As its title suggests Han Kang’s The Vegetarian is a meditation on appetites – ones that society can’t fill and the implications of not “swallowing” what society offers. The tale is of a woman’s descent into madness, or at least complete withdrawal from society as symbolized in her reluctance to wear bras and conversion to vegetarianism and ultimately breatharianism. The story is told in three sections, by three narrators of different degrees of uncertainty, and the ‘heroine’ can only be directly heard from through a diminishing group of letters to her sister.
The book begins with the subject of the novel, Yeong-hye, being described by her doltish and self-absorbed husband, ““Before my wife turned vegetarian, I had always thought of her as unremarkable in every way.” And she is initially nothing more than a semi-cipher of a mother, wife, sister, and citizen.
Her life becomes so disconnected and alienated, however, that she seeks an escape, choosing vegetarianism, and this upsets everybody’s applecart. To be fair, this is a fairly remarkable and difficult choice in traditional modern Korean society in which most food is prepared in some way involving, at least, meat byproducts. This apparently small decision removes the grease from the wheels of society, and everything quickly careens towards disaster.
Society is presented as a kind of rapist, through art, food, and even medicine. Each character is possessed by their own kind of madness; breatharianism for Yeong-hye, stupid conformism for her dullard husband, artistic and sexual obsession for her brother-in-law, and dull acceptance for her sister. No approach is helpful for any character, with the possible exception of the husband who muddles along in mainstream society – he is a simple character, reminiscent of Yi Mun-yol’s “Dunghead” Hong from Pilon’s Pig – almost too simple to have such a complicated thing as a worry. For Yeong-hye, however, the story ends either in tragedy or Pyrrhic triumph depending on how sympathetic one is to her retreat.
In many ways this story reminded me of The Yellow Wallpaper, by Charlotte Perkins Gilman – it focuses on an alienated woman who is both retreating from society and imprisoned by it, and her resultant decline into madness, including a marriage, other family members, and an alarming focus on alarming graphics (body paint versus wallpaper).
At last, when everything crashes down, The Vegetarian is aptly summed up by Yeong-hye’s sister’s bleak words to her son, that all they have left is themselves. Sadly, that is clearly not enough.
On an only semi-related note, both English language covers of this book are exquisite, and should be considered the gold-standard of achievement for other publishers, who have historically stinted on cover art in Korean translation. Finally, in a bit of interesting minutia, Kang revealed in an interview at the Seoul ABC book club (November 7th, 20115) that she wrote this work in longhand, because too much keyboarding had injured her wrist.