Novel and Notable: The Vegetarian by Han Kang
This month’s installment of Novel and Notable explores The Vegetarian by Han Kang. It’s a book whose essence is centered around liberation, violation, and the fine divide separating the sane from the insane.
The Vegetarian is a visceral read. The novel tells the story of Yeong-hye, a young woman who lives with her apathetic husband in South Korea. One night, Yeong-hye has a violent dream that disrupts the course of her life forever: she decides to become a vegetarian.
The book begins with the sentence; “Before my wife turned vegetarian, I thought of her as completely unremarkable in every way.” However, as the novel progresses, it becomes clear that its quiet start is as deceiving as Yeong-Hye’s pacificity. It turns out that Yeong-hye is far from ordinary.
Part writing style, part honesty of the words: The Vegetarian is a slim tour-de-force. The prose is sharp, at once grossly violent and understated. Its straightforward nature, coupled with the almost song-like syntax, makes the novel one of those rare breeds whose stylistic genius can stand proud next to the creative content. The writing is so beautiful that it often merits a read-aloud. Take this section, one of the rare glimpses into Yeong-Hye’s mind, as evidence:
“Dreams of my hands around someone’s throat, throttling them, grabbing the swinging ends of their long hair and hacking it all off, sticking my finger into their slippery eyeball. These drawn-out waking hours, a pigeon’s dull colors in the street and my resolve falters, my fingers flexing to kill. Next door’s cat, its bright tormenting eyes, my fingers that could squeeze that brightness out. My trembling legs, the cold sweat on my brow. I become a different person, a different person rises up inside me, devours me, those hours…”
Despite their darkness, these words are kept from being burdensome. Han Kang’s quirky descriptions of squeezing out eyes, flowers bursting from crotches, and butchered bodies are stunning not in spite of the brutality they invoke, but because she is able to so effortlessly capture their intersection with beauty. She creates this intricate dichotomy by juxtaposing the meaning of the words with their syntactic grace. It’s pure genius, and to call it anything less would be a disservice to the literary world. Recipient of the 2016 Man Booker International Prize, The Vegetarian is entirely deserving of the high accolade. Mark my words, this novel is indispensable to the modern cannon.
Told in three parts, each piece follows the demise of the life laid-out for Yeong-Hye. However, she never narrates her own story. As a gift, the author includes excerpts from her dreams. Italicized and interspersed sparingly throughout the novel, Han Kang gives readers a brief glimpse at the powerful voice that Yeong-Hye keeps within herself.
The story is told by her husband, brother-in-law, and sister respectively. Each section focuses on a specific period of time during Yeong-Hye’s quest to remain vegetarian in a world trying to control her decisions. The first section focuses on the ways in which she is controlled: by her husband, by her family, by herself. She rations food and throws away meat. Flesh makes her physically sick. Her body begins to refine itself to nothing but bone. She asks, “Why are my edges all sharpening - what am I going to gouge?” And that is the question that remains to be answered for the rest of the novel.
In the second section, Han Kang conducts a radiant exploration of human sexuality. Yeong-Hye is described by those around her as demure, as plain. But she is the center of her brother-in-law's sexual fantasy. He's an artist and he views Yeong-Hye as both a canvas and a masterpiece. It's a duality which Yeong-Hye accepts without much fuss, with her characteristic absence of words. The novel has been criticized by some feminists who feel the book celebrates the debasement of women. But to others, it really explores the multifaceted nature of femininity which literature is all too often eager to diminish. The book champions a woman's ability to be complex. To be quiet and fierce. To, as author Virginia Woolf once wrote, be rooted and flow.
After the climax of the novel, the end is about how to pick up pieces, how to live when we can’t. The third section centers around the idea of what it means to be sane. With a decaying body from malnourishment, Yeong-Hye asks her sister, “Why is it such a bad thing to die?” Han Kang never provides an answer, part of the novel’s magic.
We readers have our notions challenged at the flip of every page and, like Yeong-Hye, only we have the power to pick up the pieces. It’s probably too simple to say, too obvious, and bare; but I have never read a book like The Vegetarian. Remarkable is the word that comes to mind.
As college students, we're in a world of new-found liberation. We're at a cross-roads of discovering what it means to choose what we want for ourselves and what we allow ourselves in this world. After reading The Vegetarian, what became most apparent to me was my self-shelter. My inability to allow myself to make choices for the fear of having society question my sanity and for the fear of having to question my own. But like Han Kang shows through the brilliance of her prose, the only way to become fully human and to become fully ourselves, is to wholly surrender to what calls us.