tries to force meat into her mouth, her instant response to which is to make a suicide attempt, and in reaction her husband leaves her. Eventually she stops eating altogether. 

The first somewhat puzzled comments came from Ann, who, unable to attend, sent us her thoughts beforehand. She said she was glad to have read it, and thought it an interesting insight into a culture very different from our own, but found it a discomforting read, and not simply, it seemed, for its events. The book is divided into three sections. The first is narrated by the husband and takes us to the point of Yeong-hye's suicide attempt. The second moves on to a time after Yeong-hye's husband has left, and the narrative voice switches to third person and adopts the viewpoint of Yeong-hye's brother-in-law, a video artist who becomes obsessed with using Yeong-hye in an erotic artwork, her naked body painted with flowers. The third section leaps on again further in time, and is the third-person viewpoint of Inge-hye, Yeong-hye's sister, now living alone with her child after having discovered her husband's erotic exploitation of Yeong-hye, and visiting Yeong-hye in the hospital to which she has had her admitted for her self-starvation. Why, Ann wondered, should only one character be awarded the first person - the character indeed who is least actively involved in the story, and who after the first section drops out of it altogether - and not the Vegetarian herself?

Others of us had had the same puzzled reaction to this structure, and some, in particular John, wondered, as last time, if, in view of the book's phenomenal success, we were perhaps judging by inappropriate Western literary standards, and seeing structural uneasiness where others saw brilliant innovation. I said however that in reading about the book and its author I had discovered that the three sections had originally been published separately as short stories, which, rather than novelistic inventiveness, could explain what we had experienced as an unevenness of narrative voice and focus. As it was, we had been led to think at the start that the book would be a psychological study of an unreliable narrator, a cold, convention-bound husband, only to find it was nothing of the sort, all interest in him dropped.

The only insights we have into Yeong-hye's viewpoint and psyche, however, are via the very minimal dialogue reported by the others, and the dreams featuring blood and murder that prompt her meat aversion, which are indeed presented as she related them, in the first person, but couched, in the uncomprehending husband's section, in distancing italics (and indeed lack specificity and are melodramatically cliched):
Dreams overlaid with dreams, a palimpsest of horror. Violent acts perpetrated by night. A hazy feeling I can't pin down...but remembered as blood-chillingly definite.
For the whole novel her psychic reality is thus distanced from the reader, and while it is clear that she is reacting to the oppressions of her society - the strict rules regarding diet and women's role -  for much of the novel the precise trigger for her specific reaction is kept a mystery: all Yeong-hye will say is that she 'had a dream'. In fact, she is in danger of being as much a mysterious object of curiosity to us as she is an object of eroticism to the brother-in-law.

The precise cause of her self-starvation is indeed revealed near the end in her sister's musing, but Doug said that he found this structure unsatisfying and even clumsy, a point with which I and others agreed. When we finally understand the underlying cause there is no sense of 'Oh of course!' prompting one to recognise in retrospect clues that had been there all along. Jenny said, But there were the dreams! I objected that the dreams were too vaguely symbolic to be related to the particularity of the cause. Jenny argued that that was what dreams are like - they are symbolic, and it is often not clear what the symbols refer to. This of course is true, but my point was that in a novel there would need to be some element - perhaps some more specific language in the depiction of the dreams, or a different structural presentation of the dreams - that would (in retrospect) create a more organic connection for the reader. Clare now came in and said that actually, she didn't agree that one needed to have that sense of 'Oh, of course!' at a novel's revelation. Doug and I felt strongly that it was essential, but since we were judging from the Western novel tradition, we agreed to differ. 

It is interesting, and perhaps ironic, that we didn't feel that the structure of the novel was organic, since the supreme motif of the book is vegetation: Yeong-hye begins by deciding to eat only vegetables, but eventually wishes to become vegetable herself, submitting first to her brother-in-law's erotic flowery transformation of her body, and finally believing that she has actually turned into a tree, at one point standing on her head with her legs in the air as branches. This symbolism is one of the striking aspects of the book, and which no doubt, along with the eroticism of the central section, has brought the book so much attention. However, because we don't share Yeong-hye's interiority, we just have to take for granted Yeong-hye's wish to be a tree, and its precise connection to the cause of her anorexia is unexplored on the deep, emotive and psychological level. What exactly is it about whatever has happened to her that links (thematically) to this specific wish? This question remains unexplored (for an answer in a similar scenario one can go to Ali Smith's novel Autumn, which we'll discuss next time). For me that was a real disappointment, and perhaps relates to a kind of cognitive dissonance that vaguely disturbed me when I first saw the book's Portobello paperback cover. Why would the cover of a book called The Vegetarian (and featuring a woman who wants to become vegetable) feature so prominently, as it does, a bird's wing? (It is only on closer inspection that you notice that the dark background consists of the veins of a leaf in extreme closeup.) In fact the image of a bird flying does occur at least twice in the book (once in the middle of the book, I think, and then again at the end), and on reflection it's a symbol of the escape Yoeng-hye is seeking through her self-starvation. In a way, it's the real (and more apposite) thematic symbol but, appearing only briefly and belatedly, it is heavily overpowered by the vegetation symbol, and the issues attached to it - the fact that Yeong-hye needs to escape, and the issue of the precise experience she needs to escape from, are thus subordinated.

We commented on the language, which Clare and Jenny had found stilted, presuming that this was a matter of culture. Others of us noted that it was uneven, generally formal but sometimes dropping, even mid-sentence, into the vernacular. This is especially so in the section narrated by the stiff, conventional and unfeeling husband: Before my wife turned vegetarian, he begins in his pompous way, I'd always thought of her as completely unremarkable in every way ... However, if there wasn't any special attraction, nor did any particular drawbacks present themselves, but then he will wonder if she might genuinely be going soft in the head, and congratulates himself on not 'kicking up a fuss', before eventually reaching out and touching her 'philtrum' (the groove between her nose and mouth). In spite of the fact that the prose has been widely praised as concise, we found it sometimes imprecise: after leaving the room and pushing the door to behind her with her foot, Yeong-hye is described as 'swallowed up through the door [my italics].' We were unable to know whether these seeming infelicities were created by the translation or were present in the original.

All in all, we were interested to have read the book, but once again we were left wondering quite why a book should have received such massive adulation, and suspecting once again that Western exoticism may have come into play. 

Our archive discussions can be found here and a list of the books we have discussed, with links to the discussions, here.