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?
The Literary Elephant