Han Kang: The Vegetarian

Kang, Han (2015 [2007]), The Vegetarian, Portobello
[Translated by Deborah Smith]
ISBN 978-1-84627-562-3

han kangI 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.

DSC_1950With 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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John Scalzi: Lock In

Scalzi, John (2014), Lock In, Tor
ISBN 978-0-7653-8132-3

[A note: this review has somehow turned out very digressive, so here’s a quick tl,dr summary of my opinion: Lock In is an intelligent, fun, exciting science fiction novel built around a brilliant idea, somewhere between Merleau-Ponty and Michael Crichton and executed by one of the most prolific and best SF authors we currently have. If you like techno-thrillers and/or you like science fiction, read Lock In. It’s very good.]

DSC_1559So if you are not following what’s happening in English-language science fiction, it’s quite likely you missed quite a solid amount of drama. The magnificent Adam Roberts has summarized the affair succinctly here. If you don’t feel like clicking on links (another good take is here), the even shorter version is this: dismayed by a distorted perception of who is being fêted by the prize-giving crowd in science fiction, a group of mediocre-to-terrible writers have set up a list of “preferred” writers. Their moniker is “sad puppies” or “rabid puppies” (technically two different groups, practically indistinguishable) and they feel they have to protest what they feel is boring, politically correct fiction. Recent Hugo winners and nominees include books that question gender, race and class, and writers like Larry Correia, who runs a gun shop and likes to shoot guns in his spare time (like, really likes to shoot guns) feel there’s not enough old fashioned ass-kicking and shooting going around, and very much not enough veiled (or not so veiled) xenophobia and misogyny. They are just, we hear, not enough fun. The Hugos should be awarding the fun books, the popular books rather than the books well loved by critics. I remember a similar debate around the Booker Prize and its dreary results [insert here a complaint about many recent Booker shortlists]. But the Booker is not a award that the public can vote on, so what the “Sad Puppies” did wouldn’t have been possible there: they organized a crowd of rowdy, angry, mostly white and male supporters and rigged the voting process, getting a disproportionate amount of “Sad Puppies” on the list. Now, the awards ended in a curious result, which you can find summarized here and here. But of all the essays and thinkpieces on the award, what struck me most strongly somehow was this Hugo analysis (and it’s follow-up here) which I was interested in for two reasons. One, apparently, without the Puppies voters, the award for best novel would have gone to The Goblin Emperor, a nice but not spectacular book (my review here). Two, and more relevantly for this review, without the “Puppy” books, John Scalzi’s Lock In would have been nominated. This is interesting. Neither The Goblin Emperor, which treats class and power with dubious sloppiness nor Lock In are boring-but-critically well received books. In fact, the closest non-SF point of comparison for Scalzi’s excellent book is Michael Crichton’s oeuvre. It’s a fast paced thriller, brilliantly conceived, with smart ideas and a sleek, efficient execution. If you like fast paced SF-y thrillers, read it. It’s a blast.

DSC_1557The reason I suppose Scalzi was not among the recommended authors is not this work in particular. It’s not even his work in general. Lock In is not some nifty exception to an otherwise more complicated and/or difficult oeuvre. It’s not to his oeuvre what Kraken was to Miéville’s, for example. In fact, his Hugo-winning novel Redshirts (2012) is similarly an absolute joy to read. It’s a story about Star Trek, it toys with genre, with conventions and characters. It’s absurdly funny. Sure, there’s a level on which it’s a clever take about truth and narrative, but we are at no point obliged to stop and consider this take in order to enjoy the book. In fact, the reason I never reviewed it here is because I thought it was lovely but a bit breezy and slight. Would I recommend it? Of course. It’s endlessly amusing. And I think the deeper its reader has fallen down the SF culture wormhole, the more enjoyable it is. So is this the kind of dour politicking the Sad Puppies warned us? It’s clearly not about popularity because Scalzi’s books sell like cold drinks in a hot summer. He’s so successful in fact, that Scalzi recently inked a 3.4 Million $ contract with Tor (read the man’s own explanation here). Scalzi is popular, he writes breezy, not entirely weighty books that are not super left wing (Old Man’s War is a good example) in an accessible style – the kind of style, indeed that would allow him to publish 19 books in 10 years. So the issue isn’t with his work per se – it’s with Scalzi the person who runs a blog that frequently discusses political issues in science fiction, and a Twitter account that does the same. For these reasons, Scalzi has become the bête noire of the “Puppies” crowd. And the most fascinating part about it is that Scalzi at no point in his recent work fills the role he’s expected to fill. There are practically no flat polemics, no open and excessive politics, nothing. Lock In is politically interesting, but not overtly so, and his asides that may be read as commenting on the debate are minor, such as when a character says to the other “I get that you’re used to saying what you think to anyone, anytime. That comes from being an entitled rich kid.” Compare this to, say, Rushdie’s grumpy asides on the New Atheism debate in Enchantress of Florence, for example, where he inserted anachronistic debates just to (I guess) make a point.

DSC_1556For all the baggage that comes with the name Scalzi and with the science fiction community and the Hugo dustup, Lock In is an intricate (but not overly so) techno thriller that happens to be SF, but reads in many ways like a novel by Michael Crichton. A new technology is introduced, it proves to be dangerous and influential people behind the curtain try to abuse it to their own benefit and it’s up to some detective-like character to figure it out. It’s not the first time on this blog that I’ve compared a SF writer to Crichton, and last time, it was Charles Stross’ lamentable Halting State. (click here for my review) – but there is a key difference. Stross copied the school of Crichton to a fault, from the narrative skill to the odd politics and even xenophobia. Stross presented a SF novel entirely denuded of all that makes science fiction such a vital and important genre. Because that’s another way that the “Puppies” got it wrong. Science fiction has always been full of exciting books that pushed the intellectual envelope, that managed to say things in the grammar of science fiction that couldn’t have been said equally well within the genre of “literary fiction” – Coreia, Beale and their ilk didn’t just misread and mistreat contemporary science fiction – they also seem entirely unaware of the genre’s proud and interesting tradition. Scalzi on the other hand – and unlike Stross- wrote a book that makes heavy use of the advantages of SF. That summary just now doesn’t really do justice to Lock In and that’s because the book, despite having a thriller corset, wouldn’t work as it does in a pure thriller structure. It’s SF skeleton are as important to the book as its thriller muscles. Unlike Halting State, whose speculative technologies are at best hair’s breadth more futuristic than the technology that Crichton’s more speculative books revolve around, Scalzi’s basic idea is the backbone, the most essential element of the whole book. In fact, in some of its slighter moments the book feels like the author competently-but-quickly fleshed out his ideas. There’s no complex structure to the book, it develops rather straightforwardly from its initial premise. Much like the idea of Redshirts, i.e. what if the characters on a TV show were somehow real, and script rewrites would inexplicably change the world around them. And what if they then managed to escape to “our” world and contact the actors and scriptwriters and producers of “their” show? The rest of the book just fleshes out that idea, expands on it, adds joke and easter eggs. In a more serious way, the same thing is true for Lock In. There’s a premise and the writing just fills in the gaps and wrangles a plot. That premise, however, is so good that it allows Scalzi to really go to town.

DSC_1568The basic idea is that in the near future, an illness strikes a vast portion of the population, the so-called Haden’s syndrome. For a small percentage of those inflicted, falling ill means being locked out of your body. These people are basically paralyzed for the rest of their lives, with active brains and nerves, but without control over their bodies. And there is no cure for Haden’s syndrome. However, after a few years, technology has developed to help the millions inflicted. Many of those technologies involve the transfer of consciousness. Into a virtual community called the Agora, into robots, and into the brains of people who serve as carriers. These solutions are not permanent. The Haden’s victims still have their bodies around which need to be tended to and there is a transfer of physical sensation from the body to the consciousness, and if the body dies, the consciousness dies with it. The transfer is achieved via neural transmitters. Some people, born with the illness, never really encounter the physical world actively and spend all their life in the Agora. Some enter some means of transportation every day. There are CEOs, politicians and people from all walks of life who suffer from Haden and use robots to get around town. This technology is accessible to everyone because, until very recently in the book’s timeline, it was heavily subsidized by the government. The book’s protagonist is a famous Haden’s patient, Chris Shane, who we meet on day one of his new line of work: rookie FBI agent. Shane comes from a famous/rich family, but want to make it on his own. I think you can recognize the trope. On day one, he and his new partner, the troubled but brilliant agent Leslie Vann, are called to the scene of a murder involving Hadens. The book covers roughly one week during which their initial murder case leads them to uncover a conspiracy that involves more murder, corporate greed, terrorism and a popular uprising of those affected by Haden. The book moves quickly, as there’s just not enough time to meander, given all that happens, and it does it with efficiency and narrative excellence. However, just because the book doesn’t offer us digressive essays and pamphlets, it doesn’t mean the book is bereft of intelligent points on a wide range of things.

DSC_1555I have recently been reading (in PhD work breaks) quite a few genre novels and I am vaguely aware of the attempt to establish the term “slipstream”, which I mostly encounter in the writings of genre writers who want to sidle up to the “literary fiction” genre by claiming a kind of shared space. But good literary fiction does more than tell a good yarn, it offers us structures and ideas and an elevated level of prose. Some books, like the incomprehensibly dull The Doors You Mark are Your Own by “Alexander Tuvim” mistake the recent resurgence of narrative (I commented a bit on that resurgence in my review of Jen Williams’ The Copper Promise) for some new literary license to sprawl without having the intellectual nous to actually say something rather than merely indulge. If there was a slipstream genre, surely it would involve books with genre trappings that also fill the shoes usually worn by what is generally perceived as literary fiction. The problem with that is that this is already amply covered, say, by science fiction. M. John Harrison, Iain Banks, Samuel Delany, Gene Wolfe and China Miéville are as skillful writers of prose as many “literary” novelists (and certainly better than “Tuvim”), and intelligent and even brilliant ideas abound in science fiction, which has never confortably settled within any arbitrary set of genre conventions. The mere history of science fiction explodes that idea. I know the idea comes from Bruce Sterling who is always worth considering, but to me what he describes is more like a gothic alienating technique (which you’ll also find in the recent works of William Gibson), but I’m always open to being proven wrong about the validity of “slipstream” as a genre. If it hadn’t come from Sterling, I would have assumed it came from someone who doesn’t really understand the reach and power of science fiction. And Lock In is an excellent example of the reach and unconventional positioning of science fiction. Scalzi employs the tropes of thriller writing, with small but significant twists. At the same time, his reliance on his science-fictional premise allows him to implicitly debate issues such as the question of how society and the structures of knowledge intersect with disability. How do we construct a disabled body? Where does deficiency end, and identity begin?

DSC_1566There is a moment where the protagonist is offered a broken robot as his only option to get around town. The robot works, but its legs don’t, so the rookie agent is offered a wheelchair to get around in. It comes near the end and allows the reader to come to terms with the many other ways disability has been portrayed in the book. There are mental disabilities that are shown to be both limiting as well as empowering. We are confronted with the question of how connected our sense of humanity is to our corporeality. In many places, Scalzi appears to offer a riff on Merleau-Ponty’s famous discussions of the corps propre. Even as early as in his 1942 work The Structure of Behavior, Merleau-Ponty points out that “[l]’esprit n’utilise pas le corps, mais se fait à travers lui” – the consciousness doesn’t merely use the body as a host. It could not just be made independent from the body – despite the fact that Hadens can easily and quickly transfer their consciousness from and into different hosts as you would get into and out of different cars (the protagonists keeps traveling throughout the country by downloading into available robots). Very subtly, Scalzi also discusses the topic of race and how visibility and disability play into the cultural construction of race. Least subtly, and likely connected to contemporary American domestic debates, he offers a withering indictment of the opposition to government-supplied healthcare. And I’m not transposing some kind of reading on a more innocuous book – all this is really in there, and he uses plot and setting to offer a debate without having to stop for narrative breath. This is enormously hard to do in “literary fiction” because it’s not as easy to mold the environment to convey a philosophical argument as it is with the grammar of science fiction, and downright impossible to do while maintaining fluid readability. Lock In is a barrel of excitement – did I mention that it’s also humorous and witty? It’s just enormously good at what it does – and it does a lot. It#s the best book by Scalzi that I’ve read so far – although I am far from a Scalzi completist. This is very good and I recommend it to you with all the conviction I can muster. It’s a fantastic book, and the “Puppies” can go suck my big toe.

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