Part book review, part impressionistic scribblings on the joys of reading and the struggles of carving out time in which to do it, #ABookishYear is a weekly dispatch from the front lines of an intellectual journey spanning fifty-two tomes.
The Fresh Start Fallacy
By Roxanne Fequiere
Toward the end of Han Kang’s The Vegetarian, two sisters share a moment at a mental hospital—one, a visitor; the other, a patient. Perhaps “share” is an overstatement, as the moment is marked by a profound lack of comprehension. “But seriously,” the elder sister says, trying and failing to get through to the silent figure in bed. “What the hell?” It’s a simple statement of bewilderment that tiptoes near the margins of nearly every plot development and conversation between characters, a question that throws into sharp contrast the impenetrability of the story, but fails to pierce it.
I first read The Vegetarian about a year ago, based on a friend’s recommendation. I can’t recall exactly what she revealed about the book, but I do know that whatever she said did not—perhaps could not—prepare me for the experience of reading it myself. At turns haunting and nauseating, I squirmed through its most brutal scenes the first time around, sighed with relief at having made it to the end, and placed it on my bookshelf without giving it much critical thought. It’s not that I particularly disliked the book—maybe my mistake was that I read a surreal, disturbing novel in January of 2017, which already felt surreal and disturbing enough on its own.
I’ve thought about revisiting The Vegetarian more than a few times over the past year, so when I decided to focus on the concept of fresh starts for the first month of my bookish year, I quickly added the title to the roster. Of the new beginnings chronicled in my book choices so far—a fantastical sex change, a financial windfall, self-made success with a side of sexual liberation—vegetarianism is arguably the most innocuous. But for Yeong-hye, the decision to forgo eating meat is steeped in a desire to ward off violent visions, and the plan, once put into action, appears to provoke violence at every turn.
Kang’s story is told in three parts: “The Vegetarian,” told in a first-person narrative by Yeong-hye’s proudly mediocre and mean-spirited husband, known only as Mr. Cheong; “Mongolian Mark,” voiced by an omniscient third-person narrator from the point of view of Yeong-hye’s nameless brother-in-law; and “Flaming Trees,” also told from a third-person point of view, this time through the eyes of Yeong-hye’s older sister, In-hye. Yeong-hye’s own words are sparse throughout, emerging either in clipped dialogue or in brief italicized passages that describe the bloody nightmares that led her to stop eating meat. For the reader, these shifting narrations create a kaleidoscopic effect on Yeong-hye. She is alternately a burden, a bad wife, an embarrassment, an object of desire, a victim.
Of course, it is a single act of self-determination that sparks all of these characterizations, whereas it seems that before Yeong-hye stopped eating meat, she mostly flew under everyone’s radar. The book opens with her husband confirming as much: “Before my wife turned vegetarian, I’d always thought of her as completely unremarkable in every way….The passive personality of this woman in whom I could detect neither freshness nor charm, or anything especially refined, suited me down to the ground.” For the men in Yeong-hye’s life, her sudden and uncharacteristic self-assertion transforms her into a conquest—she is beaten, raped, abandoned, and taken advantage of. Meanwhile, her mother and sister are less insistent on bending Yeong-hye’s will to suit their own than they are determined to keep her healthy and in good social standing.
That Yeong-hye remains steadfast in her decision to not eat meat, then to not eat any animal products, then to not eat at all is…well, it’s an eating disorder. But if The Vegetarian is meant to be read as a parable, then there’s something grotesquely impressive about it. Yeong-hye wants to quell the carnivorous violence that she has perpetuated by sacrificing her own animal form and attempting to become a form of plant life—a bizarre goal, perhaps, but women have been canonized for similar feats. Yeong-hye is asked several times if her new diet is the result of some religious devotion—perhaps she may have avoided some initial resistance from her peers if she had said yes.
Allow me to rotate my own kaleidoscope. I’ve been speaking at a certain remove, holding the work up to the light and ruminating on it as if its story only exists within these pages. If that were the case, I suppose I could have turned this essay in on time, re-read this book on the schedule I set for myself. I imagine that having been like Yeong-hye at various points, singularly convinced of my own need to self-destruct, and like In-hye at other points, pleading with a loved one to stop shooting themselves in the foot in the name of personal conviction, I struggled to read The Vegetarian solely as a parable.
“It’s your body, you can treat it however you please,” In-hye realizes as she struggles to make peace with her younger sister’s choice (or at least prevent others from inflicting pain on her as a way of reversing it). “The only area where you’re free to do just as you like. And even that doesn’t turn out how you wanted.” Fresh starts imply better choices, an upward grab at transcendence. For all of its ambiguity and moving parts, The Vegetarian lays bare the havoc that can erupt when there’s no agreed upon definition of what that looks like.
Roxanne Fequiere is a New York–based writer and editor who might just make it after all.
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