This book has been on the edge of my attention for a while now, I’d seen it on the shelves at work and on twitter and in various shortlists, and had the opportunity in August to listen to Han Kang do a live reading with The Bookshop Band at the Edinburgh Book Festival. This last event piqued my interest, but it wasn’t until this month that I actually had the time and wherewithal to actually tackle a book which-though quite short-I knew was going to be an intellectual commitment.
I’m glad I waited. The Vegetarian is another in a string of character-based interior epics that focus on the-often quite fraught-psychology of individual characters. It’s very dark, even depressing, and presents the reader with an ambiguous ending that forces one to make a choice, between a hopeful ending that the quiet desperation of the book makes the reader crave, or the more plausible conclusion, ending in death and the denial of closure. I personally haven’t decided yet, and don’t think I will. That tension, between hope and reality, is important. The discomfort that The Vegetarian‘s sex scenes and skin-crawling violence inspires in the reader is the point of the work: feel what these characters feel, perceive what they perceive.
The first act of the book, I think, is the strongest. It’s surreal and dark and moves very quickly, engendering in the reader the panic of Yeong-hye’s sudden and steep decline. The first act sets the stage for the rest of the novel with a fury of violent feeling. Admittedly, this slackens in act two as the action moves away from Yeong-hye, but I feel that it’s easy for this kind of novel to become exhausting for the reader (and no doubt for the writer), and the second act, forming an intermission of sorts before the story ramps up again at the end, gives the reader a thoughtful pause in which to absorb the events of the story, and see them in a new light. This act is more hopeful, but also signals the start of Yeong-hye’s final decline, confirms for the reader that this is not an overly hopeful story. It also shows, importantly in my opinion, how some acts which may be healing-or at least fulfilling-to one person, can be destructive to another, and it raises several questions: what did the sex between In-hye’s unnamed husband and Yeong-hye mean? Was Yeong-hye as hurt by it-either physically or mentally-as In-hye suggests when she confronts her husband? On one hand, the act solves, at least for a night, Yeong-hye’s insomnia (another running theme which I will discuss below), but also signals the start of a mental and physical decline that very likely ends in her death.
The fact that her decline is both mental and physical brings me to one of the main themes of the book: the retention by the characters of bodily and mental autonomy, taking it back from society, from their families and even from themselves. There’s a running theme in this book which brings all the acts together, of the body acting of its own accord, both in attempts at self-preservation and self-destruction. Interestingly, often, “body” and “brain” are grouped as one, in opposition to “person”, as the characters, especially Yeong-hye but even In-hye and the men, struggle to retain control over their minds and essential bodily functions such as sleep and arousal. I found the descriptions of insomnia particularly scary, and was deeply moved by Yeong-hye’s description of the impulses towards violence that she is desperate to suppress.
Dreams of my hands around someone’s throat, throttling them, grabbing the swinging ends of their long hair and hacking it all off, sticking my finger into their slippery eyeball.
Why do they (Yeong-hye’s breasts, formerly soft and round) keep on shrinking? … Why am I changing like this? Why are my edges all sharpening-what am I going to gouge?
The characters in The Vegetarian alternately suppress and express their impulses, be they sexual, physical or gustatory. The story is shot through with themes of the body’s betrayal of the person inhabiting it; Mr Cheong and the nameless husband’s arousal, Yeong-hye’s desperate attempts to retain or assert her own bodily and mental autonomy, and in the end finally transcending the nutritional needs of a body/brain that has, ultimately, betrayed her.
The ending of the story is quite upsetting, and raises almost more questions than it answers. I wonder, for example, did Kang make a conscious decision to reveal (and when to do so) the fact of Yeong-hye’s schizophrenia? Did it transform the book from a surrealist, even speculative work into a book about mental illness? It brought the book back to reality, so to speak, but is this a fundamental change in the fabric of the story, or just a redirection of its course?
Overall The Vegetarian is a powerfully emotional group of intertwining stories that-like all the best literary fiction-borders on the speculative. The quiet desperation of its characters and the bleakness of its outlook force the reader to confront uncomfortable possibilities and dangerous emotions.