Y Euny Hong: Kept – a comedy of sex and manners
Simon & Schuster, 2006
The author of this entertaining comedy, Y Euny Hong, claims to speak from experience as a surviving descendent of a declining Korean aristocratic family. Making a living now as a journalist, she was given the generous opportunity of 3 pages in the FT’s weekend magazine to trail her novel back in May 20061. Having read the article, I registered the book as something to put on the radar screen, but not necessarily something to rush out and buy. How can someone who proudly traces her family back 28 generations be so approximate in her attention to more recent historical detail that she can start a sentence thus: “When the Japanese colonised Korea in 1919”? And can one warm to a person who states bluntly “My family is belligerent with subordinates; we make waitresses cry”. So the book was put on the usual online wishlist, but with a low priority.
Fortunately, with the passage of time I forgot the content of the article and ordered a copy of the book to complement some heavier online purchases. I’m glad I did.
The book gets off to a cracking start, with our heroine Judith Lee sitting in a doctor’s surgery filling out a questionnaire so that she can go through with an elective and potentially irreversible contraceptive procedure. As she moves from one question to the next we are given flashbacks which provide the context for why she is where she is. We hear of the heroine’s backstory – not unlike that of the author – as a blue-blooded Korean aristocrat whose family is an increasing irrelevance back home and even more so in Manhattan.
Hong certainly identifies with her heroine. In a passage which appears both in her article and her book, she explains the loneliness of her childhood, when her parents never allowed her to have visitors.
To avoid having to return invitations, they forbade me, on pain of thrashing, to eat or drink anything other than water at a friend’s house. Anyone who started to become close to me was put off sooner or later by my coldness and inability to give or receive hospitality. But no matter, because by early adolescence I had been fully indoctrinated in the belief that anyone outside my family was second-rate.
And for Judith, even though her family has fallen on hard times, her choice of occupation is restricted because most options are considered by her parents to be too common. She moves in circles where people can trace their greyhound’s lineage back to a dog which appeared in a Velazquez painting, but she has to live on credit to keep up.
There are some familiar observations about the Asian experience in the West: if you’re sitting in a launderette, it’s automatically assumed that you work there. Insulting enough for an average oriental, but if you’re descended from King Sejong it grates that little bit extra. And assumptions are made about your religion: the heroine recounts how her father’s classmates at a US university assumed, persistently, that he was a Buddhist. So he mugged up on Buddhism in order to conform to their prejudices. And here’s the neo-Confucian yangban speaking:
Korea aristocrats don’t become Buddhist … That’s a peasant’s religion.
A disappointment to, and disowned by, her parents, Jude falls into debt and, as hypothetically trailed in her FT article, becomes a high-class escort to dig herself out of a hole, joining a seraglio for New York’s elite along with a bunch of other aristocratic but impoverished beauties.
Her steady client is a classical musician, and we hear of other prejudices: “Whom do I have to blow in this town to get an audition for the Metropolitan Opera orchestra pit?” he complains. Nevertheless, he’s well-heeled enough to keep Jude in Bergdorf store cards2. The cast of other characters is larger than life, from the high class madam, via Jude’s rather too intimate relatives and coke-snorting friends to the over-possessive mother of Jude’s Jewish boyfriend.
The book provides pretty much non-stop entertainment, the more so when Jude returns home for a family funeral, when several discoveries are made – that maybe her parents didn’t really hate her after all, that maybe her family tree isn’t all it was made out to be, and that her parents, who used to have such high class tastes, have fallen to such a degree that they now watch Jim Carrey movies all day. They still manage to get the VHS rental shop to deliver, though.
There are many novels which offer a cross-cultural view of the Korean diaspora experience in America. Most of them tend to focus on the lower end of the social scale: the dry cleaners, the grocers. This one is at the opposite end of the scale. Whether the observations are true or not I cannot tell, but some of them feel right; and it sure is a fun read. Like Jude’s first Tiffany-sourced apology from a client, an unexpected jewel.
- To read the article, click on this link, but remember you only have a limited quota of free FT viewings per month
- Apparently the form is only to provide store cards rather than credit cards: that way you know your courtesan is only paying for stuff which will enhance her appearance and therefore make her look good on your arm or in your bed. Providing credit cards would mean that she can buy herself useful things – like a car – and thus be more independent