Friday, November 25, 2011

Shin Kyung-sook goes back to short stories



An illustrator in her 40s, a married woman, ironically, calls her life peaceful because she is free of love. “A peace that I never expected in my life has arrived. I don’t ever want to be caught up in passion toward another person. The desire to own another being incites passion as well as pain. ... I will not push myself into the passion and pain again.”



This is a confession of an anonymous character in Shin Kyung-sook’s new short story collection,“Unknown Women.” The collection of seven short stories is long overdue after Shin’s last collection, “Sound of a Bell,” published in 2003.

Since 2007, Shin has been focusing on novels. Shin has touched a world audience with her heart wrenching family drama “Please Look After My Mom” published in 2008.

Shin’s latest collection showcases new mastery of putting words into descriptions of the mundane moments in life. But also, Shin said in an author’s note that the stories are special because she wrote them when she was most depressed and felt lost. Shin called the unnamed characters in the collection her contemporaries — the ordinary people who are always forgotten.

Indeed the anonymous characters are forgettable. A reporter, who left her country home for life in Seoul, returns for the funeral of a former neighbor. A businessman who neglected his marriage gets into an accident and reflects on this while lying covered in blood. A married illustrator gets a letter from her long lost lover. Their stories revolve around these past relationships.

The gem of storytelling by unidentified characters is Shin’s use of a free indirect style in most of the collection, one in which the writing switches between the third-person narrative as well the first-person in the absence of quotation marks. In the fourth story “After Dark,” the characters are merely “he” and “she.” In the next “Bo Tree in Front of the Gate,” a woman tells her own story.
Shin even wrote “Hidden Snow” entirely as a letter addressed to an anonymous person.

However, the fluidity of the writing makes the readers susceptible to getting lost or even tempted to skim. In Hidden Snow, 14 pages are dedicated to various kittens. Even after a forced reading of such pages, the section’s relevance remains questionable.

Yet, Shin masterfully creates magical incidents. The married illustrator reunites with her ex after 20 years. He hands her a notebook his wife used to communicate with the maid about groceries and housework. Eventually a deep friendship develops between the two, only until when they hit the last page; “I don’t understand why I had to get sick with such a disease. I can’t believe it.”

The ex is devastated because he learned about his wife’s cancer only after she had unexpectedly left him.

The illustrator returns to her life where her husband whines intolerably in a hospital bed after his back surgery. Her bitterness changes slowly but surely into the appreciation that he relied on her when in need.

In the more creative stories, though, the drama is too predictable. The third,“In the Field, He,” the narrator’s wife declares one day that she is suffering from an “alien left-hand syndrome.” Her left hand starts to act on its own, eventually hitting the narrator and strangling him in his sleep. This is a no-brainer; the so-called syndrome is a poetic representation of the depressed and forgotten wife’s anger. Yet it takes a car accident that left the character injured and abandoned for him to see it.

Through the lives of nameless characters, the reader may question the concept of normal relationships. Why do we accept that married couples communicate less and become bitter? Why do we ignore that we’ve lost touch with those we once admired the most, be it a lover or a neighborhood buddy?

But there are moments that we look back on how these deteriorated relationships started and recognize things ugly and forgotten. Shin captures just that; the painful and almost embarrassing moments we look back at all the things that we have lost.

Source: The Korea Times

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