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Korea Blog: Sang Young Park’s Novel of Gay Almost-Romance Love in the Big City

In recent years the internet has launched into the zeitgeist the term “incel,” referring to individuals filled with resentment about their state of involuntary celibacy — i.e., sexlessness. In nearly all cases the incel is a heterosexual male, though some have speculated on the nature of his homosexual equivalent: a tweet I saw a few months ago, for example, posited that “the gay version of ‘incel’ is not finding a long-term relationship.” If so, then the protagonist of Sang Young Park’s novel Love in the Big City is a kind of incel. With opportunities for casual sex perpetually close at hand, thanks not least to smartphone dating apps, Young longs for nothing more than a deep and lasting connection. Yet all the overlapping cultures that clam him — gay culture, “hook-up” culture, social-media culture, Korean culture — seem to have allied themselves against the fulfillment of that desire.

Matters aren’t helped by the company Young keeps. His best friend Jaehee, namesake of Love in the Big City‘s first section, acts as if given over to the pursuit of dissolution, compulsively smoking, drinking, and going to bed with any man who will have her. “Jaehee and I had very little sense of chastity, or none at all, to be honest,” Young tells us in his narration, “and we were apparently known for it in our respective spheres.” Having bonded over a shared penchant for the excesses in which impecunious twenty-somethings can indulge, he and Jaehee fall into a pattern of mutual support, and more so mutual reinforcement. When Jaehee falls pregnant, with predictable uncertainty as to the father’s identity, it is Young who accompanies her to the clinic in hopes of an abortion — and apologizes for the outburst of anger she releases on its moralizing doctor.

Despite sounding more troubled than not in his telling, Young’s time with Jaehee, which even includes a period of cohabitation, comes to look in retrospect like an idyll. When Young goes off to perform his mandatory military service, Jaehee goes off to study abroad in Australia, a choice that appears to plant in her mind the seed of reformation. Park has a knack for this sort of ironically telling detail: such is the disorder of Jaehee’s life that a stint in Australia, of all places, sets her on the straight and narrow. Or at least it sets her on a path just straight and narrow enough to lead to the altar: Park opens the novel with a scene at her wedding, and in it Young fields questions about his weight gain and inchoate writing career from their old French-literature department classmates at the “mid-tier university” from which they graduated.

Read the whole thing at the Los Angeles Review of Books.