Hell Joseon has become an increasingly familiar context for contemporary Korean literature. But the novels and stories I can think of all focus on the struggles of the poor or those who are just about managing. Think Hwang Jungeun’s One Hundred Shadows or Hwang Sok-yong’s At Dusk. By contrast, Kim Sagwa’s first novel to be translated into English examines teenage angst among the affluent middle class.
Crystal and her best friend Mina come from wealthy families: Mina’s parents won a lottery, enabling them to buy an apartment in a swanky complex, and Crystal, who lives with her parents in a similar apartment lacks for nothing. They collect MP3 players and mobile phones; they have credit cards and think nothing of travelling everywhere by cab. But somehow despite their wealth and privilege their lives seem empty of much meaning. Their daily routine is taken up with school during daylight hours and private academy in the evening. Relationships with the opposite sex seem to go nowhere because a boyfriend seems to be more of a fashion accessory than someone to build a friendship with.
Somehow there’s a feeling of entrapment, that whatever steps you take, your path in life is predetermined:
High school takes students down one of three paths: one for the really smart kids, who already know the steps they have to take to maintain their elite standing and better avail themselves of the opportunities afforded them; one for most kids, whose only option is to endure in the hope that university has to be better than this; and stuck in between these two are the students who have lost their way, who engage in useless fantasies, who suffer from depression and end up killing themselves. (P15)
Reflecting their outwardly glossy lives that seem empty of meaning, Crystal is proud of her school English essays that are grammatically and syntactically perfect but completely content-free. It is the external appearance that matters; quality of underlying arguments or original thought do not contribute to earning the high marks in the exams that are the ticket to future success.
Whether all this is sufficient to explain Crystal’s behaviour is debatable. As readers, we struggle to understand what is going on in Crystal’s mind. We know she is not stable; we know that she is prone to acts of senseless cruelty – just like the kids in Han Yujoo’s Impossible Fairytale. And having read Kim Sagwa’s short story It’s One of Those the-More-I’m-in-Motion-the-Weirder-It-Gets Days, and It’s Really Blowing My Mind (in The Future of Silence) in which the central character is a less glossy version of Patrick Bateman in American Pyscho, we suspect that something unpleasant will happen before the end of the novel.
The feeling that we are heading uncontrollably for a catastrophe is unsettling, but progress towards the climax is tantalisingly slow, and Crystal’s conversations with Mina often feel over-long. Personally I find it hard to separate my lack of sympathy with Crystal’s malaise from my feeling that the novel is at times poorly paced. Certainly, compared with the super-slick short story in The Future of Silence this novel feels like it could do with a few cuts. This is no fault of the translation, though, which feels totally natural.
Overall then this novel is a slight disappointment, though not sufficiently so to deter me from wanting to read more from this author.