Life was much deeper than he could ever imagine. It was impossible to tell just how far you could sink1
Two apparent suicides in different parts of the country kick-start two separate story-lines which turn out to be interlinked. Se-oh is the daughter of one of the deceased – a man who had fallen into debt and seems to have given up hope of ever paying it off; Ki-jeong, a teacher, is elder half-sister to the other. Se-oh is consumed by a desire for revenge on the unfortunate debt collector whom she blames for her father’s death, while Ki-jeong tries to piece together the last few months in the life of the half-sister she never really knew.
In what seems to be something of a theme with Pyun Hye-young, most of the characters in the novel are trapped in some way. In The Hole, the central character was, terrifyingly, trapped within his own paralysed body, while in her short story collection Evening Proposal the characters are trapped by events or in their mundane jobs. In The Law of Lines, many of the characters are trapped by poverty and debt – and ironically this includes the debt collector, who is responsible for the quote at the top of this page. The exception is Ki-jeong, the only character with a stable, successful job, but she is inexplicably victimised by a vindictive, overprivileged pupil and forced to take a break in her career which gives her the opportunity to undertake her detective work.
It turns out that both Se-oh and and Ki-jeong’s half-sister were at one stage trapped in a mysterious pyramid scheme. Pyun, perhaps intentionally, doesn’t do a great job of explaining the operation of the scheme, but it seems to be an organisation to which you pay a large fee to join, in the hope of getting a cut of the joining fees of members that you then have to recruit, working your own ever-dwindling network of friends to try to persuade them to join you. Like a typical job in many of Pyun’s stories, life in the pyramid scheme is oppressive and pointless, a life in which it’s hard to succeed but from which it’s hard to escape. As Se-oh experienced:
[S]he didn’t leave, not because she thought she was going to make money, but because it was too hard to acknowledge that she’d messed up… [S]he’d been so good at saying things she didn’t believe just to keep people she didn’t care about from leaving. (p206)
Pyun paints a dark, depressing picture of life for the less well-off in contemporary Korea, with ever-increasing debt and ever-inflating housing costs making life impossible for many. And while the twin story-lines lack the macabre horror that made The Hole so compelling there’s enough interest and twists and turns in the narrative to make for an enjoyable read.
Pyun Hye-young: The Law of Lines
Translated by Sora Kim-Russell
Arcade Publishing, 2020
Originally published as 선의 법칙, Munhakdongne, 2015
- Page 232, Arcade Publishing hardback edition.