Friday 20 October 2017

Nowhere to Be Found

(October 2017)

A book so slim that even calling it a novella might be pushing it; I finished it in under an hour. It’s good; interesting in that kind of unanchored, dissociative way that seems to be becoming something of a trend for female East Asian writers in translation.

I say a ‘trend’, but of course there’s a huge amount of selection bias here. I can point to this and say that it features a youngish heroine whose single most identifiable trait is an inability/unwillingness to really connect with the world around her. I can then point to other stuff I’ve read recently by Han Kang and Hiromi Kawakami and note that they too feature similarly positioned protagonists. One swallow (or in this case, three) does not a spring make, of course, but it is intriguing. Is this the kind of thing publishers think Anglophone audiences want? If so, is that riding on the off-kilter coat tails of Haruki Murakami, or more generalised assumptions about the Inscrutable East? Am I simply overthinking the whole thing?

Probably a bit of everything, as ever. To get back to this book, it features a young woman drifting along after college in a humdrum but not awful secretarial job, who gets into a listless relationship with a man who really has no discernable features either good or bad. She copes, she exists, with a family in poverty, a drunk mother, and incarcerated father, and a labourer brother thinking about emigrating to Japan to find work. About halfway through the book she goes to visit her boyfriend while he’s on army manoeuvres during national service and things all become a little detached from reality. She traipsing through winter slush in the countryside to find his unit, only be informed that there are in fact two people of his name and rank, and neither of them are here. She returns to base to meet him, where he insists his double is a lie. Then they break up and the timeline starts jumping all over the place as the narrator herself becomes unmoored from time and meaning.

That’s the plot, in as much as there is one, but this book is really elevated by the way to sparseness of expression complements the sparseness of emotion of the narrator’s inner life. The second half isn’t surreal, in that it’s not really above or an excess of reality, so much as a dislocation of it, but I’m not sure what the correct word is for that. Regardless, the way the books shifts to that whateveritis in its later stages was wholly unexpected and very well done. Not jarring, not a slow creep, you just find yourself in another time and place without any real memory of how you got there. I can’t spare the energy to really do it justice here, but it’s definitely a book that makes me want to read more of Bae’s work. If this is in fact part of a larger trend, then it’s definitely not an unwelcome one.

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