REVIEW: The Vegetarian

Vegetarian I read a review of Han Kang’s The Vegetarian not so long ago, and was intrigued enough to pick it up. I read it all in one sitting–well, mostly, with only a short break to make and consume dinner with the Little Prince–and, when I had finished, felt as if my interior space, physical as well as psychic, had been violently pummeled and made larger by the experience. The writing, translated by Deborah Smith (who also translated Kang’s Human Acts) is stunning, simple, and incandescent.

The book centers on Yeong-hye, a young Korean wife who has a disturbing dream one night and consequently refuses to eat meat. But that’s a little like saying The Metamorphosis is about bugs. The Vegetarian is densely layered and extremely brutal in the way only true things can be.

The structure of the book is interesting–three interlinked novella-length sections, each told from a different point of view. The first is told Yeong-hye’s husband, the second by her brother-in-law, and the third by Yeong-hye’s sister In-hye. If that seems odd, you’re right–we are given almost nothing from Yeong-hye’s point of view except two very short passages that might or might not detail the “disturbing dream” that sets the entire book in motion. Those passages could be read as her husband Mr Cheong’s imagining what the dream might have been, and that’s only the first of several layers of contrasting interpretation, meaning, and allegory.

At first, The Vegetarian seems to be about the dissolution of Yeong-hye’s marriage, since she not only steadfastly refuses to eat meat but also to wear a bra. She simply Bartleby the Scriveners her way out of both things, simply, quietly refusing to ingest what she doesn’t want to or confine her breasts. Mr Cheong, having married her thinking she was absolutely ordinary Korean housewife material, is alternately ashamed of and infuriated by his inability to “control” her the way Korean society thinks he should and he has come to expect. Mirroring his fury is Yeong-hye’s father, who at one violent family dinner tries to assert a right over what his (until now passive and obedient) daughter will do with her body. Young-hye’s resistance is largely passive and turned inward–since patriarchal strictures hem her in so thoroughly, the only way she can opt out is through refusal and, eventually, self-harm.

The middle third of the book shifts to Yeong-hye’s brother-in-law, a visual artist who allows her sister In-hye to support him while he’s “blocked” creatively. He’s obsessed with using Yeong-hye’s body as a canvas for one of his works, and the attempt to do so destroys his marriage as well. Paradoxically, his obsession gives us an insight into what Yeong-hye might actually want, although in the following section, we find out she may have still been heavily medicated all during the interactions and thus robbed of even that small measure of consent or agency.

The last third of the book is where everything is truly ripped open and The Vegetarian ascends to the level of a masterpiece. Everything leading up to it has been filtered through male perceptions and a patriarchal search for control of a female body, as well as the violence that ensues on several levels when said female body (not to mention the female owning it) refuses even tacitly. Yeong-hye’s sister visits her in a psychiatric hospital, and the unflinching examination of the stripping away of Yeong-hye’s bodily autonomy by the medical personnel is only part of the agonizing pain. In-hye has done everything “right” and been a model child, wife, and mother, and yet she’s in desperate agony. In-hye is forced to examine her relationship with her sister, the cruelty of their upbringing, and the pressures on women in Korean society. Wondering if her sister’s methods of coping with said cruelty and pressure are any better or less self-destructive than her own is a powerful question, one In-hye can barely bring herself to articulate, much less face.

The complexity of In-hye’s emotions around the caretaking of her sister and her son, the utter betrayal of her husband, and the emotional labor she performs for her family, all hit me right in the solar plexus. Realizing, once I had finished, that I had identified so thoroughly with In-hye that I had come to regard her sister as a symbol just as Mr Cheong and In-hye’s husband had was a nasty shock. Colluding in the strictures that attempt to rob women of bodily autonomy is almost impossible to avoid in most of the world, and Kang deftly performs the almost-impossible trick of implicating everyone, even the reader, in the violence of trying to make Yeong-hye conform. Not only that, but the allegory of the pressures on women in Korean society is so stunning that it also eclipses her, implicating the reader even more thoroughly.

I suspect I have not done this book half the justice I want to. It went straight back on my to-be-read pile for another go once my head has cleared, which is not at all usual. I feel like I have to go back and reread, maybe to try and find Yeong-hye under all the differing perceptions of her, maybe just to marvel at the sheer effortlessness with which Kang piles on and pulls away different layers of meaning. I also want to find Kang’s other work and devour it whole, which will either have to be through interlibrary loan or maybe selling some plasma to pad out my book budget next month.

TL;DR: Simply amazing, completely savage, and well worth buying in hardcover.

Future Travel

ib112 Yesterday I put the Princess on a plane. She’s part of a German-American exchange–remember Frau L? Now it’s the Princess’s turn to visit a strange land. (So far this morning she says, “Seen a KFC. Distinct lack of pickup trucks. Also, no turn signals.”)

It’s amazing that we can communicate virtually instantaneously over such distances. “We live in the FUTURE,” we keep saying to each other. I was able to track her flights in realtime, waking up every hour or so and reaching for a tiny computer on my nightstand that also holds my calendar, contacts, photos, email, games, social media…and a flashlight! Not to mention Neko Atsume.

Sometimes I forget just how amazing this all is, and how lucky I am to be born in a time and place and socioeconomic bracket where I can utilize such things. The internet isn’t ubiquitous, as I often say, it just feels like it when you’re surfing.

So my girl is half a world away, in the care of very nice people, and once she gets some sleep she’ll have the time of her life. It will be the longest and furthest we’ve ever been separated. I miss her, the Little Prince misses her; the Mad Tortie is dimly aware that one of her usual complement of slaves is AWOL and has begun to voice tiny complaints in between demanding skritches from the remaining ones.

She packed for a week before she left. Ferociously organized, that girl. Not sure where she learned that, since I function best in a sort of regulated chaos. (You should see my office.) Both her carryons were well below the weight limit since she’d planning to bring back a dirndl, and I keep thinking, wait, did I remind her to take that? I should have told her to do this. Or I should have arranged the other.

Learning to let go is also a part of motherhood. You wake up one day and realize that if something happened to you, the tiny squalling bundles you’ve been worrying over 24/7 for almost twenty years could make it just fine in the world. It’s…sobering. Terrifying. If you’ve done your job, they can survive without you. Which rudely whacks at a pillar of one’s identity, with a baseball bat, no less.

So while she’s learning all sorts of young-adult things about travel and the big old world, I’m learning to pry my worry loose and let it go. That’s another thing about kids–they never stop teaching you how to be a better person.

So if you want me, I’ll be rocking back and forth in the corner, checking my phone obsessively in case she sends me photos. Faking handling this gracefully is going to be my new norm for a few weeks.

Over and out.

Who Lives Here?

Cavity

A ramble with Miss B (whose leg is doing fine, though I am still chary of taking her running) always shows me something interesting. I’m not sure this tree will survive the hole at its base, but while it does, I think about what could live in such a space.

Stories are everywhere. You can’t escape them, ever.

THE MARKED, and a Workshop

Markedcover2 The Indiegogo campaign for THE MARKED is now live! There are all sorts of perks, and if you have a suggestion for one, please let me know.

Awful things happen. Sometimes you’re left alive, but it leaves a Mark. They aren’t tattoos, and they express your hidden powers—and your hidden desires. They grow as you use them. And someone wants them very, very badly…

A winding road, a freak storm, and a lightning strike. Jude Altfall’s life, just beginning to coalesce after her divorce, is shattered afresh. Dazed with grief, she’s not sure if the weird things happening around her are hallucinations…or something more. And there’s the mark on her hip—a tattoo she can’t for the life of her remember getting.

Preston Marlock left a shadowy government agency two years ago, to hunt a killer. Each time the bastard strikes the trail goes cold, and not even Marlock’s more-than-natural abilities are helping. Now the killer’s taken one of his very few friends, and there’s a surviving witness. The Altfall woman is now that most precious and fragile of targets, newly Marked. All Marlock has to do is dangle her like bait, and the killer will eventually show up.

The Skinner knows some people are different. Special. He has a collection of stretched skin and pretty pictures, each harvested with care. The trick is to take them while the victim is still struggling, still alive, otherwise their power is lost. He is careful, methodical, and precise, but chance robs him of a prize. Once he realizes Jude Altfall has what he covets, and has possibly seen his face, her fate is sealed. And just to be cautious, the Skinner might swat at the annoying fly who has buzzed along his trail for two years.

Sometimes you survive, and you bear a Mark.

And some things are worse than death.

Not only that, but I’ll be running a workshop for young authors this upcoming Sunday.

BN Bookfair Flyer (PDF version for downloading.)

I don’t normally do events, but the local Barnes & Noble has supported me over the years, and I love them deeply. So I’ll be practicing my own inimitable form of writing kung-fu this Sunday. Even if you’re not a teen writer, you can help out by printing out and using the vouchers to make a purchase that weekend. Please do, because it benefits the regional library system.

And that’s all the news for today, my dears. Tomorrow I’ll tell you all about the SquirrelThings Five, and why I still have a bruise on my tuchus.

Snail Rider

Zoom!
Zoom!

We’re having a plague of snails this year. Of course, many of the birds are very happy about this, since they’re crunchy with a nice chewy centre. Me, I just keep thinking of the Neverending Story every time I see one. I even sometimes whisper to them, Tell your rider to be careful, there’s a lot of birds about. I know I shouldn’t warn them, for they eat the shit out of my hostas every spring…but I can’t help myself. They are so small, and I am so large, that I feel constrained to be gentle.

Although I do wish I could whisper a garter snake or two into the yard. I wonder if they eat snails? I have no taste for escargot, but then again, I am not a snake.

Have a good weekend, my dears. Next week I’ll tell you how the SquirrelThings Five story ended with me flat on my ass.

Over and out.

REVIEW: Life and Fate

Life and Fate This last weekend I finished Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate. I’d heard of Grossman several times, of course–along with Ehrenburg he was the Soviet war correspondent of World War II’s Eastern Front. Or, as the Russians call it, the Great Patriotic War. (Ehrenburg would disagree with Grossman sharing his pedestal, I suppose. But I don’t.)

Grossman survived the war and even outlived Stalin, despite the latter’s vicious, senile anti-Semitism. Khrushchev, while not allowing Life and Fate (and other Grossman works) to be published, didn’t send him off to a camp or to the Lubyanka. (Small mercies, I guess.)

Life and Fate follows the Shaposnikov family and their circle, in various parts of the Soviet Union, through the siege of Stalingrad. The echoes of War and Peace are intentional, and indeed Grossman struggles with Tolstoy’s philosophy as well as his literary achievements. (Thankfully, though, he doesn’t betray a Sonya. He gets sort-of-close with Yevgenia Shaposhnikova, though.) His sort-of-protagonist, Viktor Shtrum, is part of the Shaposhnikovs through marrying Lyudmila; it is Grossman’s focusing on the women of that family that gives the book much of its strength. Even though Viktor is to a large extent Grossman’s authorial insert, it is the women who hold the book together, just as it’s the women who are always left to rebuild after the men kill each other in massive quantities.

Several times during the book, women are shown as more capable, more durable than men, and it is the “old peasant woman” in her many forms who holds society–such as it is under totalitarianism–together. There is the old woman holding a brick, who the observers clearly expect to bash the brains out of a German prisoner after the fall of Stalingrad. When she chooses something else, despite herself, Grossman’s own surprise is palpable. His habit as a journalist of describing what he actually sees despite it going against whatever preconceptions he may have is also palpable, and it made me enjoy myself despite some of the more wrenching parts.

What Grossman does best, really, is show the compromises–emotional, physical, spiritual, and in every other way–and the mind-numbing fear of living under totalitarianism. Viktor, after enduring the terror of waiting to be arrested by the NKVD, is suddenly restored to “citizenship” and grace because his scientific work helps the nascent Soviet nuclear program, and Stalin has just realized the utility of the latter. Once he is “redeemed” in the eyes of the State, he is presented with an awful quandary, asked to commit a betrayal. After sticking up for the “right” thing earlier in the book and suffering that completely devastating fear of arrest and reprisal, well.

People get tired, and they have to make choices under that fatigue.

Good men and bad men alike are capable of weakness. The difference is simply that a bad man will be proud all his life of one good deed–while an honest man is hardly aware of his good acts, but remembers a single sin for years on end. Life and Fate, p. 840

During the war, Soviet citizens had a hope of freedom. The state and Stalinism relaxed their iron grip in order to save its own skin, because terrified slaves don’t fight as well. Many believed that after the war, the arrests and repression would stop. That was part of what they were paying for in blood and pain and sorrow.

Needless to say, the repression began again just as soon as the German siege of Stalingrad was broken. Stalin had no intention of allowing the terror that kept him in power to fade, even if it was tactically sound to loosen the strangling fingers temporarily.

Grossman’s eviscerations of Fascism sprinkled through the book both highlight the brutality of genocide on the Eastern Front as well as, more subtly, the brutality inherent in Soviet totalitarianism. He doesn’t quite explicitly state that the difference between the two dictatorships is only cosmetic–and what Soviet writer could? But the comparison is there. Fighting an evil does not automatically make one good, Grossman seems to be saying, and that is a distinction often (if not always) lost in the heat of ideology.

If there is a way out of the tangle of bloodshed and fear, Grossman says, it is kindness.

Human history is not the battle of good struggling to overcome evil. It is a battle fought by a great evil struggling to crush a small kernel of human kindness. But if what is human in human beings has not been destroyed even now, then evil will never conquer. Life and Fate, p. 410

Of course, the character reading the above passage is in a concentration camp, he’s a diehard Soviet reading a “mad priest’s ravings.” The tension between this small hope and the evidence all around Grossman and his characters of man’s inhumanity to man is overwhelming. Grossman was Jewish, and one of the first to report on the death camps. Viktor Shtrum’s mother–a Jewish woman in Eastern Europe–dies, and Viktor’s grief is palpable. The effects of anti-Semitism, a cancer in Soviet Russia just as in Nazi Germany, is a poisonous aquifer in the book. Grossman, no doubt, saw enough of it to fill him to the back teeth.

Anti-Semitism is always a means rather than an end; it is a measure of the contradictions yet to be resolved. It is a mirror for the failings of individuals, social structures and State systems. Tell me what you accuse the Jews of–I’ll tell you what you’re guilty of. Life and Fate, p. 484

A neater–and truer–example of projection can rarely be found. Our own modern bigots and xenophobes do the same. If it’s not Jews, it’s Muslims, immigrants, what-have-you. Plus ca change

Reading Life and Fate was a marathon. Several times I had to set the book aside and take a deep breath. The tearing pain of bearing witness bleeds through the pages, made worse by the fact that Grossman saw the horror personally and could not bring himself to look away. I deeply respect that. He was also smart–and empathetic–enough to untangle the feelings of those who believed in Stalin or Communism, who had to believe or who could not imagine anything else. He didn’t shy away from the tragedy of the informer or the NKVD torturer as well as the victims, or the tragedy of those caught between and simply trying to survive from day to day.

Betrayed by his own state all his life, his books “arrested” and his own body failing him with stomach cancer in 1964, Grossman died without knowing that Life and Fate (and Everything Flows, his later book) would be smuggled out and published in the West in 1980, finally seeing publication in his own country in 1988. One suspects that as a journalist Grossman might have felt vindicated. And one can further suspect what he’d think of Russia’s current dictator-lite. Many thanks are due to Vladimir Voinovich and Andrei Sakharov for keeping the faith–and the manuscript–safe and bringing it out to breathe freely.

Wherever Grossman is now, I hope he can rest comfortably. He earned it.

King Trundles

Surveying His Domain
Surveying His Domain

The Princess snapped this shot of Trundles chillin’ halfway down the deck stairs. Proud and rugged, and sitting sidesaddle (he says it proves he’s a Lady of Quality, and cannot understand why Miss B snickers every time) as he watches me weed a bit of the auld sod. This was after his Afternoon Constitutional and before the rains rolled in; it was a little too warm for Odd’s taste but he wasn’t about to go inside if I wasn’t. Goodness knows I might do something interesting, like suddenly produce some food. Or I might need protection from an ankle-biting zombie.

This dog, you guys. This dog.