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Korea Blog: the Korean literary crime wave, part three

Watching a lecture from Sebashi, the Korean equivalent of TED Talks, I heard the speaker mention a previous speaking engagement he’d had in an unusual venue: a women’s prison. Most all of the inmates, he said, had been locked up for financial malfeasance of one kind or another. This mildly surprised me, despite the well-documented lack of propensity on the part of womankind toward more violent varieties of crime. Then I considered the disproportionately numerous stories of financial ruin that I’ve heard in Korea. In the United States, one can still only get so many degrees of separation away from lingering effects of the Great Financial Crisis (to say nothing of coronavirus-related economic hardship), but here it seems that everyone knows at least a few people who’ve lost everything in a failed business, got swindled in a bad deal, or emigrated in flight from crushing debt.

Given that, it seems implausible that the first four Korean crime novels I’ve covered in this series — Jeong You-jeong’s The Good Son, Kim Un-su’s The PlottersKim Young-ha’s Diary of a Murderer and Seo Mi-ae’s The Only Child — have so little do do with money. This contrasts with American crime fiction (or at least what I’ve read of it), many if not most of whose plots are set in motion by the desire to ill-get some gains. In this sense Pyun Hye-young’s The Law of Lines, translated by Sora Kim-Russell, and Yun Ko-eun’s The Disaster Tourist, translated by Lizzie Buehler, go the American way. Two of the most recent works of Korean crime fiction successful in English, they both tell stories intimately concerned with money and what people will do get it, but without the heists, drug deals, and gangland machinations familiar to Western readers.

Like The Only ChildThe Law of Lines opens with a deadly house fire — or rather, an explosion — the accidental or deliberate ignition of which comes under investigation. It destroys the home and eventually kills the single father of a 27-year-old woman named Se-oh, who already had it bad enough: having struggled to extract herself from a multi-level marketing scam, she lives in fear of being recognized by one of the many acquaintances she attempted to recruit. Figuring that her dad set off the explosion on purpose, committing difficult-to-detect suicide as an escape from his own financial woes, she makes it her life’s mission to hunt down and murder the debt collector who had been badgering him day and night. But that debt collector, a fellow late-twenty-something soon to be priced out of the dank apartment he shares with his disabled mother, is hardly doing better himself.

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

Korea Blog: the Korean literary crime wave, part two

Whatever its country of origin, crime fiction prizes murderers. Even more suited to the demands of the genre are serial killers, murderers who — according to most of the definitions available — kill three or more people on two or more separate occasions. Though the protagonists of both Jeong You-jeong’s The Good Son and Kim Un-su’s The Plotters do meet these requirements, neither quite fit the cultural image of the serial killer, at least as understood in the West. In the former book, the young ex-athlete Yu-jin performs three separate murders, though all within a short span of time and for the most part impulsively. In the latter, the more mature Reseng is a professional assassin, raised from orphanhood to carry out contract hits for the government. Much truer to the serial-killer stereotype is Kim Byeongsu, the 70-year-old narrator of Kim Young-ha’s Diary of a Murderer.

Living with Eunhui in the foothills of a remote village below the North Korean border, Kim Byeongsu has put more than one pursuit behind him by the time the story opens. “It’s been twenty-five years since I last murdered someone,” he writes in its opening lines, “or has it been twenty-six?” He’s also closed the veterinary practice that constituted his public-facing career. (“It’s a good job for a murderer. You can use all kinds of powerful anesthetics.”) And no longer does he write poetry, a literary avocation — and in Korea, not an uncommon one — taken up through classes at the local community center. Writing what he knew, he composed visceral poems that drew praise from his instructor, but audience reaction was beside the point: “The way you feel about writing poems that no one reads and committing murders that no one knows about is not that different.”

Living with Eunhui in the foothills of a remote village below the North Korean border,  Kim Byeongsu has put more than one pursuit behind him by the time the story opens. “It’s been twenty-five years since I last murdered someone,” he writes in its opening lines, “or has it been twenty-six?” He’s also closed the veterinary practice that constituted his public-facing career. (“It’s a good job for a murderer. You can use all kinds of powerful anesthetics.”) And no longer does he write poetry, a literary avocation — and in Korea, not an uncommon one — taken up through classes at the local community center. Writing what he knew, he composed visceral poems that drew praise from his instructor, but audience reaction was beside the point: “The way you feel about writing poems that no one reads and committing murders that no one knows about is not that different.”

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

Korea Blog: the Korean literary crime wave, part one

Americans in general don’t emigrate at particularly high rates, but some Americans in particular are given to declaring, in moments of frustration, their imminent move to another country. Often that country is Canada, possibly because of the vague impressions it inspires of a more humane and orderly civilization (and more probably due to linguistic and geographic convenience). Sometimes that country is Sweden, which to certain observers represents the fullest possible realization of political and economic idyll in this world. But as enthusiasts of crime fiction know, not quite all can be well in the land that produces such great quantities of what has been labeled “Scandi noir.” In the United States — a nation whose readers’ appetite for crime fiction seems downright insatiable — that bleak, society-indicting genre is most popularly represented by Swedish journalist-novelist Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and its two sequels.

With the final book of that trilogy having been published in English translation more than a decade ago, and Larsson having died years before that, the publishing industry has cast around for other societies capable of producing counterintuitively stark and savage crime fiction. Certain well-established Japanese mystery novelists, like Hideo Yokoyama and Natsuo Kirino, have ridden the waves of this boom. But over the past decade here in South Korea, a number of younger writers have been working so productively and so squarely in the realm of crime fiction that they’ve made their country almost too likely a candidate to run with Scandi noir’s torch through the English-reading world. Earlier this month, Yun Ko-eun’s The Disaster Tourist, won the UK Crime Writers’ Association Crime Fiction in Translation Dagger award, which over the previous decade had gone three times to Scandinavian novels, all of them Swedish.

If an international Korean literary crime wave is indeed afoot, an examination has to proceed from an earlier point in time. We must go back at the very least to 2019, when more than one high-profile, critically acclaimed Korean crime novel began appearing in English per year. 2019 saw the publication of both Jeong You-jeong’s The Good Son, translated by Kim Chi-young, and Kim Un-su’s The Plotters, translated by Sora Kim-Russell. In each book the protagonist is a killer, hardly an out-of-line choice for the genre, but the style of the killings themselves could hardly be more different. The Plotters tells the story of a professional hitman who has hardly known any other form of existence; The Good Son, of a 25-year-old layabout (a “NEET”) who wakes up to find his mother slain in the next room, with all signs pointing to him as the culprit.

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

New Yorker: D.J. Waldie’s Becoming Los Angeles

In 1993, five years after Joan Didion left California for New York, an assignment for The New Yorker brought her back to her home state. Her subject was the Spur Posse, a group of young men in the Los Angeles suburb of Lakewood, who had received national attention after being accused of sexually assaulting underage girls. The resulting story, published in July of that year, assesses the widespread “sense that something in town had gone wrong”—and unspools into a grim diagnosis for Lakewood and other downwardly mobile blue-collar American communities like it.

“Lakewood exists because at a given time in a different economy it seemed an efficient idea to provide population density for the mall and a labor pool for the Douglas plant,” Didion writes, referring to McDonnell Douglas, one of the aerospace companies that had powered the expansion of Southern California’s “industrial underbelly.” The impending closure of a department store at the mall, Lakewood Center, and of the Douglas plant prompt her to question not only the town’s economic prospects but its raison d’être. “What had it cost to create and maintain an artificial ownership class?” Didion asks. “Who paid? Who benefitted? What happens when that class stops being useful?”

Among the locals Didion interviews is Donald Waldie, the City of Lakewood’s public-information officer, who was also a published author in his own right. The Kenyon Review had run “Suburban Stories,” a short work of Waldie’s autobiographical fiction, the previous fall, and Didion includes a few lines from it in her report. “He knew his city’s first 17,000 houses had been built within three years,” Waldie’s narrator observes of the protagonist, who lives in a California suburb much like Lakewood. “He was aware of what this must have cost, but he did not care.”

Read the whole thing at the New Yorker.

Books on Cities: Tom Vanderbilt, Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us) (2008)

Malcolm Gladwell once described his typical reader as “a 45-year-old guy with three kids who’s an engineer at some company outside of Atlanta.” That same guy, I would wager, is the typical reader of Traffic, which was published between Gladwell’s Blinkand Outliers and adheres to the same mid-2000s publishing trends exemplified by those books. It has the minimalist design, the descriptive one-word title, and the explanatory subtitle — Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us) — that holds out the promise of practical insight into real-life phenomena. And that’s just the cover: the content offers a Gladwellian abundance of expert testimony on its subject, both judiciously quoted and snappily (but not over-simplistically) recapitulated in digestible chunks of conversational prose. It could only have have failed to win over our middle-aged suburban engineer for one reason: not actually having been written by Malcolm Gladwell.

Traffic did win him over, in the event, and other reading demographics besides. Its attainment of bestseller status put a bright feather in the cap of its author Tom Vanderbilt, who’d previously written books on the sneaker industry and “the ruins of atomic America” (missile silos, fallout shelters). In the dozen years since he’s put out two more volumes, one on the internet-driven superabundance of choice and another, just this year, about learning new things past a certain age. (45, say.) As it stands now, Vanderbilt’s bibliography evidences a broad curiosity that I can’t help but admire. But it was Traffic that first brought his name to my attention, as it did for many others, and it’s been floating around the lower middle of my reading list for some time. Only in the 2020s, writing about books on cities, did I realize I finally had a reason to prioritize it.

A journalistic exploration of driving makes for an unlikely “city book,” granted, but approaching it as one does satisfy my contrarian impulses. In recent years, I’ve noticed that when I say I write about cities, people increasingly tend to assume that I must “hate” cars. Though some urbanists do indeed base their identities in large part on opposition to the automobile, I can’t quite get it up to do the same. Admittedly, I’ve never bought a car, nor even driven regularly since high school. Years now go by between instances of my laying eyes on a vehicle capable of inspiring any semblance of desire. Yet part of me will always remain the teenager longing for a T-topped Trans Am, or maybe an MR2 — and if things went right, a Delorean DMC-12. Even now, living in Seoul in my mid-thirties, I fantasize about American road trips on a near-daily basis.

Read the whole thing at Substack.

Korea Blog: Stroll through the Real Cities of Korea with YouTube’s Seoul Walker

In recent weeks, Seoul looked about to get back to how it used to be. Or at least it looked about to resemble how it used to be, with an impending relaxation of certain restrictions — on the size of gatherings, on the hours of bars and restaurants — implemented at the height of the coronavirus pandemic. Alas, a new “surge” in the number of COVID cases has pushed back even this small step toward normality. Despite having once been the second-most-threatened country in the world by the pandemic, South Korea hasn’t had life disrupted anywhere near as severely as many other countries. The streets of Seoul never really emptied out — at least not before 10:00, by which hour most businesses are now ordered to close. In response, no few Seoulites simply begin their evenings earlier, some of them now managing to get smashed while it’s practically light out.

Still, it’s not quite the same. I feel the difference even in my own neighborhood of Sinchon, especially when I compare it to a video from two years ago. Shot from a first-person perspective, its unbroken 15-minute shot captures a walk along streets that look both familiar (I’ve never spent as much of my adult life in any other neighborhood) and strange. Some of that strangeness comes from the absence of masks and some from the presence of Westerners — not in great numbers, but certainly greater than one sees today. Whatever their origins, nearly everyone who passes through the frame is young. With no fewer than three major universities in the vicinity, Sinchon has long been a youth-oriented part of town. That manifests even amid its now somewhat diminished liveliness, but it did so much more vividly, so I’m reminded, in the summer of 2019.

This video’s YouTube channel, Seoul Walker, launched just a few months earlier. Its creator, who calls himself Nathan and seems to be Korean, describes it as “a channel where you can experience as if you’re walking in the cities, including Seoul.” Of course, when it comes to Korean cities, the capital — with its metropolitan area home to half the population of the entire country — is dominant, never just included. The bulk of Seoul Walker’s most-viewed videos depict Seoul, and most of those focus on one part in particular: Gangnam, the only neighborhood someone who doesn’t know the city, or indeed Korea, is guaranteed have heard of. Of course, as those familiar with Seoul understand, Gangnam isn’t actually a neighborhood but rather a variously defined area south of the Han River, one home to new buildings, new cars, and — as virally satirized by PSY — new money.

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

Korea Blog: the Uncommonly Speculative Fiction of Kim Bo Young’s On the Origin of Species

“Speculative fiction” is in some quarters used as little more than a euphemistic label for science fiction, by readers hoping to preempt association with a stigmatized genre. But interpreted literally, the term covers a vast imaginative field encompassing horror stories, fantasy sagas, alternate history, and much else besides. Many writers specialize in one or two such subcategories of speculative fiction; few if any could be said to write speculative fiction itself, with the width of narrative and intellectual range that would demand. But if any current writer of my acquaintance does approach that ideal, it’s Kim Bo-young, whose collection I’m Waiting for You and Other Stories I covered last time here on the Korea Blog. That book, published in April by HarperVoyager, was her very first in English translation. And just last month Los Angeles’ Kaya Press put out another, On the Origin of Species and Other Stories.

“If we see a person in the distance and they seem to have breasts, we hastily assume that they must be a woman,” writes Kim in her introduction to the new collection. “Science seems to occupy a similar position in SF.” Though breasts may not in themselves make someone a woman, Kim — a woman — notes that her own body “came equipped with a set. I didn’t, for example, decide one day to install a pair myself. Similarly, many of the stories I’ve written came into being without me consciously trying to turn them into SF.” Still, they’ve been received and even acclaimed as such, though some of them include nothing that the casual reader of the genre would call science — or in any case, not the kind of science that manifests in pieces of advanced future technology like the spaceships flown in I’m Waiting for You.

The variety of science most consistently underlying On the Origin of Species is, unsurprisingly, biology, and evolutionary biology in particular. Several of its stories feature a humankind evolved, devolved, or obliterated only to evolve all over again. In “An Evolution Myth,” a fifteenth-century Korean crown prince undergoes a dramatic biological transformation by himself: as he flees the kingdom when a hostile cousin ascends to the throne, a process kicks in that aids his survival in isolated exile by granting him various animalistic features. Eventually the prince becomes a kind of all-powerful dragon, a type of creature that dominates the devastated future Seoul of the following tale, “Last of the Wolves.” Human beings still exist there, though they’ve taken on lupine characteristics and mostly been domesticated by dragon masters; the few who remain untamed squat in the “ancestral ruins” of Dongdaemun Station and forage for soybeans in the overgrown Gwanghwamun Square.

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

Books on Cities: Lewis Mumford, The City in History

“Don’t set out to raze all shrines — you’ll frighten men,” declares Ellsworth Toohey, villain of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead. “Enshrine mediocrity — and the shrines are razed.” I found rather less of interest in that book than I expected to when I picked it up back in college, but those particular lines have stayed with me. Though I can’t imagine anyone actually uttering them (a persistent condition in Rand’s work) they do truthfully express an attitude held, to my mind, by the Tooheys of the world. Not that one often encounters genuine Tooheys in real life, Rand having programmatically crafted him as the antithesis of her heroic ideal as embodied in protagonist Howard Roark. Roark the architect builds while Toohey the critic talks; Roark the uncompromising individualist executes only his own visions while Toohey the hedging collectivist insists on capitulation to the will of the people.

From all his sniveling public encomia to altruism and equality, of course, Toohey weaves the thinnest veil over his raw lust for power. At one point he even expresses an intent to dominate the world, which may strike readers today as a quixotic goal to attain from the pulpit of an architecture column. But it must have been somewhat more plausible in the early 1940s, when Lewis Mumford could still get a rise out of the architectural profession through his reviews in the New Yorker. To say Mumford made an impact, on not just his readers but (at least in New York) the built environment itself, wouldn’t be an exaggeration. The idea of what she classed as a “pinkish” public intellectual exerting any measure of real-world influence no doubt inspired Rand to take Mumford as a model for Toohey, along with the likes of Clifton Fadiman and Harold Laski.

Mumford and Fadiman were once colleagues at the New Yorker, the latter having run its book-review section during roughly the former’s first decade as its “Sky Line” columnist. After leaving the magazine, Fadiman became better known as a media wit, while also editing Mortimer Adler’s Great Books of the Western World series, writing the Lifetime Reading Plan guides, and later attempting grand diagnoses of Americans’ dispiriting literacy and writing abilities. Not that these were necessarily better on the other side of the pond: Laski, then just out of a stint as Labour Party chairman, is immortalized in George Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language” as writing with the “mixture of vagueness and sheer incompetence” that constitutes “the most marked characteristic of modern English prose.” But what offended Rand, something less than an elegant stylist herself, surely had more to do with Laski’s strenuous advocacy for communism.

Read the whole thing at Substack.

Korea Blog: the Techno-Mythological Imagination of Kim Bo-young’s I’m Waiting for You

South Korea has one of the first populations who can claim to have collectively traveled through time. In a trivial sense, of course, we all travel through time, forward at a rate of one hour per hour, one day per day, one year per year. But this country, as no introduction fails to mention, underwent in the second half of the 20th century a transformation already seen in other societies — “development,” “modernization,” “Westernization,” call it what you like — but at an unprecedented speed. Aggressive industrialization compressed a century of history into just a few decades, and the aftereffects of that process account for much of the good, the bad, and the weird in Korean life today. Among other traces, it has left tragi-comically wide generation gaps: for many Koreans, interactions with their parents feel like Westerners’ interactions with their disoriented great-grandparents.

“My dad lived his whole life in his hometown,” says the narrator of the story “I’m Waiting for You.” But “by the time he passed away our hometown was a completely different place from where he was born. Buildings had been put up and roads laid, mountains flattened, and the courses of rivers diverted. Time moved him to somewhere completely different. Who could possibly say that he lived in one place his whole life?” The reflection comes in one of a series of letters to this narrator’s fiancée, whom he won’t be able to see for nearly five years. Both are aboard separate spaceships, she to emigrate to a distant solar system with her family, and he expressly — by way of light-speed travel’s dilation of time for the traveler — more quickly to pass the years her trip will require before they reunite for their wedding on Earth.

For his fiancée doesn’t intend to stay with her family, of whose meddling in her life she’s had enough. She wouldn’t be the first Korean to go to great lengths to get away from relatives, nor the first to engage in instrumental immigration: “anyone who travels to another solar system gets an outer planets residency permit,” she explains, and “there are loads of advantages when it comes to taxes and things like that.” The more things change, as many a literary vision of the future has meant to show us, the more they stay the same. But change is precisely what the narrator’s fellow emigrants in time went into the “Orbit of Waiting” hoping for: “Some people are traveling to the year their pension plan matures, others hope real estate taxes will come down while they’re away. There are artists too, who believe they were born in the wrong era.”

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

Korea Blog: K-Pop Evolution Traces the Origins of Korea’s Prime Cultural Export

Certain Western observers of Korea wear their aversion to K-pop, or at least their pointed disinterest in it, as a badge of honor. From them I’ve heard the rise of K-pop credited with destroying Korean culture, or — somewhat more positively — with turning the Korean mainstream bland enough to give rise to a counterculture of correspondingly extreme marginality and transgression. But at this point the music itself is, at least here in Korea, never wholly ignorable, and as the country’s third-largest export (a position held fifty years ago by wigs) unlikely to go away in the foreseeable future. Even those Western Seoulites who walk around with headphones lest they pass through one of the many public spaces soundtracked by K-pop must now have moments of curiosity about how and why it’s become quite so prominent. K-Pop Evolution is the first documentary series to attempt an explanation.

Distributed under the banner of Youtube Originals, K-Pop Evolution recently finished making free to view on that site the last of its seven episodes. Together these tell of how Korean pop music has cultivated enthusiastic and often large fan bases around the world, a story not necessarily well understood by many of those fans themselves. Anyone living outside Asia could almost be forgiven for assuming that Korea didn’t make pop music at all until 2012, the year Psy’s “Gangnam Style” went unprecedentedly viral. Though few of Psy’s countrymen would have elected him as K-pop’s emissary to the West, his surprise breakthrough aligned with the priorities laid down fifteen years earlier, at the time of the Asian Financial Crisis. Known locally as “IMF,” that economic disruption weakened the domestic market enough to force many Korean industries, music included, to create product expressly designed for foreign consumption.

“At the time, there was a general sense of inferiority in Korea’s mainstream culture, that we weren’t as good as Japan,” says music critic Kim Zakka, one of K-Pop Evolution‘s more knowledgable interviewees. But there was also a willingness and ability to cater to Japanese consumers, the continuing capitalization on which has meant that “the K-pop we know today wasn’t made for domestic audiences, but created to sell on the international market.” Also among the series’ taking heads is Kwon Bo-ah, better known as BoA, whose great success in Japan almost two decades ago did much to earn her the title “Queen of K-pop.” Coinciding with a period of increased cultural exchange across what Korea calls the East Sea, this endeavor necessitated on her part the cultivation of not just singing and dancing but Japanese language skills as well.

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