Rebellious Anti-Rebels

Kyung-sook Shin’s I’ll Be Right There, originally published in South Korea in 2010, features illness, injury, rape, kidnappings, and at least four types of suicide, one of which is possibly murder ...

Kyung-sook Shin’s I’ll Be Right There, originally published in South Korea in 2010, features illness, injury, rape, kidnappings, and at least four types of suicide, one of which is possibly murder. This excess will not surprise readers familiar with Shin from Please Look After Mom (2008), in which a country mother disappears during a visit to Seoul, prompting her husband and children to tearfully reflect on how much they loved but mistreated her. If Shin’s novels seem too much for modern sensibilities, it is because Shin is motivated by an impulse to restore concentrated emotional states that dissipated after the capitalist half of the hermit kingdom opened its borders to foreign influence. So even when Shin’s melodramatic worlds depress, they also enthrall in the manner of Werther, for they resuscitate intoxicatingly intense experiences of unconditional maternal love, filial piety, passion, and fierce loyalty.

Shin is a newcomer to the Anglophone literary scene, gaining name recognition only after Oprah’s endorsement of Please Look After Mom in 2011, and her receipt of the Man Asian Literary Prize for the same year. For the past two decades, however, Shin has steadily cemented her position as Korea’s national writer, cranking out bestsellers even while harvesting the most prestigious national literary awards. Shin is perhaps best known in Korea for her chiseled, scintillating style, much of which is inevitably lost in translation. Another strength behind Shin’s success, though, is her ability to renovate dilapidated structures of feeling, so that readers too young to have experienced pre-modern, pre-democratic Korea may think that they are reliving a familiar experience.

By reflecting on the past, Shin’s novels invariably appraise the state of the nation. As a character nicknamed Fallingwater (after Frank Lloyd Wright’s house) in I’ll Be Right There puts it, “Architects have to know everything there is to know about a space. You have to know its past and its present. That way you can build its future.” If Shin seems at time to lay down morals and take-aways too thickly, it is because she is a writer with a civic mission: to take stock of what’s been lost, and provide a cultural adhesive for ideological disjunctions caused by rapid industrialization and Westernization.

In Please Look After Mom, Shin paid melancholic tribute to the endangered species that is the rural, pre-modern Korean mother. In I’ll Be Right There, Shin remembers the eighties, the tumultuous decade of hope, violence, and despair that followed the assassination of the military dictator Park Chung-Hee in 1979. When yet another military leader seized control with a coup d’état in 1980, college students staged ferocious protests, only to be beaten by police or, in more extreme cases, kidnapped and placed in the Samchung Re-education Camp, where they were subject to “purificatory education” and hard labor.

Shin is an apt chronicler of this period, for she is a member of Korea’s 386 Generation, a term coined in the early ’90s to describe adults in their thirties who went to college in the ’80s and were born in the ’60s (the convoluted numbering pays homage to the Intel 80386, which was the computer model widely used in South Korea at the time). Hers is the generation that avoided the carnage and shell shock of the ’50s, and enjoyed relative affluence thanks to policies implemented by a gritty dictator who privileged economic development above all else.

The ominous absence of middle-aged characters, who only make feeble cameo appearances as shopkeepers, compound the sense that in the world of this novel, maturity is commensurate with death.

Shin has already written about her experience of the ’80s in her semi-biographical novel A Lone Room (1995), but I’ll Be Right There recasts the period’s strife in the seemingly apolitical form of the campus romance. The novel opens with Yoon receiving an unexpected phone call from her ex-boyfriend Myungsuh, who informs her—after eight years of silence—that their former literature professor is dying in a hospital. This prompts Yoon to remember her college years spent with Myungsuh, the dying professor, and others. Excerpts from Myungsuh’s diary, which he gave to Yoon years ago, occasionally interrupt Yoon’s narration, amplifying this retrospective mood.

The young men and women who structure the main love quadrangle—Yoon, her childhood friend Dahn, Myungsuh, and his childhood friend Miru—behave for the most part like teenagers. But desperation underlies their childish play, because as Dahn and Miru eventually prove, to stop playing means to grow up, and enter the corrupt adult world. The ominous absence of middle-aged characters, who only make feeble cameo appearances as shopkeepers, compound the sense that in the world of this novel, maturity is commensurate with death. Even Professor Yoon (not to be confused with Jung Yoon) idolizes artists who die young and eventually resigns from his post, unable to vocally express his disapproval of crackdowns on protests.

Growing up is difficult in a politically stagnant country, despite Myungsuh’s aspirational prefatory remark to his diary: “I just hope that compared with my previous diaries, whatever I write here will be proof of my maturity and growth.” As Myungsuh notes with frustration to Yoon, “Everything is the same. It only feels like time is passing, and only the characters change.” After all, this is a nation in which an assassinated military dictator is quickly replaced by another military dictator.

If the world is intolerable and yet cannot be changed, a stopgap measure is to create makeshift spaces within it, often out of words. So Myungsuh, even as he participates in protests, creates little pockets of make-believe with Miru and Yoon, playing games that involve chain-writing stories in a shared notebook, hugging strangers, or breaking through couples holding hands in the streets. Miru, for whom each day of existence seems a struggle, keeps a diary in which she records every single food item she consumes. Flipping through it, Dahn notes, “After a while, those simple lists started to sound like poems. Like she was shouting, I am what I eat and what I have eaten… Every once in a while, there was an entry where she went on a binge.”

If games become so intense as to resemble art, art in turn becomes a kind of game, as the characters rely on the most brooding poetry in literary history to fortify the thin walls of their oddly immature world. They chant lines from Rainer Maria Rilke, Emily Dickinson, or Francis Jammes on love and death, as if those talismanic words could protect them from adulthood. Further, the young characters speak with a stubborn naïveté that will induce cringes from those more accustomed to irony, as when they repeat the words “Let’s remember this day forever” while affectionately squeezing one another’s hands.

Yoon’s narrative interweaves with Myungsuh’s in an elegant fugue, as the immediacy of Myungsuh’s diary provides a counterpoint to Yoon’s distanced and retrospective narration. Myungsuh’s diary also offers direct access to those childish memories he turns to for escape from the world. Here, he recalls tasting a rare treat for the first time as a schoolboy:

As [my friends and I] were walking past the store, someone yelled, “Chocolate!” A type of candy I had never seen before was on display, each piece in its own little compartment … We pooled our money, bought a few pieces, split them up among us, and tasted them. We were all very tense and eager because the one who recognized it as chocolate said it tasted like something out of this world. The candy melted smoothly and easily on my tongue. I had no idea anything in the world could taste like that. I thought I would turn to stone right there.

Such recollections of the past, like the games that Myungsuh, Miru, and Yoon play, produce sweet and static spaces of refuge from the political turmoil raging in the streets and the universities. Yet chocolate, like the poetry the characters cite, is an imported luxury made available for consumption thanks to the specific historical moment they inhabit. Inextricably implicated in the reality that oppresses them, the materials that enable such moments of pleasure prove to be fragile, usable only for short-term relief.

As a mature writer and high-profile member of the generation considered the most progressive in modern Korean history, Shin is thinking hard about an old social malaise that continues to plague the present.

Given the deplorable lack of a healthy middle-aged guidance available to the young in this novel, it does not seem arbitrary that Shin writes about youth in her late forties. South Korea’s first democratic elections were eventually held in 1987, and while living conditions have continued to improve, the nation remains deeply troubled. For contemporary readers in Korea, the metastatic spread of suicides across Shin’s novel may seem a little excessive, but certainly not unfamiliar. In a survey conducted early this year, over 40% of South Korea’s youth reported having suicidal thoughts.1 This is perhaps why the novel, despite its ’80s setting, does not feel distant enough to be a historical novel. As a mature writer and high-profile member of the generation considered the most progressive in modern Korean history, Shin is thinking hard about an old social malaise that continues to plague the present.

Indeed, she makes good use of the opportunity provided naturally by the genre of the campus novel to lecture us twice in the classroom. In the first lecture, Professor Yoon extracts from the parable of Saint Christopher the moral that art can be capable of carrying one through difficult political times, but “[l]iterature and art are not simply what will carry you; they are also what you must lay down your life for, what you must labor over and shoulder for the rest of your life.” In the epilogue, Yoon, now a successful novelist, returns to the university and delivers the same parable. During the question and answer session, a student asks her to advise those currently in their twenties:

Without even having to think about it, I said, “I hope you all have someone who always makes you want to say, Let’s remember this day forever.” The students oohed and aahed, and then laughed at each other’s reaction. I laughed with them. “Also…” They’d thought I was done but they quieted down again. “I hope you will never hesitate to say, I’ll be right there.”

It’s only here, after the main narrative is over, that the writer signals her recognition of the deeply antiquated language used throughout the novel. But if she is aware, why do both Yoon and Shin insist on such gooey, high-calorie sentimentality?

Remarking that contemporary American fiction and culture, infected by irony, has become hollow, David Foster Wallace hypothesized the possible emergence of new literary rebels who are “some weird bunch of anti-rebels … artists willing to risk the yawn, the rolled eyes, the cool smile, the nudged ribs, the parody of gifted ironists, the ‘Oh how banal.’ To risk accusations of sentimentality, melodrama.”2 With her emphases on filial piety, sincere feelings, and unfettered expressions of such sincere feelings (all of which are considered embarrassing among Korean youth, just as in the US), Shin might very well be the kind of rebellious anti-rebel that Wallace called for in the American context.

The immense popularity of Shin’s work in Korea, at the very least, speaks to a public appetite not for experimentally daring modernist or postmodernist fiction, but for something old-fashioned: literature that can console and enchant—even if only temporarily—and sometimes even teach. Shin suggests that literature’s most valuable task may be to refresh principles so basic as to seem banal, to render them graspable even in the harshest rapids of modernization and development. icon

  1. Yewon Kang, “Poll Shows Half of Korean Teenagers Have Suicidal Thoughts,” The Wall Street Journal, March 20, 2014. In 2012, 28.1 people in 100,000 killed themselves in South Korea, the highest rate in the developed world (for comparison, the OECD average is 12.5 per 100,000). See Kwanwoo Jun, “Suicide Rates Fall in Seoul and South Korea But Still Among the World’s Highest,” The Wall Street Journal, October 7, 2013.
  2. David Foster Wallace, “E Unibus Pluram: Television and US Fiction,” A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again (Little, Brown and Company, 1997), p. 81.