The short story has always been the highest form of modern literature in Korea, and Jung Mi-Kyung’s My Son’s Girlfriend (Part of the awesome LTI Korea / Dalkey Archive Press effort) is a powerful argument for it. My Son’s Girlfriend contains seven stories all of which hit, in various ways, at the alienation of modern life and the loss, distortion or impermanence of love, focusing on plots and themes that are specific to Korea, while at the same time have relevance to all modernized countries. While the characters and settings vary, as the band Led Zepplin once noted, “the song remains the same.” Jung explores the erosion of love in the modern world, and frequently in light of decisions made years prior, making the stories not just about current situations of the first person narrators, but also of choices they made which led them to the bleak lives they lead.
Among the first books published in the Dalkey Library of Korean Literature, My Son’s Girlfriend, Lonesome You by Park Wan-suh and A Most Ambiguous Sunday and Other Stories by Jung Young-moon are the three short story collections. My Son’s Girlfriend however can not only be read as seven short stories, but as a yŏnjak sosŏl (linked novel) or collection of separately published short stories which can stand alone or supplement each other. Traditionally, yŏnjak sosŏl was written by multiple authors but Jung takes on the role of sole author, as Cho Se-hui did in his The Dwarf, or Yang Kwi-ja in A Distant and Beautiful Place (also brilliant places to begin your reading of Korean fiction).
The narrators and settings vary, from artists, to traders, mothers, to girlfriends and beyond. The book begins with I Love You, a non-ironic title in which a young couple who are clearly in love pay a high price as they scheme to find success in Korean society, and work out a plot involving the rich boss of the male narrator, which, in its sick way, ‘works’. To say more would be to spoil the plot. But it ends on a poignant note that sets the tone for the remainder of the book.
Bison, similarly, includes a kind of love triangle, focused around Su-hye, a sculptor whose husband has died shortly after she declared her desire for divorce. Her new gallery piece, named “Bison” is meant to show the layers, or as she says, strata, of ice, that embed us all, and when the third member of the love triangle, the narrator, meets Su-hye, like the Bison in her exhibition, they have to decide how to navigate their personal Ice-Age.
In The Wind takes the image of a flower, and through a loveless marriage and infertility, turns it into an image of death and sterility. Jung’s merciless irony and use of symbols is clearest in this story, as it is infertility, death, and sterility itself that is keeping a loveless marriage together.
The book’s eponymous story, My Son’s Girlfriend, deftly explores class divisions overpowering emotions as strong as love. The story is narrated by a mother watching her son, deeply in love with a poor woman, slowly follow a path that causes her to think back to a similar decision she had made in her own youth, and the price she has paid for it. The irony is thick and the relationships thin.
Cicada, the story of a man battling tinnitus (and again, the nearly inevitable love triangle), is worth reading if only for it’s accurate representation of the incredible volume at which Seoul lives. Anyone who has lived in a region with cicadas, will recognize the symbol as apt. Jung is skilled at putting her arguments into symbolic form. This story contains a line emblematic of the problem at the heart of all of Jung’s work, when the narrator says, “[another patient] seems to think that the sound I can’t stand comes from the outside on not from within me.” (140)
In Signal Red a relationship and a life have ended, and the survivor must put together what it all meant and, in fact, if there were any meaning to the relationship at all. The work also contains an interesting meditation on the relationship between looks and success, particularly vis a vis men and women, and in some ways echoes points made in Dalkey’s publication of Pavane for a Dead Princess, by Park Min-gyu, which is among this year’s publications.
Jung ends the collection with a summarizing story Night, Be Divided which, after 6 stories and 182 pages of description of the end of love, ennui of love, theft of love, and false love, tells the tale of a filmmaker going overseas to reunite with an old friend, a doctor working on creating a drug that will ‘make’ people fall in love. The filmmaker reads this as the creation of a ‘cure’ and asks the doctor if he considers love a “disease,” to which the doctor essentially argues that diseases can be created, and that when his drug works, “the extinction of passion will become a disease.” (191)
This is Jung’s final irony: Don’t worry, the symptoms all the previous stories have focused on, caused my modernity, will shortly be known as a disease and modernity will cure it. Modern society, having throttled love, will now to cure it through technological means. One can only be skeptical. Given all that has gone before, this is a thought appropriate to the Ice-Age through which Jung’s Bison trudge, and one that brings the collection together brilliantly.
Jung’s dispassionate narrators, ironic stance, and often subtle (if dark) humor, mixed with the uniform theme of the modern world stripping emotion out of relationships, make My Son’s Girlfriend an essential addition to the library of any fan of modern Korean fiction, in fact an essential addition to the library of anyone who loves modern fiction at all.
Luckily for the reader who would like a taste of Jung’s fiction before purchasing, LTI Korea has an excerpt from the title story, “My Son’s Girlfriend” available online, here: http://www.list.or.kr/node/1036.