By Katy Goodwin-Bates
I’ve read some strange books in the past year. Jeff Vandermeer’s Southern Reach trilogy continues to confuse me. Elizabeth McKenzie’s The Portable Veblen focuses on a woman who talks to squirrels. I am also reminded of Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane, which involved a worm working its way into the body of a boy and then monsters appearing. Or something. To this list of intensely peculiar books, I must add The Vegetarian by Han Kang: a book so strange I’m not even sure I know how to talk about it.
Yells and howls, threaded together layer upon layer, are enmeshed to form that lump. Because of meat. I ate too much meat. The lives of the animals I ate have all lodged there. Blood and flesh, all those butchered bodies are scattered in every nook and cranny, and though the physical remains were excreted, their lives still stick stubbornly to my insides.
In a move clearly intended to annoy fans of obscurely whimsical titles, The Vegetarian is about a vegetarian, Yeong-Hye, a seemingly normal woman who decides one day to forgo the pleasures of meat-eating. To me, this seems like a relatively minor decision in the greater scheme of things, but Yeong-Hye’s husband, from whose perspective we witness this decision, is outraged and so is Yeong-Hye’s father, who attempts to violently force-feed her early in the novel, a move which has serious and far-reaching consequences for the family. Divided into three very distinct parts, The Vegetarian goes on to show Yeong-Hye’s descent into mental illness and culminates in a section from the perspective of her sister, who is her only caregiver by that point.
The jacket blurb informs the reader that in South Korea, “pro-choice vegetarianism is unusual and societal mores are strictly obeyed,” but it still seems very odd that anyone would be quite so offended by their wife or daughter choosing to become vegetarian. Perhaps this is exacerbated by the choice of Yeong-Hye’s husband, a man with a lack of empathy that borders on sociopathic, as narrator; the inconvenience of his wife’s actions is what bothers him the most, with more caring attitudes only becoming apparent in the final section of the book. I naively assumed The Vegetarian would actually be about vegetarianism, but this proves to be something of a red herring, with Yeong-Hye’s dietary preferences signifying more dramatic issues of mental illness, and in this sense, I was rather baffled by the link Han Kang seems to be making between not eating meat and a propensity for self-harm.
It’s hard to emphasize enough just how different the three parts of The Vegetarian are; while the first is made quite irritating by the use of Yeong-Hye’s husband as narrator, the second is downright creepy thanks to her brother-in-law’s disturbing obsession with filming her in deeply exploitative ways. On the subject of exploitation, becoming a vegetarian apparently means Yeong-Hye has to be naked all the time, or at least to eschew the benefits of brassiere-wearing; at times, this is relevant to the plot, but, at others, she could just as easily be sporting supportive undergarments. The saving grace in amongst the disturbing voices of the patriarchy is In-hye, the long-suffering sister of Yeong-Hye, whose voice in the final section is remarkably touching. In-hye is the only truly believable character in the novel, and Kang’s depiction of her as subtly heroic is what has stayed with me since finishing The Vegetarian.
Even as a child, In-hye has possessed the innate strength of character necessary to make one’s own way in life. As a daughter, as an older sister, as a wife and a mother, as the owner of a shop, even as an underground passenger on the briefest of journeys, she had always done her best. Through the sheer inertia of a life lived in this way, she would have been able to conquer everything, even time.
Yeong-Hye’s voice is largely notable by its absence; her increasingly frenzied inner voice alternates with her husband’s early on, but disappears entirely in the subsequent two sections, which only serves to add to the sense of voyeurism developed in Mongolian Mark, the second part of the novel. Although Kang’s use of other characters’ perspectives is effective in conveying Yeong-Hye’s isolation and society’s lack of comprehension, it does create a sense of imbalance. Yeong-Hye is denied agency by her family, but also, seemingly, by the author.
The Vegetarian is certainly a very interesting novel, and I use “interesting” only partly in a euphemistic sense. The urge to employ bad puns about the meaty subject matter is almost overwhelming at this point, so I shall simply suggest that you read this book next time you’re in the mood for something slightly peculiar, with a message that isn’t entirely clear.
The Vegetarian is available now at GPL.