Monday, 4 August 2014

'My Son's Girlfriend' by Jung Mi-kyung (Review)

If you're a regular visitor round these parts, you'll know that this year has seen a lot of Korean literature reviewed, mainly because of the Library of Korean Literature project from Dalkey Archive Press and the Literature Translation Institute of Korea.  While we may be focusing on Women in Translation this month, the K-Lit trend will still continue throughout August, so here's another to add to the collection :)

Jung Mi-kyung's My Son's Girlfriend (translated by Yu Young-nan, review copy courtesy of the publisher) is a collection of short stories about life in modern-day Korea.  The collection runs to almost 220 pages, but as most of the stories are about thirty-pages long (extended stories seem to be fairly common in Korean writing), there are actually only seven pieces in the collection.  However, there are several powerful stories, each exploring the problems faced by people trying to live their lives in 21st-century Korea, some universal, some specific to those living on the peninsula.

A major issue in Korean society is social mobility, and in the title story, a mother is confronted by this problem after her son falls in love with a young woman from a background of poverty.  As she attempts to allow her son to work out his feelings for himself, the beautiful, shy young girl reminds her of an admirer she had in her youth, a boy she led on even though she had no intention of developing a serious relationship with him.

It's an excellent story in which the reader sees life from various social strata.  The woman's family lives at the top of an exclusive apartment building, literally looking down on the city, and it's hard to believe that the son's passion is anything but a temporary rebellious notion.  In addition to the main action, there's also a clever sub-plot involving a driver employed by one the building's residents in which the idea of social inequality is further reinforced.

Of course, being at the top is a lot easier than getting there, and in 'I Love You' Jung takes a look at a couple who are desperate to get a foot on the ladder to success.  A struggling investment analyst and a lecturer desperate for a permanent position, they're people at risk of falling behind their contemporaries, comfortable, but going nowhere.  When an opportunity comes along for them to form close ties with a wealthy businessman, it's little wonder, then, that they take it without too much consideration.  However, it turns out that this involves a fairly indecent proposal, and the couple are left to wonder what sacrifices are worth making for a shot at a luxurious lifestyle.

Another troubled relationship is described in 'The Bison', where a sculptress puts on her first show after the death of her husband:
"Only after he was gone did I realize that all of us are carrying a chill in our hearts as heavy as the weight of the universe.  Just like the bison who lived during the Ice Age, we've been thrown here, though we don't know whence we came or why, and we must walk on ice, fighting off the cold with our entire bodies.  After he was gone, what seized me was not sorrow but an intense chill."
'The Bison', p.55 (Dalkey Archive Press, 2013)
This passage is a little deceptive though - while the artist may miss her husband, their relationship was far from ideal.  With his saintly obsession on providing aid for the starving in the North, she felt a cold chill well before his untimely death...

By now, you'll have realized that there aren't too many happy souls in this collection, and existential malaise is a theme which runs through the stories.  'In the Wind' sees a woman going through the mental agonies of IVF treatment, all the time wondering if it's what she even wants, especially when she's not even sure about her marriage any more:
"Once formed, a relationship meant bondage to another person for a lifetime, so why did people want to weave new webs of relationships?"
'In the Wind' (p.90)
The protagonist of 'Cicadas' is also tortured, but in a very different way.  He's suffering from tinnitus, and the constant noise of Seoul is slowly driving him crazy.  A chance encounter with a fragile young woman offers some relief, but having read some of the other stories in this collection, the reader doesn't hold out much hope for a happy ending here either ;)

My Son's Girlfriend may be a little depressing, but it's a very good collection of stories (only 'Signal Red', a story about a woman's relationship with a colour-blind man, was a little disappointing).  A phrase which kept coming back to me while reading the book, my own, personal leitmotif for the collection, was one from my own younger days.  As all blur fans will no doubt remember, modern life?  Well, it's rubbish.  The sad thing is that many of these protagonists aren't even holding out for tomorrow - they'd rather just end it all today...

The last story is, in many ways, perhaps the darkest.  'Night, Be Divided!' follows a successful film-maker on a trip to Oslo, where he takes advantage of the trip to catch up with an old friend from school, a hyper-successful doctor whose brilliance always amazed his friend.  Having turned to research, the doctor's new challenge is to create a drug - to make people fall in love:
I ask, "Do you think the loss of love is a disease?"
 "Well, doctors call what they can cure a disease and what they can't cure inherent human traits.  They don't call loneliness, jealousy and sorrow diseases.  Before the advent of sleeping pills, people just couldn't sleep.  Insomnia wasn't an illness.  With the emergence of Prozac, depression became a more common ailment.  When my drug is perfected, the extinction of passion will become a disease."
'Night, Be Divided!' (p.191)
It's another chilling, horrible thought, and the story (which becomes very bleak indeed) is a fitting conclusion to the book.  It's worrying to think that for many Koreans (according to Jung, at least), modern life really is that rubbish.  Luckily, I can assure you all that My Son's Girlfriend is far from rubbish - it's actually very good :)