Kang, Han (2015 ), The Vegetarian, Portobello
[Translated by Deborah Smith]
I have read and reread The Vegetarian twice in the past two months (first time was in December). It is very good. The translation fits the text perfectly and contributes to the unsettling effect that this novel-in-stories provides. Han Kang wrote a book which is both existentially distant and sharp but is also, at the same time, suffused with a warm sense of longing, of loss, of fullness of feeling even in their absence. It is a novel about a young woman who, to the disbelief of her husband and parents, decides to stop eating meat. It is quite the extraordinary -if bleak- text and, compared to, say, I have the right to destroy myself, one of only three Korean novels I have read in the past 12 months, it’s also remarkably well done. It works marvelously as a novel, but each of the individual novellas are also well-balanced and constructed and would have been worth publishing on their own (as they have been in Korea). It took me some time to find my way around the novel due to a certain denseness of thought and vision and in fact, I recommend reading each novella/segment separately, spaced out over 3 (or more) days, and reading each novella in one sitting. They are all fairly short, so that isn’t a problem. The novel succeeds both as a comment on feminity in the modern world, as well as a novel on mental disintegration and, finally, a novel about the corps propre of Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy. I do think there is an oddly normative sense of bodily function, with quite alarming blind spots all over the place. At the same time, Han Kang’s novel is laser-focused on a specific issue and manages to be both intellectually intriguing regarding its topic and aesthetically pleasing. The only reason I read this book is because I gave a copy to my sister for Christmas and I don’t give away books I have not read. And I am so glad I did. If any of Han Kang’s other books are on par with The Vegetarian, I will be reading this author with pleasure for years to come. So will you. Go. Read the damn thing.
A quick note. I have used the word “pleasure” a few times in the previous paragraph to convey my feelings towards the book. In fact, The Vegetarian, while enjoyable as literature, is also a profoundly brutal book, with next to nothing that mitigates or catches that brutality. Emotional brutality, but also physical violence and rape. Han Kang pulls no punches and yet, all of this cruelty seems necessary, a well integrated part of the book, not just puerile excitement about provocation (the shocking sounding, but ultimately pedestrian and dull novel by Urs Allemann comes to mind). The effect the book has on the reader is not pleasure as in joy, and the cruelty also does not provide a frisson of transgressiveness. Instead, the feeling I had was of an enormously plausible portrait of a woman who becomes more and more dissociated from her body and her everyday existence and retreats. The cruelty comes through the way her environment, from husband to family and friends, react to her. Was it Aristotle who said that “nature abhors a vaccuum”? Anway, that’s exactly what happens. As the novel’s protagonist retreats, everybody else pushes into the gap, both physically as well as in volume. Restraints fall away fast as there is no obvious social mechanism to deal with the protagonist’s profund Melvillian denial of cooperation with how people around her expect the world to work. And brilliantly, Han Kang duplicates this process on a literary level by barely giving us the protagonist’s own point of view except snippets here and there. We see her through the eyes of people around her and with them, we, too push into the gap. We become voyeurs in her most brutal moments, we, deprived of a reasoned explanation for her denial, also have to guess, have to divine from the few sources we have what her reasoning is. This is not one of those he said, she said situations. The brutality of the book is one in which we are complicit.
With all that said, Han Kang is not subtle about much of this. The first novella, which deals with the impact of the incipient Vegetarianism (Veganism, really, I think?) on husband and family, makes no bones about it: the husband’s behavior is indefensible. And yet, by making the grab for knowledge, the nosy eyes and minds of family and friends the culprit (speaking about obviousness, the second novella is about a video artist) in this, we are automatically part of the problem in a way that we cannot easily escape. In a way, this makes Kang’s novel a sibling of some of Haneke’s best movies. The obviousness of the husband’s and family’s despicable behavior just compounds our complicity in the whole affair. This is important because surely, part of the novel’s concern is all of our concern with female bodies and the expectations we put on them. This gaze is too often simplified into guilty actions by heterosexual men, but the male gaze as part of patriarchal oppression is systematic and institutionalized and women can and do compound its effects. It’s a rotten system of assumptions and expectations and women, especially young women, mutilate their bodies and minds in order to conform. Han Kang’s book can be seen to be about that pressure finally breaking its subject. The obvious predecessor to this book is Bartleby The Scrivener, and while Bartleby succumbs when he also “prefers not to” eat, Han Kang prefers to start her protagonist’s denial at that point. The effect, I think, is an interesting one. Bartleby angers his environment by declining to participate, enfin, to move. That’s what gets him jailed. Nobody in Bartleby’s world would have been interested to know whether the poor man lived off a diet of potatoes or whether he enjoyed a piece of meat now and then. The mere fact that the refusal in The Vegetarian results in such virulent reactions shows that the author believes we live in a time of much more policed bodies, especially when it comes to the female body.
The novel does offer an explanation of sorts for the protagonist’s behavior, an explanation that appears, as the novel ends, to affect the protagonist’s sister, as well. However, part of the novel’s power derives from the fact that it discusses a mode of behavior that is fairly common in the surveillance of female behavior and mental deviation. On some level, and this it also shares with Melville’s dense masterpiece, the book also functions as a comment on the way society deals with anxious and depressed members, especially women. If you can’t function any more, it conversely becomes harder to function (much like it is more expensive to be poor). The solutions in the novel to the protagonist’s plight are all bad: there is coercion, deceit, medication and exploitation. Everyone in the book does one of those things (or multiple) or is complicit in them being done. The sister, who declines to abuse, lie or exploit her sister, ends up pushing her into a hospital stay where her condition is primarily treated medically. Nobody in the novel makes a real effort of understanding the protagonist’s plight. The novel keeps lobbing solutions at us that everybody inside the novel is blind to. They range from speaking, listening, understanding, accommodating, to the redemptive power of art. That last one is the most brutal because the artist is the one character in the novel best equipped to help the protagonist. Not just because he found the key to relieving her stress and unhappiness, but also because she opens up to him. He knows the solution but proceeds to ignore it because he cannot see beyond his own desire, the limits and agitations of his own mind. This reading of the novel as being applicable to people not as specifically afflicted or obsessed as the protagonist is supported by the fact that her sister’s husband is similarly disinterested in her sister without any ‘obvious’ reasons for it. At some point, he slakes his thirst for the protagonist by having rough, hungry sex with his wife in an act that I’m fairly certain should be labeled rape.
When it was all over, she was crying. He couldn’t tell what these tears meant – pain, pleasure, passion, disgust, or some inscrutable loneliness that she would have been no more able to explain than he would have been to understand. He didn’t know.
I’m scared, she’d muttered, turned away from him. No, it wasn’t that. You’re scaring me. At that point he was already slipping into a death-like sleep, so he couldn’t be sure if those words had really passed his wife’s lips. She might have lain there sobbing for hours in the darkness. He didn’t know.
The repeated line “He didn’t know” might as well end with the explanation “…and he didn’t care.”
The novel powerfully channels the feeling many women share of being the object of men’s desires and emotions, not subjects in those situations. In pop theory, terms like “fridging” and the “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” have evolved to describe cultural manifestations of this androcentric world view, this male appetite to seeing one’s own interests merely mirrored in the women we are sharing our lives with. Institutions (in the novel: family, marriage, the medical profession) are set up as implicit barriers, as limits that are additional to the limits of the body itself. This is maybe where the novel most sharply diverges from Bartleby. Melville, like Edwards and Emerson, if I’m not mistaken, believed in a freedom of will that may be impeded by society but once we step outside of that logic and those expectations, we can be wholly free. Not so in The Vegetarian. Declining to eat meat, losing connections to her husband and family (which, to be honest, good riddance) does not provide freedom or solace to the protagonist who is more, I would suggest, a literary manifestation of the limits to choice as laid out by Merleau-Ponty. Multiple distinctions in his work appear to be in play in this novel. One is the distinction between the corps propre and the idea of a mere, isolated body, the meatsuit, if you will. That latter one does not exist as an entity in the world. We cannot split the way our body works and interacts with the world from the way our minds use and inhabit that body. But, importantly (take note, Joshua Ferris!), we can’t make the opposite distinction either, according to Merleau-Ponty. Our minds don’t exist as brains in a vat. In a way, the protagonist’s affliction is a depiction of the resulting complexities of choice and freedom. Han Kang does not really depict a true feedback, and some of it reads a bit like able-bodied fantasy of physical choice and autonomy, but the tense, tragic movement of the book does reflect the sense in MMP’s work that (physically, socially determined) choice comes before thought and is thus limiting.
The book’s conclusion is less clinical that you’d think, in fact, the last novella opens up the novel into interesting directions that I don’t want to spoil. However, that means that, ideally, the language must accommodate both the distance of a cold, existentialist novel and a warmer novel of possibilities and weirdness. I cannot read Korean and while now and then, Korean phrases seem to shine through (I have issues with a particular phrase that I noticed), this is extremely rare. Deborah Smith creates a language for the book that reaches all the right registers, that is smooth and readable and functions perfectly as an English text without the crutch of exoticism. The ultimate test of a translation, the accuracy, is one I cannot perform, but from my limited angle this is a fine effort, and Han Kang is fortunate to be translated by Deborah Smith, almost as fortunate as we all have to have such a good novel around. If you find the themes I mentioned unpleasant, I would understand you staying away from this book. If that is not an issue you have, I strongly recommend The Vegetarian. It is very good.
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This is one of the most precise, coherent and uncompromising reviews of The Vegetarian that I’ve read – and I’ve read quite a few (although not the book itself yet).