August 3, 2016

Book Review: "The Vegetarian," by Han Kang

The Vegetarian, by Han Kang

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The Vegetarian
By Han Kang
Hogarth Books
Reviewed by Chris Schahfer

It's not often a book this surreal becomes this popular, at least in literary fiction circles. In fact, this might be the biggest Korean book to reach the States in a long time, and I'm pretty sure they've either translated or are working on translating other Kang books such as Human Acts, in the name of riding the wave and all. Apparently she's been big in South Korea for a while now, and has published quite a few novels, but it took this book to break her big in the United States. Reminds me of Lina Meruane in that sense, and I do more of her work is translated, because I appreciate her surrealist sensibility.

The Vegetarian is often compared to Kafka, which I have a little of a mixed opinion on, but only because the implicit point of comparison is "The Metamorphosis" and it's good to read and understand Kafka outside of "The Metamorphosis." Presumably it's also good to read and understand Kang outside of The Vegetarian, which again makes me curious about what else she's done. Anyway, this novel's plot can be summarized thusly. A timid woman named Yeong-hye begins to have dreams about animals enduring brutal acts. Because of these dreams, she gives up on eating meat. This decision sets off a chain of events that ends with her alienating her husband, having an affair with an exploitive, self-important and creepy artist, and eventually landing in a mental institution.

Notably, the book's three large segments are narrated by three different characters, none of them Yeong-hye herself, who for all her transformation remains something of a cypher in the novel. There is, of course, a pretty strong aspect of feminism here, the idea being that Yeong-hye herself isn't allowed to tell her own story because society tries to reformat it. Indeed, society's attempts to define and alter Yeong-hye's decision, and with it the acts that follow from that decision, are at the core of this novel's conflict. She becomes the recipient first of mockery, then of sexual objectification, finally of an almost infantilizing concern, but is never through all this allowed to explain herself. So in some ways, the reader becomes complicit in her dehumanization and breakdown. Equally scary is Yeong-hye's own transformation; her early attempts to explain herself vanish entirely as the novel goes on and as the dehumanization wears on her.

So it's a great story with multiple layers, and an excellent update of the existential-type "story-of-isolation," but I have a few reservations. For one, I'm not in love with either the prose style or the translation, which is mostly serviceable - and in this sort of novel, you might not need anything else - but occasionally hits modifier-heavy snags like "The dancers waved their hands so vigorously the whole row became a blur of movement, with individual figures impossible to make out" (63). I'm also not entirely sure what to make of the passage where Yeong-hye's family tries to force her to eat meat. Yes, it's a terrific way to start off her breakdown, whose conclusion is haunting and features some of the book's strongest prose (not to give anything away, except to say that the section ends with "Below tooth marks that looked to have been caused by a predator's bite, vivid red bloodstains were spreading," which is a great image), but it teeters right on the edge of too much. Still, it does allow Kang to indulge in a little black humor, and we all need that in our lives.

Out of 10: 8.7

Read even more about The Vegetarian: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Wikipedia

Filed by Chris Schahfer at 6:00 AM, August 3, 2016. Filed under: Chris Schahfer | Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |