Review: The Vegetarian

Despite (or maybe because of) the incredibly mixed reviews I’ve seen for Han Kang’s The Vegetarian, I decided to finally pick it up. It’s won (and been nominated for) several literary awards/prizes, so I thought at the very least, it would be educational– and choosing books that I can learn from is my biggest reading goal of 2018. Besides, it’s less than 200 pages long. Why wait, right?

About the book: Yeong-hye is a perfectly ordinary South Korean wife– until she decides to become a vegetarian. A strange dream leads her to purge meat from her life, a choice that ripples through her family in strange and varied ways. Yeong-hye’s husband and father see her choice as a disobedience and embarrassment; her sister considers it an illness, her brother-in-law thinks it oddly erotic, and other acquaintances find her new habits and their consequences disturbing, disgusting, or concerning. Yeong-hye continues to make whatever choices strike her as most natural– avoiding sex, baring her skin to the sun, allowing an artist to paint flowers all over her body– as her life begins to fall apart around her.

What I didn’t know when I started reading (and wish I did) is that this book is divided into three very different parts. Each section revolves around Yeong-hye’s vegetarianism, but all three feature a different perspective (though all through the same third person narration) and contain their own strong themes. The difference is so great between the three chapters that I felt almost that I was reading three separate pieces in a collection rather than one cohesive work. In the end, the fact that I couldn’t find enough to tie them together was my greatest disappointment with this otherwise extraordinary book.

The first part examines Yeong-hye’s decision to become vegetarian through the eyes of her husband. Though Mr. Cheong is perhaps the least likable character in the entire story, this was my favorite section. Kang’s portrayal of Mr. Cheong reads as a powerful challenge to his position of male dominance over his wife. Mr. Cheong expects his wife to put her own desires behind the duties expected of a wife– ironing her husband’s clothes, cooking his meals, impressing his colleagues at work dinners. When she refuses to tolerate meat to make his life easier, Mr. Cheong is angry, confused, and just as intolerant as he claims she is. Though many of his thoughts about his vegetarian wife are infuriating and even despicable, they are also laughable because Kang so masterfully displays his hypocrisy.

“How on earth could she be so self-centered? I stared at her lowered eyes, her expression of cool self-possession. The very idea that there should be this other side to her, one where she selfishly did as she pleased, was astonishing. Who would have thought she could be so unreasonable?”

The first section also includes snippets of Yeong-hye’s surreal dreams, which were a highlight for me.

The second section was my least favorite; it follows Yeong-hye’s (unnamed) brother-in-law as he works on a new art project with Yeong-hye behind his wife’s back. This “art project” is highly sexual in nature and was inspired by a comment from Yeong-hye’s sister about the Mongolian mark that never faded from Yeong-hye’s buttock, a mark that inspires an unprecedented lust in him. The between-the-lines commentary in this section revolves around the blurred line between disgust for and attraction to Yeong-hye’s vegetarianism. Though I appreciated the nuance in perception of Yeong-hye, I disliked this section because it did very little to further the plot. The long pages about the brother-in-law’s lust were unsettling, though I think they succeeded in showing how even apparently positive reactions to Yeong-hye’s vegetarianism could in fact be manipulative and inappropriate. Overall, I felt that the points this chapter makes could have been made in fewer and less predictable pages, with less disturbing sexual fantasizing from the brother-in-law.

“It’s true, he thought. She really is ordinary. It’s me who’s the crazy one.”

The third section follows In-hye, Yeong-hye’s older sister, as she attempts to care for Yeong-hye after hospitalizing her. Though I loved In-hye’s character most of all, she also upturned a lot of my thoughts on the rest of the book. In-hye sees Yeong-hye’s choices as a sort of descent into mental illness, but as the section progresses In-hye also sees that descent as freeing, inspiring. What bothered me in this section is that In-hye’s eerie attraction to mental illness seems to separate from the vegetarianism: Yeong-hye’s choice to adopt a vegetarian lifestyle seems to be viewed only as a means to an end for In-hye, means that could be substituted by others. In this way, The Vegetarian seems to be neither advocating for or condoning vegetarianism (which I appreciate), but as it stepped back from the use of the vegetarian tool that so much of the book’s commentary relied on, I struggled to connect all of the themes into something cohesive.

Toward the end of the novel, as Yeong-hye’s mental state devolves and even In-hye’s sanity is called into question, the story moves toward a macabre conclusion. I love this kind of thing, where you can’t quite put your finger on what’s real and who you can trust, but it also pulled me away from the lessons I thought I had been learning in the rest of the book. It pulled back against what the previous sections had taught: keep an open mind about people who make different choices than you– but not too open, or you’ll both be lost. Ask questions about unfamiliar lifestyles rather than making assumptions– but the answers might not make any sense to you anyway. If you want to be in charge of your own life, you should also let others be in charge of theirs– but they might use their control in self-destructive ways.

Perhaps I missed something along the way. I found a lot of meaning in this book, but I was left wishing for some clue as to how to tie all of my impressions together. I wanted the three sections to interconnect more than I felt they ultimately did. How could anything have turned out better for the vegetarian? How did she want things to turn out? I’m afraid even Yeong-hye never understood what was happening to her.

“But she felt as though there were still an open would inside her body. Somehow, it seemed this wound had in fact grown bigger than her, that her whole body was being pulled into its pitch-black maw.”

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. This was a phenomenal reading experience that made me stop and think every step of the way. Though I was left with questions, I think they’re the result of my own inability to draw the proper conclusions rather than the book’s inability to offer them. I think an eventual reread will give me a richer sense of The Vegetarian‘s meaning, and I look forward to trying that someday. I took off a star only because the sexual advances of the second section were unpleasantly disturbing; though that may have been the intention, I just didn’t enjoy reading it that way.

What’s your favorite controversial book?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

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13 thoughts on “Review: The Vegetarian”

  1. YAY I was very excited to see that you’d read this, and I loved reading your thoughts, as always! I adore this book but it’s not without its flaws, and I think you illustrated them nicely. The lack of cohesion between the three sections is definitely jarring; I’m not sure why it didn’t bother me more, but I think I’d seen it described as a series of three novellas before I read it? I also found the middle section deeply unpleasant to read, but I thought Kang’s depiction of the male gaze was in relation to Yeong-hye was incredibly well done, and I thought that section was a good commentary on female sexuality and a woman’s role in society. Or, maybe ‘commentary’ isn’t the right word because I think one of the most intriguing things about The Vegetarian is how it isn’t ‘about’ any one thing, Kang doesn’t tell you exactly what to think about the themes she’s ruminating on and I find that fun to engage with. So on the one hand I definitely appreciate the desire for more overall cohesion, but I also kind of liked how each section made me mull over something completely different in relation to this one character’s circumstances?

    Also, this is completely unrelated to anything you talked about but this article is so fascinating and worth a read, if you haven’t seen it already: https://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2018/jan/15/lost-in-mistranslation-english-take-on-korean-novel-has-critics-up-in-arms

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It was a great read! I wish I had seen it described as three novellas- that might have given me a better sense of what to expect.

      But like you said, that’s one of the things I found most appealing about this book, as well: that it can cover so much ground in such an untraditional way, without taking any particular stance. (Or taking several different stances, depending on how you look at it.) I also agree with you about the merits of the second section- I appreciated the same things: the portrayal of the male gaze, Yeong-hye’s desire for freedoms that are withheld by society or taken from her by the brother-in-law. I think it’s designed to cause the reader some discomfort, which I appreciate on a tactical level, even if it was harder to read as a result of that success. That’s such a rich juxtaposition to consider.

      On cohesion: usually I favor ambiguity and room to bring my own opinions to the text, and this definitely isn’t a book I would like to see wrapped up in a neat bow. One thing that might’ve satisfied me a little more as far as connectivity would’ve been seeing Yeong-hye’s perspective at the end, however briefly. Or glimpsing another of her dreams, after the years and changes that have come between her first dream and her physical/mental state at the end of the book. Even glimpsing one of the dreams In-hye mentions having. I just wanted it to come full circle, in some small way.

      And thanks for sharing the article! I did not know there was such a controversy surrounding the translation of this book. I actually took a class on literary translation in college, which hit on a lot of the same points Smith makes in her defense. It’s so interesting how words can be exchanged through language (on some basic level, at least) but that the artistry in a text has to be sort of remade to fit the second language- and in a work of fiction, the artistry is as important as its underlying messages. I would love to have a better grasp of other languages, because I think translations would be really interesting to study! Unfortunately, I’ve studied several languages, but none deeply enough for fluency.

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      1. I think seeing Yeong-hye’s perspective at the end would have been a fantastic way to bring it full circle and echo back to the dream sequences of the first section. And I totally know what you mean – there’s a way to do ambiguity that still feels like it gives some kind of resolution, and The Vegetarian very much does not do that. So I definitely agree with you in that I wanted more in a way when I finished, but I was also satisfied with how frustrating I found it, if that makes any sense?? It’s one of those books that I couldn’t stop thinking about for weeks in a way I really enjoyed. Also, I forget, have you read Human Acts? I actually liked it more than The Vegetarian, it is a very brutal read but more cohesive as a whole.

        I’m obsessed with language and translation so I love this kind of stuff! I’m with you on having studied a bunch of different languages but none to the point of fluency. I guess I was fluent in Italian once upon a time but it’s been years so my language skills have probably diminished laughably. But two of my favorite books ever (Les Miserables and the Iliad) are translated, and one of my favorite things is reading different translations of the same passages and reading commentary on which best captures the spirit of the original. I can read French but I can’t read a word of Greek, so I can personally weigh in on one of those but not the other, but I love how sometimes the ‘best’ translations aren’t the ones that translate word-for-word.

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      2. Yes, that makes sense. It’s fascinating to see what language can do- there are a ton of books with happy endings, with clear morals, with cohesion… so it is extremely pleasing on some level to see familiar structures broken and be left with something else at the end of this one. And the fact that it seems meant to frustrate and inspire conversation that it can’t answer in itself really saves it- frustration with a book that’s meant to satisfy is annoying, but with The Vegetarian it feels like the inevitable and intended state. And really, as much as I did want just a little something more, I do like that Yeong-hye, the titular subject of the entire story, is only shown through others’ perspectives. That’s a powerful statement in itself that fits the rest of the book. Kang (and Smith) is clearly an incredible writer with a strong command of form. I have not yet read Human Acts- I always intended to read The Vegetarian first from Kang, but I definitely want to see more of her work now.

        I would love to learn French, and Italian would be really interesting as well! Spanish is the language I’ve been closest to fluency with; I have a Spanish copy of One Hundred Years of Solitude that I want to read in the not-too-distant future to help keep me from losing what I do know- following which I also have an English copy that I want to compare to it. I also studied Old English and Latin in college; dead languages really fascinate me in particular. And I definitely agree- there’s so much more to language than the vocab; I think nuances can give a better idea of what something is at its core than mere repetitions ever could.

        Liked by 1 person

      3. That is such a well-articulated point about the difference in frustration with books that intend to satisfy and books that intend to frustrate.

        I’ve never studied Old English but Latin was my FAVORITE subject in high school and I frequently lament the fact that I didn’t go on to study it in college because I was so good at it but now I remember nothing and it feels like such a waste. Woe. My Spanish is so awful – I can read it pretty decently but I occasionally have to speak Spanish at work (we deal with a lot of customers in Latin America) and I have the stock phrases I can say like ‘[resident Spanish speaker] is out of the office at the moment’ but if my customers go off script I start to use Italian vocab and it is a disaster. Anyway Italian and French are very fun indeed, I really need to read something in both of those languages this year before I get even worse. For French maybe I’ll just settle on Harry Potter or something simple like that. One Hundred Years of Solitude in Spanish will probably be amazing! That’s one of those books I’d have so much more interest in if I could read it in the original language.

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      4. Spanish was the only second-language class my high school offered, and it was kind of a joke. I feel like I started learning extra languages too late for them to ever come very naturally to me, but I hope at some point I’ll have more time to focus on them and prove that theory wrong. There’s definitely an appeal to reading a text in its original form!

        I can relate to losing Latin pretty quickly, though. That was the third language for me, so it felt easier to pick up the grammar, but it took so little effort that it has not stuck with me very well. Anyway, good luck with your Italian and French reads! Harry Potter is never a bad choice. 🙂

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