The After-Word: The Vegetarian

Everyone, I have a confession to make. Try not to let what I’m about to tell you color your opinion of me. I know you all come here looking for a certain…refinement; a certain elegance of language and deep knowledge of all things literary. I know you think of us as experts, paragons of knowledge and thought. But I’m about to peel back the curtain a bit. You see, I’m not a connoisseur of horror fiction. In fact, I have to look up recommendation, just like you. So sometimes when I’m late making a post I’ll Google “top 10 horror novels [insert year]” and just pick whichever one has the most interesting cover. It may not be classy, but it’s effective at least 62% of the time.

This is how I found The Vegetarian, a Korean surrealist drama novel by celebrated author Han Kang about a woman who may or may not be becoming a plant.

The Vegetarian is, in essence, three novellas all centered around Yeong-hye , a woman who after experiencing bizarre and disturbing nightmares about human brutality becomes a vegetarian. Her decision is met with scorn by her husband, her husband’s coworkers, and her family and throughout the course of the novel she begins to deteriorate and lose her grip on reality. I wouldn’t necessarily classify it as a horror novel (you failed me again Good Reads!) but it definitely has horror elements. It reminds me of The Metamorphosis a bit with its themes of self-loathing and transformation. Set in modern day Seoul it also explores the pressures of Korean society, particularly the pressure put on women to conform to their unique beauty and social standards. It’s not a happy book.

The first section – with which the novel shares its name – is told from the perspective of her husband Mr. Cheong. Cheong is a dick hole. A gaping, diseased dick hole. Sorry for that imagery but I hate him. He begins the novel by describing Yeong-hye as “completely unremarkable in every way” and then spends about 10 pages describing how boring she is. He more or less says that he only married her because he knew that she would be so boring and dutiful that he could live his life however he wanted without her bothering him. He then talks about how much hotter her sister is than her and how it’s so weird that Yeong-hye never wears a bra. Then he comes home and finds her throwing away all the meat in the house. When he asks her why she’ll only tell him “she had a dream.” From there everything goes to shit. Despite her mental health obviously degrading Mr. Cheong only cares insofar as she’s embarrassing him and made him look bad in front of his boss and his boss’s (you guessed it) much sexier wife. He conspires with her parents to force her to stop being a vegetarian and when they go meet them things escalate until her dad slaps her and she tries to slit her own throat. He responds by divorcing her. Fuck Mr. Cheong. This section is my least favorite part of the book – mostly because Mr. Cheong is awful – but wonderfully written. The prose in the book is wonderful and the translation is very good. I get the feeling some of the nuance of the language was lost but that’s par for the course with translated works, particularly translated works that rely on cultural understanding. Or works that are surreal. This book is both.

Picking up a few years after Yeong-hye’s hospital stay and divorce, the second section is called Mongolian Mark; which is not, as I first assumed, a character’s nickname or the name of a DJ. Yes, that is where my mind went when I heard it, shut up. A mongolian mark is a type of birthmark that is usually a dark blue color and tends to fade in the first three to five years of life but which sometimes lingers into adulthood. The More You Know. This section follows Yeong-hye’s sister’s husband, a struggling artist and also kind of a dick hole but not quite so gaping. He makes experimental films and works out of a studio. He hasn’t produced anything in a few years and generally doesn’t do much of anything except sit around and whine about how he doesn’t do anything. Kind of like how I am about writing. During the confrontation with Yeong-hye after she had slashed her throat he carries her to the car to take her to the hospital. Then he becomes obsessed with her. He starts imagining two people with flowers painted on their bodies having sex and is desperate to make it into a movie. When he learns that Yeong-hye has a mongolian mark he determines that she should be the one in his movie. He starts finding ways to bring Yeong-hye food and works up the courage to ask her to be in a movie. His artistic interest really quickly turns to lust and before we know it he’s got her naked in a warehouse and is painting flowers on her body. Then he’s convincing her to have sex with an artist friend of his – who backs out when he finds out that’s what’s going on – and then is convincing her to have sex with him. All the while, Yeong-hye is happier because when the flowers are on her body the dreams stop. This will have implications in the future. Eventually they’re caught by his wife and he moves away, abandoning her and their child.

This part of the novel won the Yi Sang Literary Prize – one of the most prestigious literary awards in Korea – and it’s easy to see why. The husband – who is never named in the book – is desperate and struggling, unhappy in his marriage but only because he’s unhappy with his life. He lusts after Yeong-hye, mostly because she represents in his mind a freedom from intense societal pressures, but also cus he thinks she’s kinda hot and wants to bang her. He acknowledges how this makes him a horrible person but does it anyway which is what most people do all the time. He’s a terrible person but a great character and though I don’t particularly like him, I really liked this section. It’s full of lyrical descriptions and desperation. And Yeong-hye finds a small amount of peace here which is about the only time in the book that she gets any. Course the husband goes and ruins it cus he sucks. The men all suck in this story is what I’m tryin to say!

The final section is called Flaming Trees and follows Yeong-hye’s sister Ji-hye, who is probably my favorite character. She manages a chain of successful cosmetic stores – which is how her husband was able to be a deadbeat “artist” – and raises her son and takes care of Yeong-hye who has now been admitted to a mental hospital and whose health is severely degrading. She juggles these responsibilities and the pressure like a damn champion and I love her. And she loves Yeong-hye and it’s beautiful. This section consists mostly of her thinking of all the ways she let Yeong-hye down and what she could have done to help things not turn out the way they did. It’s sad and beautiful and I love it. I won’t spoil the ending for you because this book deserves your attention. So go read it ya fools! Don’t let my sloppy writing diminish your impression; the book is a work of art.

The Vegetarian is a book about desire, and shame, and a person’s body being the last refuge they have against an oppressive and controlling world. It’s filled with sadness and pain and broken dreams. It’s not a fun read, it’s not a happy read, but it’s a good read; and I think an important one. It’s not terribly long – I breezed through it in about two days – and I highly recommend everyone check it out. The author, Han Kang has won numerous literary awards including The Man Booker International Prize for fiction and it’s very clear why. So go out faithful Readers and give her the recognition she deserves.

I command it.


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