It’s been a while since I’ve reviewed any Korean books, and longer still since posting on titles from the Dalkey Archive Press Library of Korean Literature, but there’s one book from the collection I’ve been meaning to try for a good while now. Ch’oe Yun (There a Petal Silently Falls, The Last of Hanak’o) is one of the major writers of her generation, even if what’s available for us to read fails to reflect that, and today’s review examines the first novel of hers to make it into English (as far as I’m aware…). It’s the story of a young woman running away from her life, and the reaction of those left behind, showing us that beauty isn’t all it’s made out to be.
Mannequin (translated by Yewon Jung, electronic review copy courtesy of the publisher) introduces us to a couple diving off Jeju island the day before their wedding. The two are just about to surface when a surprising apparition stops them in their tracks:
It was because of a woman, descending from the lightness above, that D and I stopped ascending almost simultaneously. The woman, curled up like a baby in its mother’s womb and wearing an almost transparent suit of blue, nearly indistinguishable from the sea, was coming down towards us. With a gentle expression on her face as if resting, with the sea as her bed, she descended with her eyes closed. The thin fabric shrouding her body waved in the current, making her look like a mysterious goddess surrounded by transparent aquatic plants. A little goddess descending toward none other than myself.
pp.10/11 (Dalkey Archive Press, 2016)
While the encounter lasts a matter of moments, the effect is life-changing. Just a day later, the new bride walks slowly into the sea, never to return.
Another section of the story then takes us to Seoul, where a family waits for news of a missing woman. Jini, a young, fragile, impossibly beautiful model has vanished into thin air, and her sister, brother and mother are all processing the disappearance in different ways. While the family members have slowly started to move on with their lives, the woman’s agent refuses to give up on her, and when she sets out on a quest to track her down, she finds an unlikely ally…
A missing woman making those around her reflect on their empty lives? If that sounds rather familiar, it’s true that Mannequin has much in common with Shin Kyung-sook’s Please Look After Mother. Ch’oe’s novel, however, is far more subtle, with little of the brash screaming of Shin’s work. It’s a story that lifts the shiny, K-Pop-enhanced surface of Korean life to see what’s lurking underneath, and (unsurprisingly) it’s not always pretty
The novel is divided into a number of chapters, with most narrated by one of the supporting characters, each of whom has a nickname derived from marine life. Jini’s sister, Starfish, is a young woman who eventually slips into her sister’s (modelling) shoes, and their mother, Agar-Agar, spends most of her time on a mountain top, screaming to the gods, without really knowing why. Then there’s Jini’s brother, Shark, a hyper-aggressive young man and the negotiator of Jini’s many lucrative contracts. Quite apart from his outbursts of anger, most readers will be a little disturbed at how close he is to his remaining sister…
However, it’s Conch, the agent, who drives the story forward. Desperate to find the beauty who lights up her life, she one day crosses paths with Lionfish, the diver who has become obsessed with the vision he saw beneath the waves. Together, they set off on a journey in search of the runaway model, two unlikely companions in a converted four-wheel drive. With little to go on but Conch’s sense that Jini will be somewhere near the coast, all they really have is hope, and the determination to keep looking. You do wonder, though, what they’ll actually do if they ever find the woman they’re following.
Where Mannequin is very different to Please Look After Mother is the way it actually includes Jini’s story. Told in the third-person (contrasting with the first-person accounts of the other characters), these sections describe her disappearance and the adventures she has along the way. Having grown up in the spotlight, the young woman has never had the freedom to enjoy her life, so it’s little wonder that she eventually decides to slip out one night, never to return. Once she makes up her mind to leave the city, we see her life on the road, a picture of a child of nature charming all those she comes across.
Mannequin is less about what happens, though, than a critique of contemporary society. A sense of emptiness pervades the book, with each of the main characters having their own overwhelming negative emotion, whether it’s Starfish’s ambivalence, Conch’s numbness or Shark’s frightening anger:
Why can’t you beat and break things when you’re furious, or set fire to something when you’re angry and disappointed, or kill someone when you hate him? Why do these others cling to people they hate, and say goodbye to people they love? I despise people who’ve come up with all these rules. (p.34)
With each of them struggling to make it through everyday life, there’s a need for something to get them through the day. Of course, their drug of choice is beauty, and Jini is its prime example. Although she’s just an ordinary young woman, she has the gift of stopping people dead in their tracks, as Lionfish discovers:
If the others ever trembled while seeing sublime beauty, as I or countless people in the world have, they wouldn’t make such requests. They would probably say,”Beauty makes you open your mouth, and cry, and laugh. Beauty takes people’s breath away, but at the same time, makes them go on living. Beauty makes people ill, but also heals them.”
That’s the kind of beauty I encountered. A woman that beautiful. For a moment. For one minute, at most. After that, most of my time was devoted to finding that woman again. (p.70)
Of course, beauty can be a blessing, and Jini has brought herself (and her family) fame and fortune, lifting them out of poverty and making herself into one of the most recognisable people in the country. Yet Ch’oe makes it clear that it can also be a curse. In exchange for this prosperity, the young woman has had to forfeit her individuality, and has gradually been worn down by the constant exposure (in every sense of the word).
Ch’oe is a wonderful writer, and despite a few clumsy expressions (and a few typos here and there), Jung has done a decent job on the English version of Mannequin. However, I can’t help feeling (not for the first time) that the book would have fared much better if it hadn’t been included in the Library of Korean Literature. A smaller publisher would have brought more care to the project, with more attention to editing and a greater focus on promotion. As it is, buried among the other, equally neglected titles, it seems to have passed by almost unnoticed, with very few other reviews out there (one exception, unsurprisingly, is Michael Orthofer’s positive take on the book over at The Complete Review, and my fellow MBIP Shadow Judge, Paul Fulcher, has also reviewed it over at Goodreads).
Which is a shame, because Mannequin is an excellent look at the soul-crushing boredom of modern life and our need to latch onto something to make life worth living. Jini is the representative face of all those models, pop stars and actors we worship, and Ch’oe shows us the price they pay for our adoration. Given all the pressure, it’s little wonder that they might sometimes just want to disappear for a while – or for good…