LITERATURE

JOURNEYS IN KOREAN LITERATURE CRITIQUE Ethical Time Lapse That Follows Loss

Kim Ae-ran made her debut in 2002 at the age of twenty-two. She has since produced a series of lively and warm-hearted works, but in her most recent stories she has begun to explore themes of loss, separation and longing. She is using a quiet tone instead of the cheerfulness that characterized her earlier work.

Kim Ae-ran began writing around ten years earlier than her peers, establishing the trends that were to characterize Korean fiction by writers born in the 1980s. The narrow, shabby spaces such as convenience stores, gosiwon (literally, “tiny dwellings for those studying for public service exams”), reading rooms, and basement and rooftop rooms are part of those trends. They form the settings of Kim’s early works, including the short story “I Go to the Convenience Store,” published the year after her debut [see Koreana Winter 2017, Vol. 31 No. 4].

Her first collection, “Run, Daddy, Run” (2005), brought together nine short stories, more than half of them featuring a father as the main character. In these works, the father is either absent, incompetent, or otherwise only a faint presence. In the title story, the father has left his pregnant wife and never returns home again; in “Love’s Greeting,” he disappeared ten years earlier and never appears in the story at all. In “There is a Reason Why She Cannot Sleep,” the father, who is “the one who ruined the family,” shares his daughter’s rented room and fans her insomnia by watching TV until late at night. By contrast, the father in “Pogo Stick” is competent, almost normal. This father, who runs an electric store, one day dreams that his eldest son, who left home after failing to get into college, has returned. That day, he says that he is going to repair a broken street light, but he too is shown to be a rather insipid type: he climbs the lamp post only to come back down again, saying that his hands are cold.

© Gwon Hyeok-jae

Kim Ae-ran: “I have come to realize that there are situations where I cannot joke.”

In that sense, “Who is Thoughtlessly Setting off Fireworks on the Beach?” is especially suggestive. A boy, the story’s protagonist, asks one day how he was born. The father answers his young son’s questions in many ways, but none of them is truly convincing. In the end, the child decides to make up his own story about his birth. Here, we are told that “since the child cannot believe what his father says, he sets out to tell himself stories.” It is meaningful that the child is reborn as a storyteller in place of the father’s voice. This is the very theme of her first full-length novel, “My Palpitating Life” (2011), which can be regarded as the story of the birth of the writer Kim Ae-ran.

Running through her second short story collection, “My Mouth is Watering” (2007), is an attitude that overcomes objectively disadvantageous and unfavorable situations with subjective aesthetics. For example, in “Lofty Air,” someone keeps banging on the keys of a piano in a basement room that is flooded during the rainy season. In contrast, the title work tells of the substitution of a physiological phenomenon for the main character’s longing for her mother, who slipped her a pack of gum before disappearing many years ago. “Noodles” features a mother who spends her life selling noodles to provide for her children, which is consistent with Kim Ae-ran’s autobiographical background. We can sense that the main characters in her stories do not lose their lofty air in difficult situations thanks to the strong support of their mothers.

Kim Ae-ran’s first full-length novel, “My Palpitating Life,” was published in the tenth year after her debut. A great commercial success, it was turned into a film, producing a kind of “Kim Ae-ran phenomenon.” This novel is about a 17-year-old boy afflicted with and prematurely dying from progeria. The boy presents to his parents their own story, the encounter and love of two people who gave birth to him at a young age. The story is remarkable in that it maximizes the attitude of overcoming sorrow and suffering with humor, one of the main features of Kim Ae-ran’s fiction.

However, “Kim Ae-ran-esque humor” almost completely disappeared in her following two short story collections, “Vapor Trail” (2012) and “Summer Outside” (2017). There seem to be two main reasons for this. First, the author may have decided to distance herself from the lightness and vivacity of youth after passing 30. Second, there was a series of events that had a deep impact on Korean society as a whole. It might be that any impulse toward humor was suppressed by the social pain arising, for example, from the Yongsan tragedy of 2009, in which five tenants and a policeman were killed when a fire broke out during a police raid to arrest demonstrators opposing redevelopment compensation measures, and the Sewol ferry disaster in 2014, which claimed hundreds of lives, most of them secondary school students on a school trip. Regarding this, Kim Ae-ran said in an interview, “I have come to realize that there are situations where I cannot joke.” At the end of “Summer Outside,” she explains in the writer’s postface, “Rather than worrying about what words I need to use, now I tend to stop and take the time to consider things other than words.”

These “other things” include the dark side of demolition for urban redevelopment, portrayed by a dystopian imagination in two short stories, “Insects” and “Goliath in Water,” from the collection “Vapor Trail.” The sinking of the Sewol is not mentioned but strongly evoked in “Onset of Winter” and “Where Do You Want to Go?” contained in the latest collection, “Summer Outside.”

“The Utility of Landscapes” amounts to the title work of “Summer Outside.” Though not exactly the same, the title of the book comes from a sentence in this story, in which the protagonist feels he is holding a glass snowball while traveling in Thailand. The time difference described in the sentence, “Inside the glass ball, a white blizzard raged, while outside it was high summer,” is also connected with the theme of the entire collection, which contains stories of people who go on living after death and loss, or “past the cliff” as the author puts it.

“The Utility of Landscapes” is the story of a man whose parents divorced after his father committed adultery. He grew up with a sense of hostility toward his father that goes beyond a mere sense of distance. It is not surprising that he does not harbor positive feelings for his father, yet the author questions whether the ethical superiority claimed by the son is justified.

At the end of the story, the son hears the voice of someone shouting “double fault” at him, while he mutters, “I have never wanted to have anything for free.” All his life, the son has blamed and condemned his father on ethical grounds, but in the end, it is the son, not the father, who is being judged. Might that not be called an “ethical time difference”?

Choi Jae-bong Reporter, The Hankyoreh
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