LITERATURE

JOURNEYS IN KOREAN LITERATURE CRITIQUE

A World of Gaps, Blanks and Incompletion

Yoon Sung-hee says that she finds material for her work on subway trains and city streets, in everything she daily sees and goes through. Rather than having plots with mind-blowing twists and turns, her fiction is distinguished by the trivial things we all experience in our everyday lives. The ease with which these narratives can then be reconstituted in the minds of readers probably also comes down to this everyday nature.

Yoon Sung-hee made her literary debut in 1999 by winning the New Year’s Literary Awards sponsored by the Dong-A Ilbo daily, with the short story “House of Lego Bricks.” She has since published five collections of short stories and novellas, and one full-length novel. During these nearly 20 years, she has not released a single volume of essays or non-fiction, the publication of which seems to be par for the course among Korean poets and novelists. Aside from occasionally giving university lectures on creative writing, Yoon is a full-time writer. She has received wide recognition, also winning a number of major literary awards, such as the Hyundae Munhak [Contemporary Literature] Award, the Hwang Sun-won Literary Award and the Yi Hyo-seok Literary Award.
Despite all this, the fact that her literary output to date has been a mere six short fiction collections leaves the eager reader a little disappointed. This is thrown into clearer perspective when compared with Kim Soom, who is of similar age and made her debut just two years earlier. Kim has already had 10 full-length novels and six collections of short fiction and novellas published; she apparently has another novel and a new short story collection ready to go to print. This certainly shows what a diligent and prolific writer she is. In this context, however, it can also be said that Yoon Sung-hee’s slow production actually makes her stand out. One particularly interesting point is that she has only written one full-length novel so far. She should be understood, then, as a writer more disposed to writing short stories, and in that regard, she takes after Oh Jung-hee, who after her debut in 1968 with “The Toyshop Woman,” went on to publish almost entirely short fiction.
Among the most distinctive characteristics of Yoon’s fiction are the bold omissions and blank spaces in the narration. Fiction is storytelling, which revolves around the provision of information, but agile writers know that this does not mean spoon-feeding readers with every possible detail. Yoon recently wrote in a commentary on judging a fiction prize, clearly illustrating her views in this regard: “In order for gaps to appear in a story, there has to be a balance between narrative that is revealed and narrative that is not revealed. It is such gaps in a story which cause it to split into different layers, and this means readers can perceive the story in three dimensions and somehow reconstitute it within their minds.”
Yoon’s narrative strategy is more focused on showing than on telling while deliberately omitting core information, or disclosing it sparely as though playing a game, in order to carve out gaps in the narrative and thereby invite readers to actively participate in its reconstitution. To put it simply, her work can be called reader-participatory fiction. Compared to providing every detail related to a story, it is much more difficult to fine-tune gaps, omissions and empty spaces to compose a story that is replete with breaks. To do this, the writer must be very smart and meticulous in deciding when to provide or withhold information.
The short story “Corner” (Moseori) was included in Yoon’s fifth and latest short story collection, “Propped on a Pillow,” published in 2016. Just like all of her works, it features plenty of empty spaces. In the first part of the story, for instance, the protagonist, “Yeom,” recalls when his maternal uncles overturned the dinner table at his mother and stepfather’s house but the cause of this situation is never explained. No clues are given either on the reason why none of Yeom’s uncles can bring themselves to ask after his mother when he attends his eldest uncle’s 80th birthday party, although it is clear that something must have happened that led to the estranged relationship between Yeom’s mother and her brothers. One might guess that Yeom’s stepfather might have something to do with it, but this can only ever be an assumption. So perhaps the actual reason for the discord is not important. Considering that after the scene at the birthday party there is absolutely no further mention of this event, the dispute between Yeom’s mother and her brothers may not be of particular importance to the story as a whole.
The main body of the story begins to unfold when Yeom arrives home from the birthday party. In the one-room flat where he lives alone, Yeom’s friend “Jo” is lying on his bed asleep. Having been best friends since they were in high school, the two of them are so close that Jo sleeps over often. While working part-time at his parents’ fried foods shop, since the past summer to the start of winter, Jo had been too busy seeing his new girlfriend to keep coming to Yeom’s place. As we learn in the course of the story, however, he has recently been dumped.
The story is filled with the insincere jokes and trivial behaviors of this pair of 27-year-old men, with two important matters confirmed in the course. Firstly, judging by the fact that Jo indicates his intention to take on and run his parents’ business and Yeom’s employment status remaining unclear, it appears the two are struggling to become part of the workforce and properly enter into society, like so many other young people their age. Secondly, in spite of this, or perhaps because of it, the two friends’ care and worry for each other is very warm and assured. Indeed, at times it seems to be more than just a simple friendship.

“A corner can look like a dead end, but if you take a turn, another path comes into view.”

The exact nature of their relationship seems to be the greatest gap and mystery in the entire story. It’s unclear whether they are only close friends, or whether their relationship spilled over into the erotic realm at some point. It might span the stretch between the two, walking a perilous tightrope.
On the other hand, for some unknown reason, Yeom has a photograph of his cousin who died before he was even born. Yeom takes a photo of Jo copying the pose of his cousin in the photograph, and seeing Jo looking closely at his cousin’s image beneath a streetlight, he bursts into tears. These unexpected actions lead the reader to wonder about the possible reasons behind them. The two men stay up all night drinking together, and after walking around an apartment complex in the wee hours of the morning, when Jo is about to get onto the first bus to go home, Yeom calls out to him, “How about going back to mine for ramyeon” This clearly brings to mind a famous scene from the film “One Fine Spring Day,” directed by Heo Jin-ho. In the film, the line that the female protagonist Eun-soo says to her friend Sang-woo, “Want some ramyeon before you go?” triggers the development of their relationship into that of lovers.
There are other questions that go unanswered. When the two decide to meet again for another night of drinking, this time wearing their army uniforms, before leaving home Yeom takes out the photo that was tucked inside his wallet and puts it in a pocket of his uniform, then replaces it with the photo of his dead cousin. There is no indication, however, as to who is in the first photograph that was in his wallet.
After all, the question which looms largest over the work is the meaning of the title, “Corner.” The word does not appear throughout the story, and there is no description of a corner or reference to any kind of corner. Does it perhaps refer to the early hours of the morning, the turning point between night and day, which the two young men face as they drink through the night? Or else, has this word been used to signify some aspect of human relationships, or the place the two men inhabit in society? Of course, these are merely vague assumptions. The story ends without addressing any of these questions.

When asked about the title, Yoon said, “In a road or alleyway, a corner can look like a dead end, but if you take a turn, another path comes into view. The title reflects the protagonist’s state of mind.” You may nod your head now, but irrespective of the writer’s intention, the individual reader may decide what the title might refer to, depending on his or her own experiences.

Choi Jae-bong Reporter, The Hankyoreh

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