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The Vegetarian

April 13, 2016

Everything I’ve read about Han Kang’s The Vegetarian, translated from the Korean by Deborah Smith, has been complimentary. It’s thought-provoking; it’s about the relationship of self-denial to self-destruction; it’s about how life is savage; it’s about the insufficiency of art to save us. Stefanie says it’s “disturbing” and “unsettling.” Bellezza finds it “compelling.”

The short novel is well-constructed, consisting of three novellas: the first is from a husband’s point of view, on a wife who suddenly throws out all the meat in the house and refuses to eat it, losing weight and refusing to explain, simply saying “I had a dream.” The second is from an artist brother-in-law’s point of view; like everyone else in the woman’s family, he sees her as a blank canvas on which to project his own desires. The third is from a sister’s point of view, a woman who has shut out the savagery of her own upbringing in order to live a normal life.

The vegetarian’s point of view is rarely heard; her name is Yeong-hye, but we know very little about what she wants or thinks or feels, only that she had a dream, that it is full of blood and terror, and that she no longer wants to live.

This is the point at which I can’t find much to like about this novel. Maybe it’s allegorical and “Kafkaesque” as the book jacket claims; that seems oddly outdated to me. I’m looking for a point of view on the “heart of darkness” at the center of this novel, but none of the characters are really involved, apart from the moment when Yeong-hye’s father tries to force meat down her throat and the moment when her brother-in-law penetrates her sexually, neither of which invites sympathy or identification with the character.

At first it seems that Yeong-hye is more sensitive than other people. She says “if you know how hard I’ve always worked to keep my nerves in check. Other people just get a bit flustered, but for me everything gets confused, speeds up.” Later you find out that she has been exposed to horrors that most readers haven’t, like, at the age of nine, having to watch a dog that bit her run to its death at the back of her father’s motorcycle, and then having to eat some of the dog’s flesh, “an entire bowlful with rice,” because “the saying goes that for a wound caused by a dog bite to heal you have to eat that same dog.” At the end of the first section, what she fears about her appendages has come true; they enable her to be a killer. After giving up meat and stabbing herself when her father tries to force-feed her, she has caught a bird outside at the hospital–caught it in her hand and taken a bite out of it.

At the beginning of part two, I thought maybe I could identify with the artist brother-in-law. But no, he is as much a predator as anyone else in this novel; just because Yeong-hye seems to like what he does to her doesn’t make him any less predatory than her father or her husband, as she demonstrates when “she burst into tears” at his climax.

The sister, In-hye, in the third part of the novel, goes to visit Yeong-hye in the mental institution where she is confined and force-fed. She and the hospital employees are focused on keeping her sister alive, while Yeong-hye asks “why, is it such a bad thing to die?” The question reminds In-hye of a time when Yeong-hye was nine years old and they were lost, and Yeong-hye said “let’s just not go back.” In-hye remembers that “Yeong-hye had been the only victim of their father’s beatings….she had merely absorbed all her suffering inside her, deep into the marrow of her bones.” In-hye finally understands that playing the older sister role has been “a survival tactic” for her, and her younger sister had no such “normal” role to fall back on.

In-hye wonders, briefly (as does the reader), if there is a metaphorical way to understand what has happened to her sister. Maybe Yeong-hye’s body has really become a tree: “had her body metamorphosed into a sturdy trunk, with white roots sprouting from her hands and clutching the black soil? Had her legs stretched high up into the air while her arms extended all the way down to the earth’s very core, her back stretched taut to support this two-pronged spurt of growth? As the sun’s rays soaked down through Yeong-hye’s body, had the water that was saturating the soil been drawn up through her cells, eventually to bloom from her crotch as flowrs? When Yeong-hye had balanced upside down and stretched out every fiber in her body, had these things been awakened in her soul?”

But then In-hye reminds herself of what is real: “you’re lying there in that bed, and dying. Nothing else.” She says “I have dreams too, you know. Dreams…and I could let myself dissolve into them, let them take me over…but surely the dream isn’t all there is?” Although the tragedy, with the two sisters, could be like a Belle Reve moment, from A Streetcar Named Desire, it doesn’t work that way for me in the novel. Blanche wants to escape into her dreams of the past, whereas Yeong-hye wants to escape from her dreams and her past. The only way to escape from the past, this novel says, is to end your life.

Less of a tragedy than a relief, I’d say. I was glad when the novel was over. Maybe this is one problem with undirected, solo reading–I’d have been just as glad when a masterpiece like Things Fall Apart was over, if I’d been reading it on my own, for no particular reason. Maybe this is a book you have to want to learn something from.

What’s the last book you read on your own that might have been better if you’d read it as part of a discussion group, or for a class?




18 Comments leave one →
  1. April 13, 2016 7:14 am

    I had a really hard time finding my way into Lydia Davis’ short stories; your question makes me realize I probably would’ve gotten much more out of them had I been reading them with a group!

    • April 14, 2016 11:27 am

      Especially with works of literature where brevity or silence is part of the point, I think it can help to have someone to sit with you while you give it some time to surround you.

  2. Elizabeth Johnson permalink
    April 13, 2016 8:19 am

    This sounds horrible, I had to stop reading even the review! Why do people write/read this kind of story? I need some brain bleach now 😦

    • April 14, 2016 11:28 am

      I guess some people haven’t lived anything like it themselves, and need a story like this to enter a world like that? I don’t know–don’t make me the apologist for this kind of fiction!

  3. freshhell permalink
    April 13, 2016 1:46 pm

    I was thinking the same thing as Elizabeth. I don’t think I could read this. Thank you for taking the bullet for us.

  4. April 13, 2016 2:01 pm

    Ah sorry it didn’t work so well for you. I don’t think we are supposed to learn anything from the book. For me it was about mental illness and the silencing of Yeong-hye. She couldn’t find a way to fight back so she turned it all on herself. The only control she had was in what she did or didn’t eat. No one ever tried to understand her and when her sister finally did it was too late. It would definitely be a good book for a group discussion!

    • April 14, 2016 11:32 am

      The only control she had was in what she didn’t eat–yeah, and I’ve read enough anorexia-glorifying stories (before they got harder to find on the internet) to have done with that genre already.
      I did consider whether my own problems with eating/not eating were influencing how I read the novel, but I have been able to sympathize with anorexics before.
      No one ever tried to understand her because she never tried to make herself understood. All she ever tried to do was disappear.
      It would be interested to discuss this book with you and some other people, in person.

      • April 14, 2016 3:45 pm

        She never did try to make herself understood and I have to wonder why. It seems she has lost her voice and that made it a really sad story for me. It would be great to discuss in person. If only we all didn’t live so far apart!

      • meadow36 permalink
        February 7, 2017 11:33 pm

        I don’t know why people are labeling this as anorexia, as nowhere does she mention body-image issues. Instead, it seems like she wanted to make a decision for herself – not one that others told her to do, and it’s one she could entirely control. It’s more likely that over time she lost her appetite and didn’t find pleasure in eating (especially considering the violence associated with it … initially with meat and the killing of animals … second with her father and force-feeding her food … the third with her mother tricking her into eating meat and therefore not respecting her decision).

        • February 11, 2017 6:31 pm

          What you say seems right, and yet the issue of control is at the heart of anorexia.
          Of course, the end of her story, told by her sister, makes it clear that she suffers from more than a mere eating disorder.

          • meadow36 permalink
            March 15, 2017 1:01 am

            Exactly, it is far more than an eating disorder. The way I understand eating disorders is that is driven by a lack of satisfaction with one’s body image and there is absolutely nothing in here to indicate that. As a result to describe this story as glorifying anorexia is misleading.

            I think the more general theme is the way society tries to control women (and sure what our body should look like is one of them, but not the one highlighted here). It seems like the importance of “appearing normal” by eating meat and so her action of being vegetarian was very much an act of rebellion against that. Eventually it seems that “appearing normal” was to eat more not because she wanted to, but because it was someone else’s will imposed on her.

            With regards to why she didn’t make herself understood, it seems that her voice was suppressed over time to the point that she has now consented. This sense of hopelessness is what is captured, and what many women inevitably may feel sometimes. Life isn’t always rosy when the problem is structural.

  5. April 13, 2016 5:26 pm

    I want to learn something from every book I read. Generally, I do. “What is in this book?” for example.

  6. April 13, 2016 7:25 pm

    I think I’ve seen slightly more mixed reviews of this book than you have, maybe? At least, I saw enough mixed reviews to make me think the book wasn’t going to be my jam, even though I love multiple narrators normally. It seems almost parable-y, and I never like a book parable.

    The last book that would have benefited by reading with a group — hm! I love this question. Maybe The Art of Fielding? I think I would have loved it better if I’d talked to a whole bunch more people about all the things THEY loved about it.

    • April 14, 2016 11:35 am

      Yes–that would be a good one. Sometimes if I hear about things other people love, I can at least admire them in passing.
      Sometimes I do like a parable–but when I said that, I realized that perhaps my years of teaching Sunday school when my children were little has predisposed me to take a bit of a comic attitude to most parables, which is how I prefer to receive them, now. There was a famous puppet show version of the parable of the grapes, and a terrifying little play in which all the kids got behind one who said “I AM LEGION.”

  7. Rita Dailey permalink
    April 13, 2016 11:09 pm

    I just finished reading The End of Your Life Book Club by Will Schwalbe, and I think it would be perfect for a group discussion. I am currently reading When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi, which also deals with a character dying of cancer. I will add The Vegetarian to my reading list, but I think I need to read something less dark first!

    • April 14, 2016 11:37 am

      It really sounds like you do. And then you and I need to find some other serious readers in the area and form a quarterly book club, meeting once each season.

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