Park Wan-suh’s “Lonesome You” review (from the LTI Korea / Dalkey collaboration)

Cover of Park Wan-suh's Lonesome YouAs KTLIT tweeted yesterday (yes, you can follow KTLIT on twitter at @KTLIT):

Park Wan-suh’s Lonesome You in @ltikorea /Dalkey Archive collection to publish November, is immediately the best selection of her work!

And it is true, partly because Lonesome You is the most complete volume of Park Wan-suh’s (the way she chose to Romanize her name) work, particularly her second phase.

The title is no accident, as many of these works are about loneliness of one kind or another. In fact the theme of Park’s work is almost always alienation of some kind, either physical, psychological, economic, or political. Further, Park’s work on alienation breaks down into two major categories. First, Park wrote about families, normally centering on a daughter and mother, trying to survive the Korean Civil War and its aftermath. Second, Park wrote about the abysmal (as she saw it) situation that women, often middle-class or thereabouts, lived in once the “miracle” on the Han was being engineered, and then coming true. In most cases, the stories are of family relationships in which alienation can be starkly outlined. All of the stories in this volume focus on families, and several of the stories here reveal an ironic sense of humor that is not always present in Park’s previous translated works.

In the past, the ‘autobiographical novel’  Who Ate up all the Shinga gave us a good view of her ‘family survival’ fiction, as well as a glimpse of what created the author that Park became. Three Days in that Autumn (she is Romanized as “Pak Wanseo” on this book) and Weathered Blossom, are representative works of her latter period.

In fact, the short story Weathered Blossom kicks off the collection Lonesome You. This is the story of an older woman, alienated by her family and her age, who has a fortuitous meeting on her trip home from a family wedding. She meets a dapper older gentleman and, as much as they can, sparks fly. The narrator, by story’s end, has a decision to make, and it the question of that decision that beats the heart of the tale.

Psychedelic Butterfly intertwines the story of a house and a family – a house with a history, and a family with no less of one. A mother going senile presents a host of problems for her children, but when she goes missing (echoes of Please Look After Mom), panic ensues. As the search for the mother leads to an inevitable meeting with the house, Psychedelic Butterfly considers the fragmentation of the family in modern Korean society, and what it means to be happy. The story ends on a bittersweet but subtle note, and Park’s writing really shines here (which means the translation is really shining here as well).

An Unbearable Secret is perhaps the most predictable of the stories in Lonesome You, featuring the Korean staple, a married person on vacation reflecting on their lives. Still, this is Park Wan-suh, so the story is studded with nice touches, and plot points, including the genesis of the narrator’s unbearable secret. If the story ends somewhat out of left field and without satisfaction? This is a fairly standard approach in Korean fiction (including the big reveal), and the writing and strong background of the main character left me contented at the end.

Long Boring Movie is the least lyrical of the stories in this volume, and I suspect that might have something to do with the translation, which attempts to be vernacular in a way that just didn’t work for me. In addition, unlike the other stories here, the content is unrelievedly grim, with a horrible adulterous father, an uncaring brother/son, and a mother dying horribly. Well written, even the vernacular translation is obviously for an authorial point, and crystal clear, it is nonetheless a bit of a slog compared to the other nine stories in this collection.

Lonesome You is an atypical story. It begins in the normal manner of Park’s work, with a female narrator who is alienated from nearly everything, particularly her husband, with whom she has not lived for many years. Now, however, with the graduation of their child from university, and her ensuing planned trip to the United States, the putative reason for the separation is drawing to a close. Park draws the differences between the mother and father quite clearly, and as in Weathered Blossom, manages to make age seem like one of the most horrible self-alienating processes imaginable. As usual, the characterizations are spot-on and the plot is clever, and to Park’s credit, she takes us to an ending that we might not expect.

That Girl’s House is a story spanning Park’s eras. It begins in wartime, when two star-crossed lovers are broken apart by the threat of the woman being forced to be a comfort woman, and the man being taken away to war. Park follows the young man, as well as a narrator and the eventual wife of the young man, through the years, and demonstrates what a tangle history can make of the simplest relationships. Park makes a confusion/interaction between long-lost love and a long-lost nation work in a clever and unexpected way.

Thorn Inside Petals is an at times outright funny story even though it reveals its conclusion, a sister is dead, at its outset. It is no surprise the sister has died, she has been preparing for it and the family has forseen it, but the misunderstandings that arise between relatives in Korea and the United States are played for both pathos and humor (although I’m not sure if this would be as funny to a Korean reader). Cultural confusion rules the day, as shock and dismay (and sometimes characters) ricochet’s from continent to continent. Park also manages, as she generally does, to fill the story with details that reveal Korean culture without a hint of didacticism. Her work is an excellent window into Korean culture and this story is excellent.

A Ball Playing Woman is also brilliant. It begins in a very minor key, with a very minor plot, but as it goes on it expands like a balloon and after a series of unexpected events, leads to an unexpected conclusion that is amusing, semi-contemptuous, unpredictable, and that I can’t discuss for fear of spoilers. Let’s just say that a sudden windfall leads to sudden changes, but not the ones a reader might expect. There is a beast that needs to be fed in this story, but the revelation of that beast is ironic and clever.

The last two stories are the slightest in the book. J1 Visa follows the doomed (but, again, amusing) attempt of a tatty academic to cash in on his limited success with a trip to an academic conference in the United States. Things simply don’t go his way, and his uncertain ego have a difficult time of it throughout. The final story, is called Anecdote: The Bane of my Existence. This comes across as somewhere between fiction and reportage, and tells the story of an older author who is having trouble with her computer, and her attempts to retrieve lost data and get the computer repaired. Again, Park hits a variety of amusing notes, and in this case ends on a note of wry misunderstanding.

The collection Lonesome You is ten short stories, each one a cleverly crafted miniature revealing some of the fissures and tears (and occasional healing) of families in modern Korea. Park’s stories are intense, yet often funny, and reveal glimpses behind the façade of modernism into the lives of those who have achieved, and been affected by, the rapid changes in the Korean economy and society of the last sixty years.

A brilliant collection for readers of ‘women’s’ or ‘family’ fiction, but of such imagination and craftsmanship that they go far beyond that and stand also as wonderfully constructed literary fiction.

NOTE: This book will be available in November.