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Before I moved to England I worked at a fast food restaurant for approximately four months. It was an interim period and the only temporary job I could find in my area. Maybe it was the knowledge that I’d soon be immersed in London culture, but the strange thing about working such a repetitive job was I found it oddly comforting. I quickly formed a routine of long shifts interspersed with periods of reading and deep sleep caused by the utter exhaustion of being on my feet all day. Such mindless uniform work where your duties, attire and even your attitude is regulated by a corporate entity that rigorously enforces such conformity allows you to blend in and not have to think. Keiko, the protagonist of Sayaka Murata’s “Convenience Store Woman”, finds her service job at such a chain store equally comforting. Partly this is because she finds human relationships so bewildering. From early childhood she never knew how to act correctly, but the store's strict policies and motivational team spirit provide her a framework in which to more easily conform and blend in. She integrates so well into the store's corporate mentality that after many years working the same part-time service job she feels like her personality is inextricably tied to the store and that she has no identity apart from it. 

It feels like Keiko's methodology is linked to Andy Warhol's philosophy about how “The most beautiful thing in Tokyo is McDonald's. The most beautiful thing in Stockholm is McDonald's. The most beautiful thing in Florence is McDonald's. Peking and Moscow don't have anything beautiful yet.” Warhol used mass production to create art that was the same but different. In a similar way fast food restaurants and convenience store chains are the same but different. Warhol was also someone who felt like an outcast because of his looks and manner. It makes sense that such conformity and acceptance found in an environment with so clear and rigid rules would appear beautiful to both Warhol and Keiko because it subsumes personal inadequacies in favour of the ideals of a corporate entity. Of course, the horrific consequence of subscribing to such a mentality is that everything that is unique about an individual is levelled out.

I found it really interesting how this novel dealt with issues of loneliness in comparison to the recent book “Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine”. Both are about isolated women who live completely for their work and find relationships outside of the duties of their job excruciatingly difficult because they literally don't understand social decorum. But I felt “Convenience Store Woman” deals with this subject matter in a much more interesting way especially in the way Keiko forms a bond with another misfit who comes to work at the convenience store named Shiraha. He's outrageously misogynistic and socially outcast, but he doesn't believe in aligning himself with the goals of the convenience store. Nevertheless, Keiko finds it convenient to form a relationship with him because it will add to the sense she is normal. This really poignantly says something about the degree to which our relationships can be built on convenience rather than authentic feeling.

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This relationship also creates an incidental element of humour in the novel. Keiko actually treats the self-concerned Shiraha as an animal that she must feed: “It’s the first time I’ve kept an animal at home, so it feels like having a pet, you see.” The novel “Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine” also revolves around its protagonist forming a relationship with a man, but “Convenience Store Woman” deals with it in a way which felt more realistic because it seems more likely that isolated individuals like this who operate outside of social norms would more naturally create alliances with each other. I also found it darkly funny how Keiko can't tell the difference between her friend's baby and her nephew: “Maybe this particular baby should be more important to me than the others. But so far as I could see, aside from a few minor differences they were all just an animal called baby and looked much the same, just like stray cats all looked much the same.” This is a humorous perspective but it's also tinged with sadness and disturbing in how Keiko feels so estranged from human emotions and the violent ways this disconnect manifested in some incidents early on in her life.

Keiko's philosophy for dealing with her aberrant personality is to align herself totally with the convenience store's mentality and needs. She considers how “A convenience store is a forcibly normalized environment where foreign matter is immediately eliminated.” She finds this consoling, but it's also terrifying in how she feels if she doesn't conform into society she will be expunged and wiped out. At one point some of her colleagues laugh about how it'd be better if Shiraha died because he doesn't contribute to society and Keiko reflects “if I ever became a foreign object, I’d no doubt be eliminated in much the same way.” So this story's extreme example points at many anxieties, fears and challenges that we face in learning how to function in society. This novel enjoyably satirises many aspects of modern corporate culture while also saying something poignant about isolation and the social pressure to conform.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesSayaka Murata
4 CommentsPost a comment
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Sometimes it feels like the frequent news reports about refugees and asylum seekers can turn into just another political debate and so much rhetoric that it diminishes the powerful fact that this is about individuals in a desperate situation. Recently I read “Tell Me How It Ends”, Valeria Luiselli’s utterly gripping and heart breaking essay about working with Central American children seeking asylum in America. In Jenny Erpenbeck’s novel “Go Went Gone” this issue is brought powerfully to life in the fictional story of Richard, a recently retired professor in Berlin who interviews and befriends groups of refugees after they stage a protest in a city square. This is based on a famous pro-immigration movement that took place in German between 2012-2014. But this isn’t simply a novel that’s giving a human face to one of the biggest social and political issues in Western nations today. It’s also an immensely engaging and philosophical story that says so much about identity, culture, history, memory and society. I was enthralled by the artful way Erpenbeck creates a complex tale that presents the layered past of her protagonist and the nation he lives in to demonstrate the malleable meaning of citizenship.

What this novel does so well in its narrative is show the day to day actions of both Richard and the group of male asylum seekers he visits. You get this progression of everyday life and their habits in a way that contrasts Richard’s steady comfortable existence with that of the state of limbo the various men from Africa and the Middle East experience. This gradually builds to an understanding of what a strain this puts on people who have come out of a traumatic situation. Erpenbeck writes how “Time does something to a person, because a human being isn’t a machine that can be switched on and off. The time during which a person doesn’t know how his life can become a life fills a person condemned to idleness from his head down to his toes.” It’s heartrending seeing how this changes many of the lively and fascinating individuals that Richard meets so that they become either despondent or incensed with anger. It also shows how these men who only want to work and build lives for themselves have their youth, intelligence and talent wasted in waiting for an answer that will inevitably be disappointing.

Richard and some goodwill workers do their best to help the men gain new skills, earn a bit of money or learn the German language, but resources are strained and restrictions prevent them from offering much assistance in terms of education, employment or legal help. Therefore the asylum seekers are prevented from even beginning to integrate or find any useful way to spend their days. It’s particularly striking how the refugees cling to their phones: “Richard notes that the men feel more at home in these wireless networks than in the countries in which they await their future. This system of numbers and passwords extending clear across continents is all the compensation they have for everything they’ve lost forever. What belongs to them is invisible and made of air.”

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Richard’s character may seem simple at first or that he’s simply a springboard against which the author can access the stories of the many asylum seekers. But he’s quite complex in a way that only becomes apparent with the full arc of the story. I won’t give any spoilers but it’s intriguing how aware he is of the role chance plays in terms of one’s national identity and sense of security. During a dramatic wartime situation in his childhood he came close to being left behind or winnowed out. The legacy of a divided Germany still lingers strong in the nation and though it appears unified now his interactions with the asylum seekers makes him aware of divides which are still palpably present: “Where before there was only a building, a sidewalk, and everyday Berlin life, a border had suddenly sprouted, growing up quickly and going to seed, unforeseen as illness.” Richard soon becomes aware of how conservative and resistant many of his countrymen are and how quick they are to make assumptions about and condemn people they don’t know.

Running throughout the novel is a haunting image of a man who drowned in a local lake. This is a holiday spot where an accident led to a man’s disappearance but his body was never recovered. It deters holidaymakers from using the lake and the unseen presence of this lost man casts a shadow over the area. It’s a powerful image that lingers in Richard’s imagination of life that has been lost and can never be known. There is a lot in this novel that has been lost due to chance or violence that it amplifies how cruel it is when a nation blocks the possibility of granting acceptance to so many victims of circumstance. This is a memorable novel rich with meaning and it makes a powerful impact.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesJenny Erpenbeck
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It’s been thrilling to see the recent high acclaim and popularity for Han Kang’s powerful distinctive writing. She won the Man Booker International Prize in 2016 for “The Vegetarian” and her novel “Human Acts” is one of the most devastating portrayals of the victims and survivors of mass warfare that I’ve read. Even though she’s been publishing fiction in her native South Korea since 1995, Kang’s writing has only recently been made widely available to a Western audience through Deborah Smith’s excellent translations. It feels exciting that there is such a large back catalogue which might still yet make it into English translation. “The White Book” is another fascinating new book by Han Kang that is uniquely different from those other two English translations, but encompasses some similar themes and familiar inflections of feeling. It could be classified somewhere between a novel, poetry and a memoir. It’s more like an artistic exercise to self consciously meditate on a colour by making a list of white things and then exploring the deeply personal memories and connections surrounding these objects. The result is an intensely emotional series of accounts that form an outline of losses which are invisible, but still palpably felt in the author’s life – especially that of Kang’s sister who was born prematurely and died shortly after her birth. 

Some photographs are interspersed between Kang’s short explorations of different white things and these add a poignancy to the concentration being dedicated to particular objects. Although each separate account of a white thing can often stand alone like a complete thought or memory, the book nonetheless builds a momentum as imagery starts to repeat and their meaning acquires a special resonance. For example, Kang is told her sister’s face was like a moon shaped rice cake. She recalls making dough for rice cakes and shaping them. Later she looks at the moon itself and recalls these cakes and imagines what her newborn sister’s face looked like. These images start to meld together like when purely white objects are placed together and seem to disappear into each other. Suddenly it feels like this absence is all around and has the power to make itself felt in any empty white space that appears. Kang also lists other absences like a man’s father who was lost on a hiking trip in the Himalayas or, more broadly, the casualties of war from the country she left and “the dead that had been insufficiently mourned.” In particular, this account of ‘Spirit’ feels very reminiscent of the anger and determination to memorialize victims which fills Kang’s novel “Human Acts.”

There’s also a familiar feeling of guilt and unworthiness which permeates much of the text. Objects can often stand for something significant in Kang’s life such as a validation for simply existing. So a “crisp cotton bedsheet” says to her “Your sleep is clean, and the fact of your living is nothing to be ashamed of.” The questions that beg to be asked are: why might her sleep feel dirty and why would she be ashamed to be alive. An insolvable conflict arises when Kang considers how if her sister hadn’t died as a newborn her mother wouldn’t have continued having children and Kang would never have been born. This instils a peculiar kind of guilt within the author who simultaneously mourns her sister, but is nonetheless grateful that her early death allowed Kang the chance to exist. Despite knowing logically that there can be no fault assigned to these events which led to her sister’s death and her survival, a burning sense of culpability still plagues Kang’s consciousness.

So it comes as a blissful relief at some points when certain white things don’t carry any such burdensome associations. There’s a very sweet and simple memory which accompanies sugar cubes and from this Kang declares “There are certain memories which remain inviolate to the ravages of time. And to those of suffering. It is not true that everything is coloured by time and suffering. It is not true that they bring everything to ruin.” This is a very important assertion within the collection because it’s a key to her understanding of how we project our emotions, sensibility and personal history into things. White is essentially a blank canvass. We can imaginatively fill it with anything we want and take anything from it that we want because there’s nothing really there. In the same way, our emotions don’t really exist except in the transitory moment. We can choose to let them control us or we can allow them to dissipate into that blank white space. This is an extraordinarily artful and beautifully meditative book. 

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesHan Kang
2 CommentsPost a comment
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As adults we can recall flashes of feeling and indulgent fantasies that we experienced as children, but these are inevitably wrapped in a kind of silk-smooth nostalgia. Even memories of intense anger and pain are altered by the distance of time because this past now has a context. When you’re child there is no context. So much of literature tries to simulate the actual feeling of childhood, but only manages a sentimental simulation. But something in Andrés Barba’s narrative gets it so exactly, eerily right that it’s as if (as Edmund White pronounces in his afterword to this novella) “Barba has returned us to the nightmare of childhood.” Reading the story of seven year old Marina and the children in the orphanage she’s taken to after her parents’ death made me feel all the chaotic roiling emotion and imagination of my youth again. “Such Small Hands” is an extraordinary experience and it’s so artfully done that I’m in awe of its brilliant construction.

Apparently this story is partly inspired by an incident in Brazil that occurred in the 1960s where a child in an orphanage mutilated another child and was found playing with their body parts. This novella doesn’t indulge in the gore that this occurrence makes you imagine. But it definitely unsettles by inserting the reader into an alternating series of perspectives that makes you feel the precarious line children tread between reality and fantasy. In the first part we follow Marina in the immediate aftermath of her parents’ sudden deaths. She’s bluntly told what happened after their car accident, but it doesn’t stick to her reality because she can’t understand its full meaning. Barba has a startling way of showing how language and the words adults use when speaking to Marina don’t correlate to actual things in her mind. Even when she’s told she’s being taken to an orphanage this has no meaning for her because she has no idea what it is.

Even more extraordinary is the process Barba describes when Marina tries to make sense out of the world. She’s taken to see a psychologist and finds that she can’t adequately describe her experiences or produce the desired response: “Whenever her memory failed her, she’d just invent a color and slot it between true things. That seemed to change the scene, to turn her memories into things that were solid, things you could take out of your pocket and put on a table.” It’s a brilliant way of describing how we create stories out of our experiences and how we find our existence slotted within a narrative. No matter how earnestly we try to stick to facts and honesty, our memories are inevitably textured by the language that we turn them into. Once that experience has been cemented into the words within a story it’s forever altered and we’re left wondering, as it’s later stated in the novella, “How is it that a thing gets caught inside a name and then never comes out again?”

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The narrative does something quite startling when Marina enters the orphanage and the perspective shifts to the collective account of the children she meets there. Amidst this chorus we view Marina as a pretty girl attached to a doll that the psychologist gave to her. She becomes the receptacle of all their envy, affection, jealousy and anger as they alternately love and revile her. Marina eventually initiates a game where at night the children take turns pretending to turn into dolls. The way in which Barba depicts this state of shifting from a child to a passive doll that is privy to all the whispered secrets and tumultuous emotions of the other children is absolutely extraordinary. It’s one of the most powerful shifts in perspective I’ve read since the first section of Jane Bowles’ weirdly wonderful “Two Serious Ladies” where a girl is subjected to a personalized religious ritual by another girl.

It seems so fitting that Edmund White provides a short afterward to this ingenious novella because he’s a writer that’s always been especially keen on evocatively describing the reality of childhood as he did in “A Boy’s Own Story” and the exquisite short story ‘Record Time’. At times, “Such Small Hands” made me recall the beautiful opening section of Virginia Woolf’s “The Waves” where imagination freely mingles with the selfish desires and expressive emotions of the six children - but Woolf uses a highly polished poetic tone of narrative to do so. Perhaps the greatest master of writing about the adolescent experience is Joyce Carol Oates who continuously brings us in her narratives back to an Alice in Wonderland state of being (a children’s story also referenced in “Such Small Hands”). The first section of Hilary Mantel’s brilliant memoir “Giving Up the Ghost” also vividly describes the experience of childhood in a way which is so arresting and familiar. Have you read any other books that accurately describe the experience of youth? I’d be very keen to hear about them.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesAndrés Barba

There is a disturbing thing which can occur when we’re faced with death on such a large scale as that which occurs in war or disasters. A group of individuals can be reduced to a number. Even when faced with piles of bodies we can start to think of them as things rather than people because the horror of what we’re seeing is too terrifying to deal with. This certainly happened to me a couple of years ago when I was watching the film ‘Night Will Fall’ about the process of creating a documentary with footage taken by Allied Forces inside German concentration camps. It’s a reality almost too nightmarish for the mind to deal with, but of course you can’t turn away from victims who’ve been rendered voiceless. “Human Acts” begins with such a startling confrontation and gradually reinstates the human face of those who’ve been lost as well as testifying to the struggle of those who survive. It starts with the immediate aftermath of the 1980 Gwangju Uprising in South Korea where hundreds of demonstrators protesting the military dictatorship were killed and beaten by government troops. This novel traces the survivors of this conflict using a radical style of writing to weave in and out of their perspectives, that of the dead and the reader her/himself who becomes inextricably drawn into the reality of their situation.

Adolescent school children work to prepare and organize bodies to be identified by their loved ones and readied for a funeral ceremony. A boy looks for one body in particular – his friend who was killed while by his side in the skirmish. When asked if he feels any fear working with so many corpses he replies: “'The soldiers are the scary ones… What's frightening about the dead?'” The consciousness of his dead friend persists in the narrative. Through it, he shifts the reader’s focus and the story’s point of view so we see the scenes from both the deceased and the characters still living in fear of the militia. It’s remarked at one point that “Being left as the sole survivor would have been the most frightening thing.” The novel follows the price of survival over many years until close to the present day. It includes stories of different aspects of the conflict and the society through the perspectives of a variety of characters including an editor dealing with state censorship, a prisoner, a factory girl and a grieving mother who demands official acknowledgement for the loss of her son. 

Han Kang's writing style changes throughout different sections of the book. At some points she invokes an interior voice or uses the confrontational second person "you" which could be directed at the reader or a specific character. Other times the narrative has a more documentary feel switching back and forth from the present to the past. Each shift in her method of telling better reflects these very different individuals’ stories which involve some recurring characters. It was interesting starting this new novel “Human Acts” having so recently read Kang’s book “The Vegetarian.” Whereas this earlier book explored a woman’s inwardly blossoming but outwardly deteriorating life through the perspective of three people close to her, “Human Acts” is simultaneously a novel with a broader political perspective and also more intensely personal to the author herself. It’s significant that the afterward is in the author’s own unmediated voice discussing the significance of the Gwangju Uprising on her family and how she approached this story. This is a novel about the legacy created by those members of the population living under a military regime who were willing to bravely stand up to it. Kang imaginatively takes readers into the reality of these victims’ lives and provokes serious questions about individual responsibility. She states: “Conscience, the most terrifying thing in the world.” Their actions and personal sacrifice made a statement which has shaped the country’s history. It’s also about the actions taken by the survivors of this conflict to memorialize those who lost their lives and are continuing their fight for human independence. “Human Acts” is a novel filled with significant insight.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesHan Kang

I've been wanting to read this novel since it was published earlier this year. It's interesting getting to it now so soon after reading "Fates and Furies" because both novels are concerned with the way women's points of view are suppressed in narratives, but they have very different approaches. In "The Vegetarian" the novel begins with a conventional man's perspective complaining how his unremarkable wife Yeong-hye suddenly became a vegetarian, thus passively disrupting their blandly ordered existence. His cruelly reductive opinions about his wife suggest that she is especially unspecial: “She really had been the most ordinary woman in the world” but his perspective is interspersed with short intense italicised passages revealing this wife's inner monologue. Like a modern day Bartleby, by resisting to observe convention and quietly refusing to do what's expected of her, the wife's family become incensed and her life completely changes. What follows is a novel of strange beauty as a woman's strong inner-life is gradually revealed and the constrictive society around her is forced to acknowledge the power of her independent perspective.

An artist is inspired by the radical and colourful artist Yayoi Kusama to paint nude bodies with flowers. 

An artist is inspired by the radical and colourful artist Yayoi Kusama to paint nude bodies with flowers. 

In some ways this is a surreal story where a woman believes that she's gradually transforming into a plant. The reasons for this transformation are very different from the narrator in Ali Smith's story 'The beholder' in “Public Library” who experiences a real blossoming of branches and flowers out of her/his body. At the same time “The Vegetarian” is a brutally realistic tale about the long-term effects of child abuse and the diminishment of women in society. Her transition begins in earnest when in the second section her sister's artist husband creates a video installation centred on painting flowers on Yeong-hye's naked body. This is a project bourne out of his sexual obsession and was in part inspired by the artist Yayoi Kusama who colourfully painted her subjects bodies and let them interact with each other. The brother-in-law's project is more sinister as his secret desire to possess and have sex with Yeong-hye builds to a terrifying scene.

The novel's focus eventually shifts to her sister In-hye's perspective and concerns Yeong-hye's being sectioned after her total mental breakdown. Here the story becomes much more intimate and confessional. The spectre of an abusive father looms large so that Yeong-hye's transition from submissive wife to outright rebellion seems entirely logical. Normality is inverted because beneath the veneer of civilization there is a world of hidden pain. So it feels that “sometimes it's the tranquil streets filled with so-called 'normal' people that end up seeming strange.” I admired how the novel gradually builds a complex portrait of a woman's inner life created entirely from the points of view of the people around her. The reader is given hints and suggestions of a radically different form of consciousness that wants to rapidly evolve to a more organic existence, yet she's suppressed by the social world that uses limited terms to define her life. “The Vegetarian” is a novel of rebellion, hope and rare passion.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesHan Kang
3 CommentsPost a comment