Friday, December 02, 2016

A border area between states of being

"The water's boiling." Her voice had no weight to it, like feathers. It was neither gloomy nor absent-minded, as might be expected of someone who was ill. But it wasn't bright or light-hearted either. It was the quiet tone of a person who didn't belong anywhere, someone who had passed into a border area between states of being.
The Vegetarian, by Han Kang, is a creepy little novel, in the most beautiful way. It's completely weird and fascinating. I love this book.

Despite having read quite a few reviews of it, none of them quite prepared me. Maybe, since I was already interested in reading it, I merely skimmed the reviews in order to avoid spoilers. Basically I had the impression that this was a book about a dinner party gone wrong. (I love dinner parties! I love when they go wrong!) There is indeed a dinner party, and it does go wrong. And then there's a family dinner that goes so much more wrong. But there's more to this story than what is served and what is eaten.

Yeong-Hye turns to vegetarianism because of a dream (a horrific dream, all the more terrifying for being only vaguely described for the reader). She will not even touch mayonnaise, and later eschews food altogether. She wants to photosynthesize; she wants to be a tree.

She posits also that it's the trees' hands digging into the earth (heads buried?), their legs flailing above, crotches flowering.

The novel is in three acts, from the perspectives of her husband, her brother-in-law, and her sister. Yeong-hye turns vegetarian, her family stages an intervention, she's hospitalized; she's released, there's an interlude of peace, but not exactly normalcy, that gives way to art, maybe some kind of understanding, sublimation, acceptance; she's institutionalized.

Yeong-hye's vegetarianism is not symptomatic of anorexia. It's not about control. Despite being shackled by domesticity and refusing (or forgetting) to wear a bra (it's just not comfortable), it's not about feminism. Her actions do not have any religious motivation.

A review in the New York Times calls out some of these readings — feminist, ethnographic, sociological — as not exactly faulty or skewed but incomplete or incapable.

I don't think any isms explain Yeong-hye's behavior. Some things defy explanation. Some things cannot be explained in words. Some things can only be expressed through art.

Yeong-hye's brother-in-law is an artist. He had a vision, an artistic vision he had trouble realizing.
His silence had the heavy mass of rock and the tenacious resistance of rubber, particularly when his art wasn't going well.
Yeong-hye's sister (the artist's wife) also has dream. She tried acting on a version of it once.

The reason for these things is beyond words. Wounded bodies, strained souls.

It is somewhat mystifying that the plantlike and the animal are sometimes confounded. Of course, what joins them is their nonhumanness. Plantlike should not be taken for passive; it is persistent.
The trees by the side of the road are blazing green fire undulating like the rippling flanks of a massive animal, wild and savage.
A poet's proclamation, "I believe that humans should be plants," was the seed of this story, but I wonder if Kang didn't then investigate the several cult-like philosophies whereby it is believed the human body can derive all its energy and nourishment via the photosynthesis of sunlight.

In a beautiful instance of synchronicity, my cursory Wikipedia research takes me from sungazing to Joseph Plateau, whose father was a talented flower painter, an entirely random yet meaningful fact.

Related concepts
Two documentaries:
Sungazing: Eat the Sun
Breatharianism: In the Beginning There Was Light

Two books come to mind, related obliquely, but which may appeal to readers who liked The Vegetarian:
The Art of Murder, by José Carlos Somoza, insofar as it relates to the human body as a canvas.
The Beauty, by Aliya Whiteley, where fungal disease takes humanoid form, kind of.

Two sources:
Excerpt of The Vegetarian [Words without Borders].
"The Fruit of My Woman" — the short story from which this novella grew [Granta].


Anonymous said...

I personally loved this book. It's strange, brutally honest, emotionally deep, and now among my favorites. I love the details that you include in your posts. So interesting and original.

Stefanie said...

I loved this book too. Creepy is a good description. I went for disturbing and unsettling I believe. I am not sure even if you knew what the book was really about you would have been prepared for it. I am currently waiting for her next books, Human Acts from the library.