Among the many prurient pleasures offered by contemporary literature are thrillers hawking creative mistreatments of women. The subgenre’s prime was the early 1990s, which produced American Psycho (1991), but noteworthy predecessors include Perfume (1986) and The Silence of the Lambs (1988). The more recent enthusiasm for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2008; originally published, in 2005, as “Men Who Hate Women”) and its movie franchise suggests that the genre thrives still.
What are some of the common tropes of the misogynist thriller? The protagonist is usually what Michel Houellebecq christens, in his own misogynist-sociopath novel, the “omega male.”1 Damaged by an absent or overbearing mother, grandmother, or aunt, the omega male gets payback by inflicting pain on lovers or strangers. At its barest, the misogynist thriller is a tragedy of an aggrieved aggressor and his misdirected rage.
Slotting neatly into that subgenre, You-Jeong Jeong’s The Good Son opens with a dramatic set piece: Yu-jin, a young man, wakes up one morning covered in blood and discovers his mother downstairs dead, her throat sliced open. Yu-jin cannot remember what happened the previous night but thinks he must have suffered an epileptic seizure; he has not been taking his medication, which he believes clouds his thinking. Over the next three days, Yu-jin scrambles to patch together the night’s events while hiding his mother’s leaky, reeking body from a nosy aunt, an angelic adopted brother, and investigators who arrive at the most inconvenient times. Flashbacks and excerpts from his mother’s journal help Yu-jin fill in the blanks.
Like writers of American hardboiled fiction, Jeong makes style out of stoicism. It only takes two sentences to dispatch a victim: “My hand grabbed her hair, twisted it roughly, pulled her into the shadows and angled her head to expose her neck. The razor dug into her flesh.” To the murderer, who sees himself as a victim in his own right, the world bristles with aggression. A woman’s eyes are “like blades”; “the wind [throws] jabs”; cold air feels “like an ax.”
Jeong’s minimalist (and American) prose startles because it is applied to staple Korean themes such as melodramatic filial contrition (see Please Look After Mom, as well as the Asian American variants Fifth Chinese Daughter and The Joy Luck Club) and ultraviolent excess (see I’ll Be Right There and The Vegetarian, as well as films such as Old Boy).2
Yet Jeong also has strengths that are all her own; not for nothing has she established herself as one of Korea’s most commercially successful writers. After working as a nurse for five years and at a government health insurance agency for nine, she rose to stardom with a violent coming-of-age novel, Shoot Me in the Heart, in 2009. Since then she has been writing full-time, turning out best sellers that have production companies fighting for film rights.
Jeong is a superb architect of suspense. Her characters pace around, hatch plans, and attack each other with passionate intensity and impeccable timing. Her stories are set in a mental hospital, a small blockaded city, and a village near an artificial lake, spaces that are invariably foggy, stinky, and humid.
By subsuming misogyny into psychopathy, Jeong helps us forget that misogyny is a stubborn, pervasive social problem.
But if her works have guaranteed sales, that may be because, like sensitive cultural antennae, they pick up the worst contemporary phobias and allow her to neutralize them. Korean critics have praised Jeong for exploring the nature of evil, its depths and horrors. In fact, Jeong’s success lies in her capacity to gentrify evil. Jeong gravitates to subjects such as animal-to-human illnesses, child abuse, and men who terrorize and attack women. Despite the diversity of subject matter, evil is ultimately personified as the psychopath, a device though which Jeong conveniently recasts social problems—in The Good Son, misogyny—as biological disorders. As in Patrick Süskind’s Perfume, the murderer suffers from a combination of mental illness and sensory hypersensitivity; any hint of animal or female blood provokes violent responses: “I’d smelled blood, I’d stalked a frightened creature in the middle of the night, I’d ended up with a corpse in my hands … It wasn’t rare for me to smell menstrual blood in an enclosed space like a lecture hall or a classroom.” The rudimentary psychopath-villains of Jeong’s earlier novels perform the same function: they abuse children and torture animals because they are ill.
Evil, then, is a psychophysical condition in need of medical treatment. As Hannah Arendt taught us, however, what makes evil so baffling is its banal ubiquity; seemingly well-adjusted, intelligent, and even compassionate people are also capable of extreme cruelty. Feminists have long “placed serial killing at the extreme end of a continuum of sexual violence whose less extreme manifestations are normalized by a culture structured around systemic gender inequality.”3 More recently, Kate Manne has stressed that “misogyny’s essence lies in its social function, not its psychological nature.”4 By subsuming misogyny into psychopathy, Jeong helps us forget that misogyny is a stubborn, pervasive social problem, of which the killing of women is a single, though particularly salient, expression.
Jeong, then, seems less interested in plumbing the depths of evil than she is in representing supposedly inaccessible sensory experiences of other beings, or what the philosophers call qualia. In “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?” Thomas Nagel declared that humans are limited by their own mental activity and thus incapable of imagining their way into a bat’s mind. Jeong’s earlier novel 28 is partly narrated by dogs who possess a kind of olfactory-gustatory vision: “I put my snout to the field of snow marked by Star’s footprint. Scents brighten the inside of a head. The footprint, which I licked sticking out my tongue, tasted as seductive as raw chicken.”5 Jeong is even more convincing channeling a psychopath in The Good Son. Not only is she fluent in a droll antisocial humor, but the acts of violence become moments during which the killer’s senses sharpen, dilate, and crest, lifting, however temporarily, the omega male into alpha-maledom.
A passing reference to Yu-jin’s taste for “psychopath porn,” which he likens to television cooking shows, suggests that Jeong knows her works satisfy a demand for moral simplification and voyeurism. Susan Sontag described that demand best when she explained the appeal of filmic monsters: “The sense of superiority over the freak conjoined in varying proportions with the titillation of fear and aversion makes it possible for moral scruples to be lifted, for cruelty to be enjoyed.”6 Cruelty sells. Slasher filmmaker Herschel Gordon Lewis’s quip—“I mutilated women in our pictures because I felt it was better box office”—is as culturally representative today as it was in the ’60s.7
The innovation of Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 was its willingness to show, through skull-numbingly repetitive descriptions of mutilated female bodies, that misogyny is boring because it is unimaginative. Men who kill women, 2666 suggests, are not troubled aesthetes; nor do they achieve some primal masculine ideal.8 The Good Son, by contrast, freely conflates violence, strength, and perverse pleasure. It thus offers familiar, and often thrilling, psychopath pornography. Would it be too much to ask that our favorite writers give us something more than forgettable entertainment, or short-term relief?
This article was commissioned by Sharon Marcus.
- Michel Houellebecq, The Elementary Particles, translated from the French by Frank Wynne (Knopf, 2000), p. 36. ↩
- Jeong has often acknowledged the influence of American writing on her work. She has told interviewers that she learned how to tell stories by reading Stephen King. “치밀한 묘사 대담한 스케일 … 한국 문단의 ‘야전용사,” Joongang Daily, November 18, 2012. ↩
- Mark Seltzer, Serial Killers: Death and Life in America’s Wound Culture (Routledge, 1998), p. 143. ↩
- Kate Manne, Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny (Oxford University Press, 2018), p. 20. ↩
- You-Jeong Jeong, 28 (Eunhaeng Namu, 2013), p. 45. Translation mine. “스타의 발자국이 찍힌 눈밭에 코를 댔다. 냄새가 머릿속을 환하게 비췄다. 혀를 내밀어 발자국을 핥자 생닭처럼 매혹적인 맛이 났다.” ↩
- Susan Sontag, “The Imagination of Disaster,” Commentary, October 1965, p. 45. ↩
- Quoted in Naomi Wolf, The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty Are Used Against Women (Harper Perennial, 2002), p. 79. For the same reason, the true success of a misogynist-psychopath thriller must be measured not by film but by musical adaptation. American Psycho, Perfume, and The Silence of the Lambs have all been set to song and dance. ↩
- Roberto Bolaño, 2666, translated from the Spanish by Natasha Wimmer (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2008), p. 552. 2666 centers on the repeated killings of women in Santa Teresa, a city inspired by Ciudad Juárez, Mexico. On the lackluster imagination of misogynists, see the uninspired jokes that mostly involve kitchens and alleged female stupidity. Regarding masculinity, one character claims with anger that “this is a macho country full of faggots. The history of Mexico wouldn’t make sense otherwise” (p. 609). ↩