Review: Krys Lee’s “Drifting House”

Krys Lee (by Mat Douma)

Krys Lee (by Mat Douma)

“It’s wrong how we pretend we keep going forward.”

Krys Lees’ Drifting House is the work of an accomplished author who looks, with unsparing eye, at some of the costs of living in the interstitial spaces between countries and cultures. In some ways reminiscent of Ch’oe Yun or Cho Se-hui, Lee is a master of demonstrating alienation and revealing how the conceptual and cultural terra firma up which we build our “safe as houses” lives can shift and drift to leave us without support.

Drifting House, is also a catalogue of the historical wounds that have beset Korea and Lee lays bare these wounds of Korea and draws the reader into this fractured world. The disharmony, pain and sorrow that imbue these stories can be disconcerting and not entirely comfortable. Characters are alienated, from others and from themselves. Situations are fraught with hidden motivations, lurking dangers, emotional catastrophes.

Ms Lee creates a universe of damaged people, then lets them go to deal with their personal fates – the results are never timid and the stories are never small. Drama begets drama. Consequently, the stories are often horrific. A daughter sleeps with her father; a boy watches his father throw himself into the Han River; a boy kills his sister in order to survive. Ms. Lee does not work in constricted spaces. As she noted in an interview with KTLIT, she thinks of herself as a novelist currently working short stories. These stories sting.

In each of her stories, Lee creates a recognizable universe. Using short and spare dialogue that manages to realistically place the brutal and inexplicable into quotidian spaces, primarily in a geography of pain. Another point of comparison might be poet Kim Hyesoon who shares Lee’s love of the visceral. Consider the following passage from A Temporary Marriage, the first story in the book, a story of a woman trying to find her daughter:

She took her sewing scissors and ran the edge along the back of her thigh. The pain erased all grief, stripped her of camouflage. A wound so bright it looked pasted on blossomed on her leg. There was no symmetry yet, so she ran the scissors down the other thigh.
There was only the world narrowing to predictable pinpoints of pain … her wounded body continued its ancient song. (23)

The second story, At the Edge of The World, explores a theme that Lee returns to, the broken family, or the imperfectly constructed one. The ‘hero’ the precocious Mark Lee, who lives with his mother and second father.

Lee is deft with descriptions as when Mark describes the daughter of new boarders as wearing, “A fancy dress resembling lemon meringue that covered nine-tenths of her, making the friendly sun her nemesis.”

The new boarders are shamanic, Mark’s parents putatively Christian, which causes predictable difficulties and not so predictable ones. Further, Mark falls in love with the daughter and even more drama ensues. As the story ends, at the edge of the Grand Canyon, Lee allows the reader and her characters as much of a grace note as her dark universe allows.

The Pastor’s Son is another story of a shattered family, rebuilt and then broken once more, into even tinier shards. The pastor loses his first wife, marries a second, and returns to Seoul, where it all ends poorly.

The Goose Father is an amusing story of a man of very certain routines whose routines are disrupted in the most fundamental way by the arrival of a boarder and an actual goose into his life. A Goose Father (기러기 아빠 ) is a Korean father working in Korea while his wife and children live in an English-speaking country for their children’s education. The Goose Father also ends on a kind of grace note, though it is an ambiguous one as well.

The Salaryman is both a snapshot of the IMF crisis and a reflection on some of the cost of Korea’s economic sense. The story is told in the second person, a narrative remove that works well, makes the story seem even more clinical. It is also quite recognizable if you live in Seoul. This is an example of Lee’s skill in that she takes you into a story that was in fact quite common at that time, though might seem ludicrous to an English-language reader, and pulls you entirely into the story, with each character, detail, and scene economically inscribed into words and by the time you arrive at the last two sentences, again brilliantly concise, they completely sum up all that has gone before.

The title story is Drifting House and it is, there is no other word for it, brutal. It would ruined by too much explanation here, but in setting and topic it presents a world utterly without sentimentality or sympathy. It is described in a way that might be called delicate if it wasn’t in the service of such a brutal plot. No reader will walk away from this story without considering what it says about North Korea at the present time.

A Small Sorrow is a story of infidelity, possibly hope, and also contains the only typo I found in the book, when ‘naval’ is substituted for ‘navel.’ The quotidian nature of this story allows the reader to surface for air before the next story The Believer returns the book to its socially and psychologically dystopian roots.

The first paragraph of The Believer is another example of Lee’s brilliant prose:

God was there, God was everywhere. She saw Him in the penumbra of her father’s doubt and her mother’s anger plummeting out rust red. She saw Him in the vast, ululating dreams of all the people she met, and the nebulae that she sometimes woke ecstatically to, a monster gliding along the sea’s black floor, traveling tirelessly despite the weight of human catastrophe, its prehistoric face the face of all time, the face of God.

The writing is brilliant, an unusual composite of Breece D’J Pancake and early Clive Barker. Unfortunately God is in the details, and most of the details in The Believer are of the horrorshow sort. This story manages to fit two gruesome plot twists, into a relatively short meditation on God, sin, and a vast and empty universe and future.

The final story is Beautiful Women a coming-of-age story, and perhaps a story of children revisiting the mistakes of their parents, told across a background of foreign soldiers. Beautiful Women seems, in some ways to be of a different piece than the other stories in Drifting House, and if these stories are chronologically arranged, may suggest a slightly different focus for Lee in the future.

As an unfortunate sidenote, the booksleeve reveals how impoverished the idea of Korean literature is as it compares Krys Lee to another Lee, Chang Rae, who couldn’t be a worse comparison. The comparison seems made solely on the basis of shared ethnicity, as if there were no other legitimate comparisons to be made.

One other cavil is that Lee occasionally throws in Romanized versions of Korean text, words that no English-language reader will be able to understand or look up, since the Hangeul is not present. This is a kind of in-between stance that doesn’t make sense to me.

A small cavil, anyway, in the case of this book, brilliantly realized and written, if only to be read in the absence of gas-lines, sharp objects, or rope.^^

Pick it up.