Skip to content

Korea Blog: Kwon Yeo-sun’s Korean-millennial murder mystery Lemon

A murder mystery can end either resolved or unresolved. Most writers opt for the former, if only out of habit or crowd-pleasing instinct, though some habitually leave ends just loose enough to lead to a sequel. In the absence of any resolution, a novel’s very status as a murder mystery comes into doubt. It tends not to be described as belonging to the genre, but as using its elements — or, imprecisely, as “deconstructing” it. Reviewers of Kwon Yeo-sun’s Lemon (레몬), newly published in Janet Hong’s English translation, disagree about whether its central mystery is fully resolved. One could make a fair case either way, to my mind, but in this lack of a resolution over whether it even contains a resolution — its meta-unresolvedness, if you like — lies a clue to the source of its power, which critics have variously but unanimously praised.

The murder in Lemon is that of an eighteen-year-old girl named Kim Hae-on, the enchantress of her high school. “Her beauty seemed not of this world, a kind you rarely encountered,” remembers a former classmate who narrates certain chapters. After a glimpse of Hae-on’s face, “the classroom seemed to have transformed into a fictional, perhaps magical, place.” As for her body, it later turns up lifeless in a park, bearing evidence of blunt force trauma to the head. Her underwear is also missing, seemingly not the work of her attacker — “the autopsy didn’t reveal any traces of rape or sexual assault” — but the result of her own lifelong carelessness about matters of dress. “Before stepping out of the house, I stood her before me and circled her, checking her uniform to make sure she hadn’t forgotten anything,” recalls her younger sister Da-on.

Apart from her defining (though vaguely sketched) looks, Hae-on comes across as in no way especially appealing. “It seemed she didn’t think about anything,” says Da-on. “She did nothing and thought nothing. She considered no one and harmed no one. She wasn’t interested in anyone nor bothered by anyone.” When hungry “she became incapable of empathy, of putting herself in someone else’s shoes, and hardly considered another person or the smallest etiquette.” She “seemed like an animal then, or even worse a sociopath, someone who could easily take a piece of bread from a starving child or elderly person.” Somehow, Hae-on’s less than fully human — or simply other than fully human — behavior hasn’t drawn more comparisons to Han Kang’s acclaimed The Vegetarian (채식주의자), which also features an inert woman, withdrawn from human affairs, her actions relayed through the interpretations of others.

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

콜린의 한국 팟캐스트: <도시를 바꾸는 공간기획> 저자 이원제 교수님

<콜린의 한국> 팟캐스트 시즌 2 시작! 최신 저서인 <도시를 바꾸는 공강기획>에서 상명대학교에서 커뮤니케이션디자인을 가르치시는 이원제 교수님께서 한국과 일본에 있는 삶의 질을 향상시키는 여러 색다른 도시 공간을 다루신다. 도시 공간들을 묘사하길 뿐만 하니라 설계자와 건축가를 인터뷰하기도 하신다. 여기애플 팟캐스트를 통해 다운받을 수 있다. 유튜브에서도 스트리밍할 수 있다.

Los Angeles Review of Books: Eight books on Steely Dan

The term “gaslighting” has returned to the popular lexicon over the past decade, when as recently as the turn of the millennium it had fallen into near-complete disuse. It was then that I first heard the word myself, in the context of a Steely Dan song from 2000, “Gaslighting Abbie.” Not only did I have no idea what it meant, I had only the vaguest sense of who Steely Dan were. But I was, at least, in the right place: a university-district high-end stereo shop, the kind of audiophile’s sacred space that has provided countless “Danfans” their first proper experience of the band — that is, of the band’s records, played back on a sound system of high enough fidelity to do justice to the enormously costly, complex, and time-consuming labors of recording and production that went into them. “Gaslighting Abbie” alone required 26 straight eight-hour days in the studio to get right.

Jez Rowden includes that fact in Steely Dan: Every Album, Every Song, a volume of Sonicbond’s “On Track” series from 2019, whose charge is to provide brief descriptions and assessments of every album and song recorded by the act in question. Though at least by avocation a critic, Rowden approaches this endeavor in a spirit of near-pure enthusiasm. No fewer than five times does he deem a song a “winner”; another he introduces as a composition “regarded by many as their worst, although I like it a great deal.” Indeed, he seems never to have heard a Steely Dan–related recording he didn’t like. This is a common condition among Danfans, as is his tendency to venture occasionally into the wilds of interpretation. On that level, his book fulfills the same function as exegetic fan sites like Fever Dreams, once the go-to source for help with the band’s never-straightforward lyrics.

It was on Fever Dreams, 20 years ago, that I found an excerpt of an interview in which Steely Dan’s leader-masterminds, Walter Becker and Donald Fagen, explain the nature of gaslighting. The word came, Fagen said, “from the classic film Gaslight, and to gaslight is what Charles Boyer did to, who was it? Ingrid Bergman or someone…” In any case, Boyer’s character “tried to convince her that she was insane by moving things around in the house” and (adds Becker) “constantly turning the lights lower and lower.” Steely Dan’s references, on which Becker and Fagen seldom deigned to elaborate so straightforwardly, constitute a rich cultural nexus. The online Steely Dan Dictionary, the fruit of another Danfan’s obsession, offers entries on gaslighting and much else besides: the Andria Doria, black cows, Cathy Berberian, the Haitian divorce, Jill St. John, kirschwasser, the Studebaker Lark, the College of William & Mary.

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

Books on Cities: Shawn Micallef, Frontier City: Toronto on the Verge of Greatness (2017)

I’ve just returned from a few weeks in Toronto, a city with which I find myself in a not-quite-expected relationship. It started seven years ago, when a Torontonian listener of my podcast Notebook on Cities and Culture suggested I come interview a few notables there. I’d given little thought to Toronto in particular, if some to the Canadian city in general. For the show’s previous season I’d gone to Vancouver, a frequent car-trip destination when I was growing up near Seattle. Toronto, by contrast, must have held an appeal as an experiential blank slate, and the listener who recommended it also named several potential guests to get me started. At the top of the list, as I recall, was Shawn Micallef, whose copious writings about Toronto — including books on its architecture and the psychogeographical walks to be taken amid it — made him seem like an ideal interviewee.

To the surprise of Micallef and the city’s other local observers, Toronto had lately become an object of attention from the international news media. This owed to the antics (as they were by then almost reflexively called) of mayor Rob Ford, who cut a distinctive figure in the buttoned-up realm of Canadian municipal politics. A vulgarian Falstaff given to illegal drug use and what he himself called “drunken stupors,” this scion of a label-manufacturing dynasty had positioned himself as the fearless leader of a forgotten Toronto. Far from downtown, showcase of the city’s participation in the 21st-century urban revival, this constituency projected the image of exurban striving, for economic if not cultural capital. “Ford Nation was utterly familiar to me,” writes Micallef, “a life where a Reader’s Digest sat by the toilet; where people cut their white wine with 7UP, and where wood-paneled basements were standard.”

Those words come from Micallef’s Frontier City: Toronto on the Verge of Greatness, which came out a couple of years too late for us to talk about in our interview. Instead we discussed his then-latest book The Trouble with Brunch: Work, Class, and the Pursuit of Leisure, a treatise inspired by life in not just Toronto but his hometown of Windsor as well. A kind of mini-Detroit across the river from the big one, Windsor when Micallef was growing up there in the 1980s afforded its native sons and daughters (as well as no few immigrants) plentiful employment in auto manufacturing and other industrial sectors. Even into the 1990s, one only with difficulty turned down the “good money” available on the factory floor. But Micallef himself ultimately did just that, trading the prospect of decent working-class financial comfort in the small city for cosmopolitan middle-class precariousness in the big one.

Read the whole thing at Substack. You can listen to my Notebook on Cities and Culture interview with Shawn Micallef here or on Youtube.

Korea Blog: The Pleasures of Watching Korean Television from the 1980s, Before K-Drama Went Global

I belong to the rapidly shrinking group of pop-culture laggards who haven’t seen Netflix’s hit new Korean drama Squid Game (오징어 게임). That’s counting people not just in Korea but all across the world. My latest glimpse of someone engrossed in the series’ (so I gather) trenchant social commentary and startling violence came on a domestic flight in the United States, since I happen to be in the middle of my first post-COVID travels. While abroad I’ve kept an ear to Korean news, eaten Korean meals of varying quality, and even watched Korean dramas. Those last, however, long precede Squid Game, Netflix, and even the internet as we know it — yet before the era of streaming video, I couldn’t have seen them at all. I refer, of course, to the Korean television dramas of the 1980s now free to watch on YouTube.

These channels are maintained not by enthusiasts (though such unofficial operations do exist), but by the networks themselves. None go deeper than KBS Archive, property as it is of the Korean Broadcasting System, the first major player in South Korea’s television industry. KBS got into single-act productions after purchasing fledgling TV station HLKZ fifty years ago; later in the 1960s came serial dramas, antecedents of the shows that have bolstered Korean soft power across the world for decades now. I’ve long wanted to watch these early examples of what trend pieces these days call K-drama, but it seems KBS’ archivists haven’t yet worked their way quite that deep into the vaults. But they have, thus far, uploaded individual broadcasts dating back to the late 1970s, and on KBS Archive’s drama playlist have assembled several complete or mostly complete series of thirty or forty years ago.

On KBS Archive you can stream the likes of The Tree Blooming with Love (사랑이꽃피는나무), Fetters of Love (사랑의굴레), Moonlight Family (달빛가족), and When the Flowers Bloom and the Birds Cry (꽃피고새울면). These English translations of their titles do not, I would argue, wholly misrepresent the sensibilities on display. With their reliance on prolonged conflicts in the realms of romance, family, school, and work, these are entertainments of what could fairly be called simpler times, at least in the set of emotions conveyed and the techniques used to convey them. One frequently deployed technique is a zoom in onto a character’s shocked or pained expression accompanied by a music sting — almost invariably produced, in the 1980s, with now incongruously cheap-sounding digital synthesizers.

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

Korea Blog: Routledge’s New Handbook of Contemporary South Korea

I began living in and writing about Korea, an endeavor in which I’ve now been engaged for years, with practically no academic preparation. After graduating university, I audited a few lectures on Korean popular culture, then tried to take community-college Korean 101, which ended up cancelled for lack of enrollment. Later, after moving to Los Angeles, I signed up for language courses at the Korean Cultural Center on Wilshire Boulevard. They formed a pyramid, the top being a modestly sized “advanced” level (though many of us could barely string a sentence together) and the bottom an introductory level popular enough to spread across multiple classrooms. Of the throng of beginners there, a large proportion seemed to have come to the language through love of Korean pop music and television dramas. Whatever our individual motivations, all of eagerly partook of the offerings of South Korea’s newly ascendant cultural empire.

Yet this empire isn’t quite as new as it seems. The Korean Cultural Center, Los Angeles opened in 1980, as Keimyung University professor Seon Jung Kim notes in an academic paper on overseas Korean language education, and today there are 41 such centers in eighteen countries. That paper appears in the new Routledge Handbook of Contemporary South Korea, edited by Sojin Lim and Niki J.P. Alsford. Following previous Routledge “handbooks” on modern Korean history, Korean culture and society, Korean politics and public administration, and contemporary North Korea, it collects articles on the various aspects of the Republic of Korea studied by its contributors. As in most academic anthologies, these selections read as if included for their suitability as assigned reading in an undergraduate course — or rather courses, given the range from “Historical Development of Judicial Independence in South Korea” to “The South Korean Literary Field and Its Recent Evolution.”

Only a small minority of this book’s purchasers will thus read it as I did, from cover to cover. Doing so may not yield a clear single narrative of South Korea, but it does — despite the frequent changes of author, focus, and prose style, about which more later — yield a coherent image of South Korea. Here we have a modern nation that spent the early part of its life in hopeless-looking poverty: more than one contributor cites its GNP of the early 1960s, which was comparable to the that of Ghana or the Democratic Republic of the Congo. But over the two or three decades thereafter, factors including shrewd use of aid and loans (primarily from the United States and former colonizer Japan) as well as even shrewder industrial policy turned it into one of the economic champions of Asia. Today, South Korea’s economy is the world’s 11th largest.

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

Books on Cities: Jonathan Raban, Soft City

Luchino Visconti’s White Nights (Le notti bianche) loosely adapts the eponymous Dostoevsky short story, transposing it from Saint Petersburg into the Tuscan port town of Livorno. Though set there, the film wasn’t actually shot there: Visconti famously had sections of central Livorno replicated within studios at Cinecittà, and rolls of tulle hung to achieve the look of enveloping fog. The uncannily daylight-like brilliance of streetlights on the copious mist resonates faintly with the title — as, more heavily, does the sudden snowfall that arrives toward the end — but in my view the opacity of the weather also has thematic value. In White Nights the city and the fog become one; or rather, the city becomes a kind of fog, exposing and concealing figures according to an inscrutable pattern of its own.

This notion immediately occurred to me while watching the film a few weeks ago; what didn’t immediately occur me was that it had quite likely been influenced by Jonathan Raban. “For the Victorian writer, the industrial fog which hung over London for so much of the year was very much more than a chemical inconvenience, or even a romantic visual effect,” he writes in Soft City. “It was the supreme symbol of the city’s capacity to make people disappear inside it.” For Dickens specifically, in whose work “the prolific creation of characters is a by-product of the city itself, it requires a great deal of conscious effort merely to keep the people connected; the fog is omnivorous, and in every novel Dickens is persistently losing his characters then finding them again.”

Whatever liberties Dickens might have taken with the persistence and thickness of the fog itself, he didn’t take quite so many liberties with the lost-and-found (and more often lost) nature of metropolitan life. “In small places, people have to go on living with their social failures; in London there is an uneasy ease of separation. One is so likely to be left only with a phone number in an old address book, and that answered by a strange voice, curt and suspicious. We continually drop each other back into the fog.” This is (or before our current state of perpetual connectedness was) easily done in big cities — all of them as metaphorically foggy as London, even if less literally so — “where size and anonymity and the absence of clear communal sanctions license the kind of behavior that any village would stamp out at birth.”

Read the whole thing at Substack.

Korea Blog: Hwang Sok-yong’s memoir The Prisoner

The reunification of Germany has long been a topic of interest among South Koreans invested in relations with the North. When the Berlin Wall fell, Hwang Sok-yong was one of the few such South Koreans actually there to witness it. Though known primarily as a novelist, Hwang split his energies between writing and political agitation in the early decades of his now more than half-century-long literary career. He often failed to strike an ideal balance between the two, as he admits in his memoir The Prisoner (수인), recently published by Verso in Anton Hur and Sora Kim-Russell’s English translation. This German sojourn comes early in the book, whose 624 pages (condensed from the two-volume original) ultimately constitute a full autobiography, albeit a chronologically shuffled one. Through these episodes of his life he interweaves the titular narrative, that of his half-decade’s political imprisonment by the South Korean government.

It bears repeating that this is a memoir not of captivity in North Korea, a genre in which the US publishing industry has shown an insatiable interest, but of captivity in the South. Nevertheless, it is also in part a travelogue of North Korea, Hwang’s trip to which brought down his prison sentence in the first place. He took it in 1989, the year international travel opened up to ordinary South Koreans, though by that time he already possessed the rare distinction of experience abroad. The then-West Germany had invited him in 1985, and his time there plunged him into uncertainty about his very identity. “Who was I? I was forty-two. I had written four novellas and a volume of plays and had just published the tenth volume of my popular novel Jang Gil-san, which I had serialized since 1974. My work, however, did not exist outside of Korea.”

“A country bumpkin on his first overseas trip,” Hwang decided that in Germany he “wouldn’t even bother mentioning literature: I would only talk to as many people as possible about the plight of the citizens of Gwangju and our democracy movement.” The nine-day long violent conflict between protestors and the military in that South Korean city — now called the Gwangju Uprising, or by some the Gwangju Massacre — had occurred just five years earlier. That Hwang had been living there at the time would align with his uncanny knack for finding himself in the way of historic events, but other organizing commitments called him up to Seoul before the fighting broke out. “It always weighed on me that I was not there to stand with the people of Gwangju in their hour of need,” he admits, a guilt he first sought to alleviate through writing.

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

Korea Blog: Before There Were Korean TV Dramas, There Was Lee Hyeong-pyo’s Under the Sky of Seoul

More literally translated, the original Korean title of Under the Sky of Seoul (서울의 지붕밑) would be “Under the Roof of Seoul.” Whatever it lacks in mellifluousness, that version hardly seems inapt during the film’s opening sequence, which offers a series of views of the South Korean capital as it looked in the early 1960s. A near-total absence of high-rise buildings makes the first of them almost unrecognizable to those who’ve only known the city in the 21st century. But subsequent shots focus on more familiar sites: Tapgol Park with its Buddhist pagoda, the United States Embassy designed by Kim Swoo-geun (an architect to whose work I’ve paid more than a little attention here on the Korea Blog). What most catches the eye, however, are the roofs, and specifically those with the curved tiles and lines of the traditional hanok courtyard house.

There were more hanok in Seoul 60 years ago than there are now. As Under the Sky of Seoul depicts it there were many more indeed, but the film needs them for their symbolic value as built representations of the old order. For almost every episode of this highly episodic narrative deals with one theme above all: the coming of industrial modernity and the socioeconomic changes brought with it. To do so requires not just un-modern homes but un-modern men: hence protagonist Kim Hak-kyu, a traditional doctor who has prescribed herbs and performed acupuncture (scoffing at the very idea of disinfectant) in the same hanok for 30 years. In only a few scenes does he actually practice medicine; the rest of his time he seems to pass eating, drinking, and playing baduk with his similarly middle-aged buddies, one a destitute real-estate agent and the other a fortune-telling reader of physiognomy.

The blustery, out-of-touch patriarch is a standard figure of fun in Korean film and television today, but even in 1961 he was getting his supposed comeuppance onscreen. Despite his own struggles, or indeed due to them, such a character must be fiercely defensive of his family’s social position. So it is with Hak-kyu: early in the movie he examines the daughter of a local tavern owner attempting to conceal an obvious pregnancy, only to find out later that — much to his chagrin — his son is the father. He’s already been keeping a wary eye on his own daughter, a war widow fancied by the young doctor who recently opened up a practice across the street from her hair salon. Outfitted in Western suits and possessed of advanced medical equipment, this suitor is, irritatingly, not just a Johnny-come-lately to the neighborhood but a personification of the new, modern Korea.

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

Archinect: Reyner Banham’s Los Angeles at 50

If you have an interest in Los Angeles, you also have a copy of Reyner Banham‘s Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies. My own is a mid-1980s Pelican paperback, which I chose because it had the dumbest cover of all the editions. Though it shares with previous printings the image of David Hockney’s A Bigger Splash, an unimpeachable representation of a certain midcentury vision of the city’s hauntingly good life, its title replaces their elegant Helvetica with letterforms better suited to a post-apocalyptic action movie gone straight to video. “Angeles” is spelled out in forward-slanting, shadow-casting, bright yellow capitals but for the red initial “A,” rendered as if hastily spray-painted and set inside a circle to form the 1970s anarchy symbol. Right, Los Angeles — that’s the zone of semi-controlled urban chaos obedient to no conventional rules or order, architectural or otherwise, isn’t it?

How did Banham, who died in 1988, regard this dubious piece of graphic design? Each of his many enthusiasts and exegetes active today would speculate differently, according to which facet of his oeuvre they know best. Having first trained as an aeronautical engineer before undertaking an architectural-history education, Banham first became widely known in his native England through magazine columns in the 1950s and 60s. There he practiced criticism: sometimes of architecture, to be sure, but more often of practically everything else then found at the intersection of culture and technology. In the study Reyner Banham: Historian of the Immediate Future, Nigel Whiteley sums up the range of these public-facing writings: “Car styling; the design of radios and cameras; graphics on magazines, cigarette packs and potato chip bags; the decoration of restaurants, surfboards and ice cream vans; cult films and TV programs — all were grist for his mill.”

Half a century of technological developments and cultural-studies lectures on, these subjects will strike most of us as obviously (or at least potentially) worthy of serious consideration. That wasn’t the case for Banham’s generation, whose members came of age with a painfully keen awareness of the line dividing “high” from “low.” Born in 1922 to a not particularly well-off family in the provincial town of Norwich, Banham the self-described “scholarship boy” bristled all his life at received notions of absolute cultural hierarchy. He criticized the denigration of popular taste as “old, standardized and unquestioned, public-school-pink.” From these prevailing attitudes, as well as England’s lingering wartime austerities, an escape route appeared in the form of American commercial culture, its artifacts having been imported in unprecedented abundance in the late 1940s and early 50s as Banham was working toward his PhD at the University of London’s Courtauld Institute of Art.

Read the whole thing at Archinect.