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The Vegetarian by Han Kang revisited

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This book is so weird – and not just for the story. The text continuously keeps contradicting itself throughout the book and once you see it, there’s no unseeing it. That said, I’d advise first-time readers to start with a fully stocked dopamine center, as this book might go through your brain like  Pac-man, snacking all your favourite neurotransmitters on his way. Alternatively, keep dark chocolate, a kitten and prozac next to you for when you need to refuel, as it will get pretty dark.

The first part of the book is narrated by the titular vegetarian’s irredeemably unlikeable husband. He is unsympathetic to a point where it almost becomes a farce and less could have been more. This part of the book is where the ostensible protagonist, Yeong-Hye, is introduced through the eyes of her husband and except for her dreams, her perspective is never presented. In this part she begins her vegetarianism, which becomes a symbol of resistance against her violent childhood, society, her marriage etc. As the book progresses, her resistance becomes more of a disease than conscious choice, but the book shows her no less sympathy.

The perspective of the husband is a little unclear to me – it seems inconsistent – but perhaps on purpose?

Yeong-Hye is described p. 3 as ‘’unremarkable in every way’’, but she is then described right after as: ‘’jaundiced’’ with ‘’sickly-looking skin’’. That doesn’t sound ‘’unremarkable’’. Further, p. 18, she catches cockroaches by smacking them with the palm of her hand. That doesn’t sound ‘’unremarkable’’ either.

And then again the husband tells on p. 6 ‘’we were approaching the five-year mark, and since we were never madly in love to begin with we were able to avoid falling into that stage of weariness and boredom that can otherwise turn married life into a trial’’ – but – isn’t their marriage exactly boring and weary? On p. 5 he just said that being with her wasn’t ‘’particularly stimulating’’.

P. 35: ‘’she didn’t so much as stick her chop-sticks into the mouth-watering salad’’ – eh? coming from the guy who wants meat and who wants it badly – why would he describe the salad as ‘’mouth-watering’’?

Perhaps the inconsistencies are due to the translation (rumor has it that the german translation keeps a better flow), but I keep wondering about them because they make the book a lot more interesting than just its story.

In this first part of the book, Yeong-Hye’s dreams and memories appear in italics. Some of them are so kitsch it could be something straight out of ‘’My dad wrote a porn’’. Here is an example:

‘’Intolerable loathing, so long suppressed. Loathing I’ve always tried to mask with affection. But now the mask is coming off.’’ (p. 28). Ok, we get it!

Her dreams seem to tell ‘’the truth’’ (her husband even has a dream of killing someone – which he, in a way, has done) and the book would have been stronger without them.

The second part of the book is told by Yeong-Hye’s brother-in-law. The book seems quite loyal to this figure, who is the archetype of a ‘’troubled artist’’ but it also reveals again and again – that he is most likely just a really bad and banal artist. However, what is interesting is the uncertainty. It seems that he is supposed to be an artist, but not a bad artist, just troubled, nocturnal and detached from his wife and kid, and the bourgeois life that he leads (but also fails miserably at). He fetishizes his sister-in-law (and not because of her great personality) while, on p. 60, he ruminates on the idea that ‘’no woman’’ would agree to participate in his film project that bears a close resemblance to pornography. So to him, the females appearing in pornography are not women – thus women are afforded a special social status – a conventional social status, that he wishes to place in this pseudo-pornographic setting. The book lets it slip, in a more subtle way, that he might not be such a trooper, troubled artist and absent husband, or not. He buys the meaning of conventional social statuses as much as his brother-in-law (whom he criticizes for his ”conventionality”), but is seemingly unaware of this.

Many of these contradictions makes the book way more interesting, but then on p. 129 in the third part of the book, which is told by Yeong-Hye’s sister – who undergoes a journey of self-discovery as she tries to care for her sister – she remembers how ‘’as small children their young cheeks were frequently left throbbing by their heavy-handed father’’ but later on p. 157 it says “Only after all this time was she able to understand why Yeong-Hye had said what she did. Yeong-Hye had been the only victim of their father’s beatings.’’ What up!

Quick recap: People be sad.

And despite everything I’ve just said against the book, it made an impression, some sleep was lost and although I’m still not sure if this is a good book, it has been occupying my thoughts. And did you notice the gap in memory from p. 43 and 67? Coincidence? I think not… 

Warm up for the Ark Audio Book Club on ”The Vegetarian”, out on the 26th of December 2016.

Giovanna, wildly gifted pedestrian, yet is able to remain humble. Would love to engineer a lovechild/super-breed author between Ben Lerner and Chris Kraus, but will also settle for a coffee table book with pictures of them and/or a documentary where they walk the Camino together.

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