(This is the sixth in an original series about new wave feminist writers in Korea whose work has started to reach English language readers via superb translations.)
ANDREA PLATE WRITES — Imagine this book as a movie: “Silence of the Lambs” meets “Thelma and Louise.”
The Law of Lines (Arcade Publishing), by Pyun Hye-yung, may be the most fiercely feminist novel of the South Korean #MeToo literary wave to make a splash in America this year. It’s remarkably strident. Pyun’s young female protagonists don’t rely on plastic surgery to shape their social status, like those in Frances Cha’s debut novel If I Had Your Face. Nor do they aim for marriage and motherhood, like the aging, agonized, self-sacrificing mother in Cho Nam- Joo’s Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982. They are radical feminists who seem to abide by that movement’s mantra of the Four Nos: no dating, no sex, no marriage and no childbearing. These characters are not seasoned activists, though — they’re just lower- and middle-class women trying to survive in South Korea.
A psychological thriller, The Law of Lines takes readers on a roller coaster ride through the twists and turns of feminist fueled rage. Translated by Sora Kim-Russell, a US-born, biracial Korean American now living in Seoul — herself a poet, author and professor at Ewha Woman’s University — this beautiful English-language version preserves the tone and tempo of Pyun’s unique literary creation: a fusion of suspense novel and feminist manifesto. Pyun has won four literary prizes since her 2000 writing debut including, for her best-selling novel The Hole, the Shirley Jackson award for outstanding achievement in the literature of psychological suspense, horror and the dark fantastic. That’s saying something; in 1948, Jackson herself wrote “The Lottery,” a shockingly controversial short story about a small-town rural stoning, which forever altered the American literary landscape.
Who, precisely, are Pyun’s fictional leadings ladies? Ki-Jeong Shin, a poor, young schoolteacher who surveys her students, “wanting to crush them under her foot or strike them mercilessly with something sharp.” She is a fatherless, sad sack educator, bullied by kids and cliquish, elitist teachers; and, as luck (or the lack thereof) would have it, her half-sister’s dead body turns up at the bottom of the Nam River. The other leading lady, Se-oh Yun, is an orphaned, agoraphobic, twenty-seven-year-old stalker who fantasizes sinking a hammer into a man’s brain so that he winds up, at the very least, hospitalized—assuming, the author says, “that she’d be content with only breaking a few veins or capillaries.” Se-oh, a recluse, rooms with her debt-dodging dad in a dilapidated apartment until he commits suicide via a home-made gas explosion (carefully executed the one time his daughter was not home).
Both deaths are presumed suicides, and why not, in a country with the fourth highest suicide rate worldwide?
Not so fast! These protagonists want answers, not presumptions — plus an autopsy on the body politic that they believe has driven these two, and many like them, to death. Malice is one motivator, as author Pyun writes of her Se-oh — “It swept away her grief and lifted her out of bed in the morning.” Certainly her dad died by his own hand, but what hand did the merciless debt collector have in it –the man who “tormented others relentlessly… threatened them by casually mentioning the names of their loved ones” and “mocked people who’d labored their whole lives with no respite only to be left with nothing but debt.” Social injustice also incentivizes Se-oh, who stalks her father’s creditor with the steadiness of a serial killer. Meanwhile, economic hardship and class warfare lead Ki-Jeong to strike a criminally minded, arrogant (male) student in the head. In the end, Se-oh doesn’t fulfill her murderous fantasies and Ki-Jeong, although suspended from her teaching job, is eventually reinstated (her weapon of attack was a slipper).
The macho male characters in their midst fare worse. The creditor stutters, sweats nervously and is called “dumb-ass” by higher-ups. Ki-Jeong’s philandering father dies, leaving behind a mother and daughter to raise his illegitimate child, begotten with his mistress. In Pyun’s world, the meek do not inherit the earth. Women do.
This novel shows how the personal is political. Underlying the two parallel plots is a single theme: the devastation wrought by an ancient culture and its oppressive traditions which includes misogyny, patriarchy, the systemic subjugation of women. To make this point, author Pyun creates secondary characters like Wu-Sul, a brutish grocery store boss who all too easily tells the job-seeking Se-oh, “We’re only hiring men;” and the money-mongering masters of a “multi-level marketing scam,” (or pyramid scheme), which recruits poor college students, including Ki-Jeong’s sister, to live and work like slave laborers for the false promise of fast cash. “And so it goes,” wrote the great American satirist Kurt Vonnegut, after each death described in his 1969 blockbuster anti-war novel, Slaughterhouse Five. The same soft, sad but cynical tone pervades Pyun’s novel.
Ultimately, The Law of Lines shows that lines, like rules, are made to be broken. They can be crossed, erased and re-drawn. They can be hard to see (between oppressor and oppressed), harder to accept (between rich and poor) and hardest to plumb from the invisible depths of personal conscience. Writes Pyun, in Se-oh’s voice: “human beings couldn’t care less about the line between good and evil.”
Clearly, those in the South Korean literary #MeToo movement do care, as do many other Asian feminist writers — take, for example, Japan’s Aoko Matsuda, author of the newly translated, aptly titled Where the Wild Ladies Are.
It’s time. Violence against women has long been a staple of South Korean literature. The tide has turned, a line in the sand has been drawn by feminist authors, and no force of nature, or social protest, will wash it away. Or, as Pyun writes: “no injury can ever heal to its original state.” There’s no way to go but forward.
Andrea Plate, Asia Media International’s senior advisor for writing and editing, holds various degrees in English Literature, Communications-Journalism and Social Welfare/Public Policy from UC Berkeley, USC and UCLA. Her college teaching experience includes Fordham University and Loyola Marymount University. Her most recent book, MADNESS: In the Trenches of America’s Troubled Department of Veterans Affairs, about her years as a senior social worker at the U.S. Veterans Administration, was recently published in Asia and North America by Marshall Cavendish Asia International to critical acclaim.