The Vegetarian, which won the prestigious Man Booker Prize earlier this year, opens with a young married woman's refusal to eat meat.
Han Kang's slender novel explores the extreme measures taken to control Yeong-hye's body. The book is broken into three parts with each section told from a different point of view. Yeong-hye's husband, brother-in-law and older sister all conspire to change her behavior for reasons that suit their own purposes while Yeong-hye remains silent. These men and women confront the problem of her body while ignoring the agency of the individual driving the decision—until it's much too late.
The Vegetarian reminded me of the work of Japanese writer Yoko Ogawa from the very first page. Both inject elements of horror and the absurd into domestic settings to establish an atmosphere of dread and heightened psychological immediacy—even though the characters and their actions are baffling.
"Suddenly he remembered being told how she'd been found stripped to the waist in front of the hospital fountain, that day when she slit her wrist."
As I wrote back in 2013, Ogawa doesn't write crime fiction or ghost stories, but her work is full of characters haunted by the past. Everyday objects are freighted with sinister underpinnings, settings offer clues to the protagonist's mood, and the narrative is charged with erotic tension expressed in unconventional ways. Ogawa's novel Hotel Iris comes to mind, as does her linked collection of stories Revenge. Both works appeared in Ogawa's native Japan long before Kang's The Vegetarian was published in Korea in 2007.
There's a line in one of Ogawa's stories about a writer that I kept thinking about as I read The Vegetarian: "Her prose was unremarkable, as were the plots and characters, but there was an icy current running under her words, and I found myself wanting to plunge into it again and again." The same could be said of both Kang and Ogawa. While the writing is somewhat understated, it's animated by all manner of strange behavior that makes both writers extremely compelling.
With so many points of comparison between the two authors, I'm not quite sure how I feel about The Vegetarian. While Kang's story is both moving and strange, the plot feels a bit predictable. I didn't find the lack of resolution (another trait of Ogawa's fiction) problematic, but the characters seemed slightly over determined: unknowable yet locked into their individual fates.
Yeong-hye, however, is a character I won't soon forget. She is an unsolvable mystery that will be familiar to anyone who has lived through the anguish of a loved one's mental illness. Her torment never feels put upon or played up for effect. She is exasperating and tragic. Her condition renders everyone who comes into contact with her helpless, which causes them, whether they realize it or not, to turn against her. This novel devoured me.
Ogawa's influence can also be felt in The Metaphysical Ukulele, a new short story collection by Sean Carswell. In each of the 12 stories Carswell engages in a bit of literary impersonation by adapting the style of a wide range of writers, from giants such as Herman Melville and Flannery O'Connor, to lesser-known writers such as Leigh Brackett, who wrote The Empire Strikes Back, crime writer Chester Himes and the enigmatic Yoko Ogawa.
Take this passage from the opening of the Ogawa-inspired "The Reticent Corpse":
"A crisp sun shone on the Naoshima seashore. Winds tore through red rental umbrellas like a stampede of sheep, stirring up the scene of coconut oil and rotting seaweed. The tide was out, and the jetty was half-exposed, a jagged edge against the surface of the sea."
Carswell's prose is anything but unremarkable as he weaves not only the authorí's prose style, but the authors themselves into his stories. Chester Himes hustles for money in the south of France, Flannery O'Connor goes on a very bad date. The author even works a writer named Sean Carswell into the collection's final tale.
This doubling is underscored by an additional link: Carswell introduces a ukulele into each of the stories. Here's Carswell channeling Raymond Chandler in "The Bottom-Shelf Muse":
"There was something unmistakable about the model's eyes, something unapologetic, something that seemed to look right through me even as they were looking away. These same eyes watched Cissy's fingers dance a Twelfth Street Rag on the neck of a banjo ukulele."
Packed with references both obvious and obscure The Metaphysical Ukulele is a literary jukebox loaded with hits.
Sean Carswell will be reading at Warwick's on Tuesday June 21st at 7pm.