The Wings by Yi Sang

The Portable Library of Korean Literature • Short Fiction • 1 • Jimoondang Publishing • Seoul

In a recently published essay in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Mark Edmunson pleads for a contingency that I hope someone can help us achieve:

If I could make one wish for the members of my profession, college and university professors of literature, I would wish that for one year, two, three, or five, we would give up readings. By a reading, I mean the application of an analytical vocabulary — Marx’s, Freud’s, Foucault’s, Derrida’s, or whoever’s — to describe and (usually) to judge a work of literary art. I wish that we’d declare a moratorium on readings. I wish that we’d give readings a rest.

God knows, after all, how many enjoyable novels and stories have been ruined, for readers, by the academic necessity to pin some kind of theoretical tail to the simple and innocent donkey of the story.

Hey academics, we know, theory is what you have. We don’t want to steal that from you. We wouldn’t steal piercings from teens, Ferraris from 40 year old men, or the Vagina Monologues from Berkeley.

However, if you do take that sabbatical from theory (perhaps have a coffee black instead of your soy-latte with nutmeg and coconut shavings, or have a fight in a bar) and come back? Or even if the tweed is too tight and you refuse to give up the bound paper-teat of your preferred theory?

I give you Yi Sang’s The Wings.

Yi is an author begging for a biography. He died at the romantically young age of 27 (as calculated in Korean years) and from remaining photos, seems to have been ruggedly handsome. His stories in this volume focus on unfortunate and doomed love. The booksleeve darkly hints that Yi had a “femme fatale” in his life, while other sources indicate that he might have had a drug habit (Michael Stephens, The Dramaturgy of Style: Voice in Short Fiction p. 197), an unfortunate attraction to financial insolvency, and a fatal case of consumption. Being Korean, he likely smoked as well. As is traditional for a certain kind of Korean writer of the era, he ran afoul of the Japanese authorities, who certainly hastened his death.

The Wings is his emblematic story, in this volume accompanied by Encounters and Departures and Deathly Child. As I noted in my top-of-the-set-burner, this work is rich with ore for theory miners. It can be read an allegorical complaint against colonial oppression, an existential/Dadaist/surrealist/suicidal withdrawal from the insanity of contemporary life or, more prosaically as the schizophrenic decline of a man who has lost his relationship with his wife. With its dual foci on sexuality and the totemic role of currency, it also lends itself to feminist or Marxist analytics. All this is packed into a relatively slight 33 pages.

The Wings begins nearly randomly, with short paragraphs and semi-nonsensical epigraphs (if that is possible) slowly coalescing into the narrative of a profoundly alienated man and his semi-schizophrenic life with his wife. The plot might have been a bit more opaque when the story was written – this is to say that the modern reader will quickly discern what the wife’s “job” is, but the narrator so convincingly describes his own alienated state that his continual ignorance and avoidance, interlarded with brutal comeuppances that bring him face to face with it, seem perfectly logical.

Near the outset, the narrator notes, “a mirror is a practical thing only when it reflects one’s face.” Yet this narrator can never come face to face with himself or reality. He lurks in the “dusky” corners of the world, despite his nyctalopia, which would suggest brighter environments. He is young, at 26, but seems immeasurably older, partly because Yi is a master at describing long torments in compact prose. The narrator lurches from darkness in his bedroom, to darkness in the outside world, only through the prism of his wife’s bedroom, and the guests she frequently entertains. The narrator is only able to navigate the outside world by virtue of money which his wife awards him in an alarmingly ritual and impersonal way (Here, a perceptive reader can imagine feminism and capitalist critique intersecting). The wife’s money is a necessity for the narrator, but he despises (and loves) it. Initially he won’t spend the money, once he even tosses it into the toilet that, at the time, probably didn’t mean a porcelain fixture. Obversely, without the money, he is helpless.

The other stories work as plot counterpoints to The Wings. Encounters and Departures could serve as partial prequel to The Wings as it tells the story of a husband and wife/prostitute and how they meet and marry (and partially repeat this cycle in classic Korean short-story cyclicality). Encounters and Departures is similar to The Wings in its symbolic uses. The narrators in both stories are presented as preternaturally old looking and hairy. Both narrators seem to exist in a sequestered perpetual time that does not intersect with the prosaic schedules of the remainder of humanity. Yi’s narrators are gaunt and insubstantial, existing in an uncomfortable state of liminality, somewhere closer to Hell than limbo, but in which they are their own Charon, endlessly ferrying themselves from nowhere to nowhere, with only a bleak darkness behind the stage.

The final story, Deathly Child, is brilliantly experimental. Another lost narrator is incapable of navigating day to day relationships, reporting them as absurdist travelogues between mutually incomprehensible natives of the same language, land, city, even the same relationships. The story is in titled fragments and (as the translation reveals it) may be on of the first Korean short stories to include English loan words.

The three stories in this collection are brilliant; painfully dark jewels from an author without much optimism about anything, but with a keen eye for absurdity.

Run out and purchase it online from Seoul Selection.

So, really, since it is online you don’t have to run at all! 😉