Korean Literature
Published in

Korean Literature

“I don’t have the energy to die” — Review of Gong Ji-young’s ‘Our Happy Time’

With the heart of a trapper awaiting a snared animal” Gong Ji-young watches her reader approaching, walking delicately onto the unassuming ground of her novel. Then, snap! The wire pulls tight as the supporting branch straightens into the air. Bouncing softly to rest above the grass, the carefully tied noose now dangles exposed — the cold, mechanical gadget is a success, and it’s clearly well-designed, but it’s also empty, set off too early by an impatient hunter; nothing inside.

Our Happy Time holds an odd place in the Korean literary scene, as does its author. New readers to the genre will first stumble into Han Kang, Shin Kyung-sook, Hwang Sok-yong, and Kim Young-ha, then work their way through The Vegetarian, Please Look After Mother, The Guest, and I Have The Right To Destroy Myself. It’s a happy, fated initiation.

Then our reader — surfing a crescendo of prose and story-telling — will be prodded toward Gong Ji-young and Our Happy Time. And straightaway something feels off! The style is simple but impressive, the development of the characters hits in just the way it needs to, but it’s all a little childish at the same time. From the opening sequences, the author’s enthusiasm for her own story begins to run out-of-control, and the small details on which the narrative hinges are suffocated of the oxygen they deserve.

There is an incomplete, scattered honesty in this type of thing. George Orwell explained how a writer’s mind can be corrupted by their own integrity in this way: sitting down to write Homage to Catalonia, he found himself compulsively pasting long, meandering “newspaper quotations” in violation of his better “literary instincts”. When a critic pushed him on this decision, “Why did you put in all that stuff?” Orwell happily admitted that it — in part — “ruin[ed] the book”, but that also he “could not have done otherwise”. He had a purpose for writing Homage, a reason for why he first put pen to paper, and remaining faithful to that reason took precedence over form, flow and style.

With her own purpose for writing Our Happy Time obvious from the earliest of steps, Gong Ji-young is also restless and in a hurry to get there. And after a very brief throat clearing, Gong can’t bear her own suspense any longer — “So, what do you want to do? Stay in here for a month and go through therapy again? Or help me with something?” Not the most well-conceived premise, but nothing here is. Our Happy Time is light, ditzy, and structurally weak… yet it didn’t need to be, and this certainly wasn’t the intention.

Our loosely hooked protagonist, Yujeong, is young, intelligent, wealthy, and once mildly famous. She is also recovering from her third unsuccessful suicide attempt, and it’s her hard-edged aunt, a nun, that wants her help spreading the gospel at the local prison — “Since you agreed to help me out for a month, you have to promise you won’t kill yourself before then…Can you do that for me?” Thanks for the kindness, auntie!

From here out, the religiosity rumbles along like a sinister background noise; a Pavlovian type of indoctrination. So much effort is made to talk up the doubts and holes within peoples’ faith, the unassuming anti-proselytising approach of Aunt Monica, and the happy absence of religion in the lives of otherwise moral people, that it feels aggressive nonetheless — like a shy Mormon at your front door on a Sunday afternoon, he doesn’t pester you, or push you with questions and brochures. In fact he doesn’t even talk or ring the bell. He just stands there silently on your doorstep waiting for you to notice him out of the corner of your eye.

This is not a casual literary device, this is why Gong wrote the book. Religion aside, Our Happy Time is a deep dive into uncomfortable questions of morality, luck, and truth. It seems every well-known Korean author has a taste for Friedrich Nietzsche, and he gets his obligatory reference point here, but where so much of Korean literature tries-and-fails to be philosophically stout, Gong achieves this… and it feels natural, effortless even.

It’s just that it dances too often on a bed of inconsistent prose and a draft-like inner voice. Take for example how successful a passage like this can be:

“He was a being who transcended death, glimmering with some feral quality possessed by those who swear themselves in their youth to a lonely death in the wild.”

As opposed to these disturbingly lazy efforts:

Everyone was going somewhere. No matter the destination, they all had to get somewhere. But did any of them really know where they were going?”

“As for me, I was beginning to think that I wanted to face him for a different reason. Was that because I was sensing that the person I really wanted to face was myself?”

The contrasts continue between thoughtful statements like this:

“You had to hurt in order to be enlightened.”

And unbearable platitudes:

“There was more than met the eye”

And just in case you think these quotes might be unfairly cherry-picked, take these two consecutive sentences — from meaningful to banal in an instant:

“Sometimes words can be so concrete and so real, and therefore so cruel. Maybe that’s what they meant when they said the pen is mightier than the sword.”

Gong’s central characters moan endlessly about hating two things in particular: cliché and hypocrisy. Throughout Our Happy Time they repeat the sentiment to nausea, cliché is mentioned on fourteen different occasions, hypocrisy seventeen. Through this echo, and the representative prose above, an obvious truth begins to build in the reader’s mind — these characters would likely also hate their author.

If you can battle through this awkwardness, there is still something impressive to be found — a horrible, nasty, metaphysical swamp; a place that pulls open scar tissue and exposes old nerve-endings, fizzing once more in the damp air. It’s all uncomfortably real, and morality regains its true dimensions here. There are only hard choices, mess, dirt, and self-disgust.

Here victimhood is ambiguous (often irrelevant), kindness is a different shade of selfishness, volunteers are hoping for personal reward, forgiveness is a base sentimentality, everyone is irrevocably broken, no one is strong enough to resist shame and judgement, some peoples’ lives are genuinely not worth living, and so the only solution is either murder or suicide; even then, in that moment, twisted, unsure and botched — “Why do they always talk about killing the rich when all of their victims are poor?”

It’s in this nervous energy and sinking life that Gong Ji-young rediscovers the lost threads of her novel. The conversations and building relationship between our central character and a death row inmate, Yunsu, are all, brazenly, clichéd. But Our Happy Time walks the line between good and evil incredibly well, one eye on brightness, light and possibility, the other one being gored violently from its socket by the realities of who we are, and the darkness inside us. And even when you surrender, and resign yourself to ending it all, you still manage to fail; pinned under this same weight, this same weakness — “I don’t have the energy to die… I don’t have the will or the courage to die.”

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