My rating: 2 of 5 stars
But I fear something more insidious than traditional stupidity turns mediocrities like Knausgård into modern Prousts. I believe these encomia stem from a sense of guilt and overcompensation. A few years ago people learned with shock that Americans don’t translate a lot; this served as a call to arms to many small publishers to fill the gap, and so a new era of foreign fiction translation started with remarkable missionary zeal; one entity even named itself Three Percent, that being the percentage of foreign books translated in America. It didn’t help that Horace Engdahl, of the Royal Swedish Academy, around the same time accused American literature of being too insular. I think many fiction writers, editors and reviewers are afraid of looking too insular, too provincial and so they praise indiscriminately whatever reaches their shores. Afraid of offending, they automatically turn everything with a whiff of world literature into a modern masterpiece.
Han Kang’s much-praised 2007 novel or triptych of related novellas, now translated by Deborah Smith, is about a hunger artist: Yeong-hye, a young woman described by her crass husband as “completely unremarkable in every way,” suddenly stops eating all meat and animal products, citing only a set of disturbing dreams she has been having.
In the novel’s first part, narrated by the husband in a tone that goes from smug and misogynistic to disturbed and appalled as his wife’s behavior becomes more strange, Yeong-hye’s sudden vegetarianism caused her husband’s work colleagues to disdain her and her family to attack her. Furthermore, she stops sleeping with her husband because she claims her smells like meat; at one point, he drunkenly rapes her, an act that is echoed when her father tries to force-feed her with pork. In the midst of these events, we get italicized reports of Yeong-hye’s dreams: in them, she gluts herself on meat, or tries to rid herself of the bolus of consumed flesh she feels inside her, or studies her reflection in a pool of blood in a barn. At the end of the first novella, it is distinctly implied that our anti-heroine’s self-mortifications stem from her own desire to consume raw flesh, her own implication in the hierarchy of nature. This complements the feminist air of the chapter—which Kang enhances by making Yeong-hye’s husband and father odious patriarchs, even though the story would be more effectively mysterious if the men were kindly and affable, and thus not a plausible motive for Yeong-hye’s behavior. (Kafka, Kang’s obvious model as the blurbs and jacket copy attest, rarely blamed, in some socio-political sense, the figures of greater vitality against which his starving or otherwise withering protagonists could not measure up.) In any case, Yeong-hye sees herself not primarily as a victim, but primarily as a perpetrator—and if we can be persuaded that human life is not worth more than animal life, she in fact is.
In the second section—the most compelling, for me—we move to third-person narration from the viewpoint of Yeong-hye’s brother-in-law, a video artist for whom she becomes an object of erotic obsession even as she becomes the subject of his work. This chapter’s rich imagery, related to the artist’s vision of a man and a woman making love while painted over with flowers, lifts it above the rest of the novel, which offers a few violent or surreal images but mostly seems gray and bare. Still, what little characterization there is in this section is either perfunctory—the brother-in-law is a kind of archetypal sexual obsessive—or cliched—as when In-hye, Yeong-hye’s sister, is described by her husband as “a a good woman…The kind of woman whose goodness is oppressive.” This section is even more Kafkaesque than the rest, however, as all the minor characters are referred to only by their initials. (If only Kafka had written erotica: fifty shades of K.)
After Yeong-hye’s and her brother-in-law’s troubling liaison ends in disaster, the “good woman” gets a chapter to herself. In-hye, on her own with her child, has had Yeong-hye committed, and the titular vegetarian—now diagnosed with schizophrenia—is now dying of starvation in the psychiatric hospital. This section is garrulous and over-explanatory, rooting Yeong-hye’s adult behavior in childhood trauma and abuse, the kind of schematic pop-psychology in which such a quasi-allegorical tale, harking back to “Bartleby” and “A Hunger Artist,” really ought not to traffic. For her own part, Yeong-hye testifies to her own desire to become a tree. The depiction of the patients in the psychiatric hospital is like much else in this novel: a missed opportunity, consisting of unmemorable figures and even more forgettable and banal dialogue. In-hye, though, is the novel’s most well-drawn and complex character, and her reflection on her difference from and similarity to Yeong-hye is persuasive and moving:
She was no longer able to cope with all that her sister reminder 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.
The Vegetarian comes armored with endorsements and hype that are obviously calculated to make an American breakthrough on the order of Bolaño, Sebald, Knausgaard, and Ferrante for Kang. Why she should be chosen is not immediately clear—though she seems to have great connections, if it is not too vulgar to mention: her father is a successful novelist in South Korea, and she studied at Iowa (of course) in the U.S. The hyperbole in the blurbs—to the effect that the novel is hypnotic, terrifying, upsetting, etc.—did not match my own reading experience; I found The Vegetarian thinly imagined and plodding in pace, a dull and rather blurry expanse of bland prose serving only to support a few key moments of sex, violence, and horror that are themselves drained of intensity by their flat context. (God knows I am no expert on Korean culture, but compared to Lee Chang-dong’s stunning film Poetry, which is similar in theme [and in fact far more straightforward, even polemical, in its feminism], The Vegetarian comes up short.)
Porochista Khakpour, writing in the paper of record, claims on behalf of The Vegetarian that “There is an entire world of literature outside the West that is not adapted to our markets, in debt to our trends or in pursuit of our politics.” Undoubtedly true, but is this the best example of such a world? I experienced The Vegetarian not as some blast of alterity from beyond the bounds of my occidental consciousness, but rather as a state-of-the-art global literary novel, written in one of that form’s standard idioms—the Kafkaesque—with a dash of feminism to flatter the bien-pensant and two dashes of unearned nastiness to make it “strange” and “edgy.”
I could always be wrong; it’s hard to tell with new books, and even harder with translated ones. Perhaps what I read as flaws—the absence for much of the book of interesting characterization or description, the cliched quality of the novel’s “extremity,” its exhausted Kafkaisme, its insipid prose—are really revolutionary, or are related to the writer’s own cultural milieu in ways I cannot perceive. But for me, The Vegetarian was almost completely unsatisfying.