Even when I was little, I apparently understood that writing would never pay the bills. I went through a variety of day jobs, answers to the “what do you want to be when you grow up” question. The firm conviction that I would eventually be a writer was unshakeable, but on the side, I was also going to be a vegetarian veterinarian, among other career choices (including a ballerina briefly, until I started lessons with the mean-spirited Miss Pam). The two were inextricably linked in my young mind. You could not be a veterinarian without being a vegetarian, and vice versa. But then I found out that being a veterinarian meant that I would have to hurt animals (giving them shots, surgery, etc.), and I knew that I could never be a veterinarian. But the dream of vegetarianism lived on. I hassled my parents about it constantly, until they promised that I could stop eating meat when I turned thirteen. I think they thought I would lose interest. But I was laser focussed on never eating another animal, and so on my thirteenth birthday, I declared myself free of the horrible burden of meaty dinnertimes, and I never looked back.
But after moving to Japan, my own vegetarianism became an unexpected issue. This was back in the nascent days of the internet, so the information I had about my new country of residence was basically limited to whatever was in the Lonely Japan guide my friend gave me as a going-away present. And they were not super veg-focussed. So I was surprised to discover how vegetarian-unfriendly this country was (and still is). I was forced into a constant state of negotiation, just by living here. One of the first things I learned to say in Japanese was, “Does that have meat in it?” Even today, when the concept of vegetarianism is so much more widespread (albeit as a lady diet trend [ask to hear my rant about how even my choice of diet is gendered!]), I am still negotiating with servers, insisting on no ham on a vegetable pizza, asking for a shrimp-free tempura platter. (Although my language skills have advanced considerably, and I am more certain that the negotiations will result in food I can eat.) So naturally, given the amount of time I have spent thinking about this word, the title of the Korean novel The Vegetarian alone was enough to pique my interest.
As is my wont, I ignored the jacket copy and bought the book based on the title and the cover. The deeply disturbing cover. And as usual, the contents did not betray my snap judgement. (Seriously. Judge those books by their covers, people.)
The novel is divided into three sections. The first “The Vegetarian” is the origin story of the titular vegetarian, told from the perspective of her awful, self-serving husband. He basically wanted a lady slave, so he married the “completely unremarkable” Yeong-Hye. But then she went and got a personality that interfered with his dinnertime. The slithering unlikeability of the husband conveyed in this first section is a testament to the skill of both author and translator. The tone in which he narrates events implies that he himself is entirely rational—anyone would do and think the things he does—while showing how despicable he truly is as he grapples with his wife’s sudden vegetarianism. A lot of his thinking is coloured by deeply entrenched sexism, which seems to be the norm in Korea from the way the other characters also think, and Kang subtly critiques these outdated ideas with this husband character, writing him in a way that suggests he is hopeless and wrong while seeming to pass no judgement at all.
Yeong-Hye becomes a vegetarian because she had a dream. The dream, conveyed in bits and snatches in her husband’s narrative, is disturbing and bloody. So as a reader, you’re sympathetic to her right from the start. She has this awful husband, this terrible dream. All she wants is to not eat meat. But things progress in an increasingly bizarre and surprising direction. The second section is from the perspective of our vegetarian’s sister’s husband, a video artist who becomes somewhat obsessed with a project involving Yeong-Hye. And the third section picks up the story in the voice of that sister. The whole thing is beautiful and haunting and poetic. And entirely, utterly unexpected.
Kang has managed to create something shockingly original. She uses these three voices, this cast of characters to interrogate what it means to submit, what it means to be free, what exactly is agency, and what is so bad about dying anyway. Her words, thanks to Smith’s deft translation, have a poetic concreteness to them, moving from lyrical dreams to the ho-hum of every day life with a distanced ease. Despite the strange and somewhat difficult subject matter, I had trouble putting The Vegetarian down. Kang put all these thoughts in my head, but at the same time, managed to make me keep turning the pages in a way I’ve come to expect from more story-driven works. Like this passage: “This was the body of a young woman, conventionally an object of desire, and yet it was a body from which all desire had been eliminated. But this was nothing so crass as carnal desire, not for her—rather, or so it seemed, what she had renounced was the very life that her body represented.” Suddenly, Kang is making me think about representations of the female body in the media and modern life, about the nature of desire itself, right when shit is about to get real with the brother-in-law.
The Vegetarian is gorgeous and disturbing. It’s a slap in the face. It makes me want to read more literature from Korea if this is the kind of thing they’re whipping up there. And it definitely makes me want more from Kang.