Author Topic: Book pairing: The Vegetarian - Han Kang/Convenience Store Woman - Sayaka Murata  (Read 698 times)

Pingers

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An unlikely pairing I'll grant you, but I think that's what makes it interesting. Both books deal with the level of social control directed at women in East / South East Asia (South Korea / Japan) but in radically different ways.

The main character in The Vegetarian one day takes the decision to stop eating meat, a decision viewed by her horrified husband and family as an intolerable combination of madness and defiant refusal, and they immediately set about taking increasingly desperate and disturbing measures to re-establish control over Yeong-hye's diet and her life. Kang skillfully explores ideas of consent, control and autonomy in a bleak but really good novel set in one of the world's most misogynistic societies.

Convenience Store Woman is on the face of it at least much shallower, but I think has more depth to it than is obvious. Keiko is a woman in her 30s who, like the author, has spent 18 years working part-time in a convenience store to the bafflement and horror of her family and those around her. Not only does Keiko lack career ambitions, a boyfriend or husband or children, she appears not to want them at all. Everyone makes it their business to 'fix' her, efforts in which Keiko willingly acquiesces in her desire to be 'normal'. What I really like about it is that having moulded Keiko more to the person they want her to be, those around her are disappointed with the results - not least her new boyfriend - and take her to task over it. It's as though Murata has used total obedience as a form of malicious compliance, relentlessly asking "who do you want me to be now?" as a way of demonstrating the ultimate futility of trying to completely control another human being. Murata also touches on the evolution of relationships in Japan and the increasing rejection of marriage and sex, particularly by those (women) who get very little out of them.

Has anyone else read both?

I have read both. Unfortunately I don't have anything so eloquent to say about them!

The Vegetarian left me with a sense that I was lacking the cultural context to fully appreciate what it was going for - more so than with the handful of South Korean films I've seen, so I suppose it's always possible that it's just a very odd book.

Convenience Store Woman was more accessible as a sort of comedy of manners. It was a shame it was so short (I read it over the course of a train journey) as it seemed to be developing some interesting ideas before it ended rather suddenly. Her living arrangement with the NEET character seemed like it could have been mined for some further material - it was a bit like watching a TV show that gets abruptly cancelled and they have to wrap up the planned story arc in the last couple of episodes.

I see the thematic link in terms of defying societal expectations - however, one protagonist becomes incapable of functioning in society at all. Keiko on the other hand seems coded as on the autism spectrum, and content enough in her own little niche. (Perhaps raising questions about where to draw the line beyond which we start pathologising people's personalities.)

I have read both. Unfortunately I don't have anything so eloquent to say about them!

The Vegetarian left me with a sense that I was lacking the cultural context to fully appreciate what it was going for - more so than with the handful of South Korean films I've seen, so I suppose it's always possible that it's just a very odd book.

Yes, me too, specifically what to make of Yeong-hye's family's crazy over-reaction to her vegetarianism. Is it supposed to be a fair depiction of what might commonly happen in that situation in Korea? Or a stylised David Lynch-y nightmare scene, where their reaction is supposed to be jarringly unrealistic? Or an exaggeration made in earnest by a overly didactic pro-vegetarianism writer?


bgmnts

  • Depressed to the point of poisonous toxicity.
I've eaten in Korean restaurants in NYC and they were by far the least vegetarian friendly dining experiences I've had.

Jerzy Bondov

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Yes, me too, specifically what to make of Yeong-hye's family's crazy over-reaction to her vegetarianism. Is it supposed to be a fair depiction of what might commonly happen in that situation in Korea? Or a stylised David Lynch-y nightmare scene, where their reaction is supposed to be jarringly unrealistic? Or an exaggeration made in earnest by a overly didactic pro-vegetarianism writer?
I found it very funny as a sort of deliberately over the top reaction, a sort of worst case scenario. I was chuckling away at it quite happily. But as the book went on I realised it probably wasn't meant to be funny.

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