Deleuze, Lacan, Bataille… if you’re reading a text that references any of those thinkers, you’re probably reading a rather turgid book on postcolonial or film studies, and wishing you weren’t. Well, for most rules there is an exception, and this volume from Dalkey Archive is one of them.
By coincidence I took it off the shelf in the hope that it would provide some relief from a turgid book on film studies – one that I have now given up on. As I wait for Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982, to hit the shops in February I have a brief window to clear some of my reading backlog, and this volume, number 3 in Dalkey’s Archive’s Library of Korean Literature, recommended itself to me by being relatively slim and being by an author I haven’t read before.
“A sensational and highly controversial novel by one of Korea’s most electirfying contemporary authors. A preposterous coming-of-age story melding sex, death and high school'” promises the blurb on the back cover, which you don’t generally expect from translated Korean fiction. It’s not the sort of thing that you think the KLTI will want to promote to foreigners. So, to be frank, I took the puff with a heavy pinch of salt, and was therefore mildly surprised that Adam was about to lose his virginity within seven pages.
The first paragraph of the novel sets the scene nicely:
I was nineteen years old, and the things that I most wanted to have were a typewriter, prints of Munch’s paintings and a turntable for playing records. Those things alone were all that I wanted from this world when I was nineteen. But so humble were my desires that, in comparison, my mother’s wish for me to enter Seoul National University … seemed more out of reach.
A classic scenario involving ambitious parents (though here only the mother is in evidence) and a less ambitious teenage child struggling to make his or her way to adulthood in a super-competitive education system. Adam has just failed his university entrance exam, and to fulfil his mother’s wish (after all, she’s the one cleaning the toilets in a shopping mall to raise the cash for his education) he goes to cram school to prepare for the retake.
But soon sex becomes a recurring theme in his daily routine. Having lost his virginity to Eun-sun, a would-be poet, he is picked up by Hyun-jae, who having seen and observed him once decides to “surrender” to him. No courting is necessary: all that is required is an uncomplicated visit to a motel. Sex is straightforward, matter of fact, and associated with friendship rather than love or any intent of permanent attachment. His life becomes more and more like a Confessions of… movie, as he gets propositioned by strangers in exchange for gifts or money.
All this is against a backdrop of Seoul in the run-up to the 1988 Olympics and following the elections of a new president to replace the deposed dictator Chun Doo-hwan. There is ia feeling of despair to add to the educational pressure: Adam and probably much of his generation feels hugely let down by the inability of the democratic opposition to unite around a single candidate, resulting in the election of Roh Tae-woo. Indeed, his brother has decided to leave for America to study. “Only sons of bitches live in this country,” he says. “Humans prefer to choose their hell if if they’re going to have to suffer in it.” (p 18). If you put the sex to one side, the context almost feels like Hell Joseon more than 20 years before it became a Thing.
Adam is mature beyond his years, having complex, adult, relational conversations with his sexual partners, and critiquing Eun-sun’s poems as derivative of a famous established poet. While perhaps as a coming-of-age story this novel is not unique, its historical backdrop – not only in its sense of political betrayal but also for the vestiges of the 1980s collective approach of the student body (Eun-sun is pressured to work collaboratively with other students in publishing her poems) – together with the added frisson of all the casual sex make it a lively and interesting read.
The bonus short story in the volume, entitled The Seventh Day, follows the brief sexual odyssey of two complete strangers who meet because they are both carrying the same book: Bataille’s Eroticism. Interspersed with comically high-intellectual conversation (quoted verbatim from reviews of that text by Jo Han-kyung and Jang Jung-il himself) the couple indulge in an ever-escalating week-long experiment in sexual sensation and mutual acts of sado-masochism. If a French philosopher can inspire such fun reading here, it’s a shame that some of those film studies books can’t have a bit more zip to them.