Young-Ha Kim's I Have the Right to Destroy Myself

Published in South Korea in 1996. Translated by Chi-Young Kim and published in the US by Harcout in 2007.

This is a shallow novel. Maybe novella is a better term, since the work in its entirety takes up only about one-hundred and twenty pages. It is shallow, obsessed with surface sentiments, visually occupied, and rarely gets inside of its characters. This is its intention. This novel is an act of summary about human lives, as all novels are. It exposes a reduced view, in order to bring focus to certain aspects, and this act is self-identified within the novel itself:

Usually I read history books or travel guides at the library. A single city contains tens of thousands of lives and hundreds of years of history, as well as the evidence of their interweaving. In travel guides, all of this is compressed into several lines...

People who don't know how to summarize have no dignity. Neither do people who needlessly drag on their messy lives.

We have the Writer, how is the narrator of the novel in some scenes and writes a novel within a novel in others. He helps others to commit suicide, travels the world, and is fascinated by art.

We have the character C, who is an artist. Works with video as an artform. Despite it's motion, is often heavily edited and grants a non-living vision of whatever was capture on film. We have the character K, who is fascinated with dreams and with acceleration. Whose greatest wish in life is to pass it by at unheard of speeds. We have Judith, who professes "I never remember anything once its over." Who retalliates to C's question about her mother with "Guys who have a lot of questions have a lot to hide." While she is obviously just avoid topics she wants to avoid, she might also feel that those who probe too deep are avoiding their own personal depth.

And we end this with Mimi, who is a model and subject of art and another fascination of C. She becomes unsure where she ends as C's art and where she begins. Will she be copied over and over? Or is the art something else? She loses herself in her most shallow moment, a moment edited and wholly visual. She is unsure how to get her soul back after this, despite never losing it to begin with.

Whether or not you can say that it exposes the internal by focusing on the external is a debate worth having. It is easy to see the nameless writer, whose helping people to commit suicide leads him to write, showing up despite his own attempt to summarize, despite his own fascination with the surface shape. His own prejudices come through. Only the two main women have names, the men reduced to either their initials (C or K) or to their jobs (curator, plowsman). He chooses to look at their faces instead of the rest of their body, a written echo of his complaint about a movie: "Not once do we see the characters close up". He means visually, of course.

The Writer compares women to pieces of art, as does his primary character: C. They sum up these women to art they admire, often art with deep seated emotional trauma attached to its meaning. Klimt's Judith, which is regularly referenced, is of the Biblical scene after she seduces Holofernes and cuts off his head. Judith's beautiful nature is contrasted to the horror of beheading which is itself contrasted with the saving of her people by conquering of a conqueror. What best matches the flow of this novel than this painting, in which the taking of a man's face is a taking of his destiny, and where the surface beauty of her face is more prominent than the horror of what she holds in her left hand.

His menagerie of characters finds an unexpected highpoint in the part of K. K is unnecessary to the story overall, but aids the narrative in an indirect way. We find K as a contrast to the others. To make K work as a character, we have to think there is more to him. K actually has dreams and goals, however unreasonable, a sense of self outside of his immediate actions. At least he learns to find this sense. K contains a burgeoning sense of redmeption by the end. For a writer trying to capture only the summary of essence, our nameless narrator has either overstepped necessity with K, or has exposed his own needs.

When the character C later says that art may have come out of our fear of the blank wall, he is also addressing his own fear of the beautiful woman he feels attracted to but distanced from. He tries to sum Mimi up by capturing her in art in the same way he captured butterflies by pinning them. She feels herself stolen by him, because she assumes herself to only be the face that he sees, allowing herself to be sculpted by him in the same way that C is only a sculpted extension of the Writer. He never claims her in any true or meaningful way, only as a model, which seems more damning to her. "It would have been better if we had just slept together," she tells him, though sex in this novel is as shallow as any other act.

While much of the novel exposes ideas of humanity through the model of art, the novel has another strong fascination: the mouth coupled with the act of ingestion and expulsion, especially of things that are destructive, including words. A large amount of Young-ha Kim's (or the Writer's) description deals with foods, cigarettes, cigarette smoke, candy, water, drinks both alcoholic and non-, and haracters smoke, regularly. Drink heavily. Eat candy. At one point, C, in trying to identify why he feels drawn to the character of Judith, summarizes her as someone who chews candy. The act of chewing gum he detests, saying it requires no imagination. The mouth merely moves in cycles, coming back to where it sarted.

In the second chapter, Judith is fascinated with Chupa Chups lollipops. In the third chapter, a character says that she vomits when she is in love. This same character, interestingly, was a stripper who placed pieces of paper upon her and let men by them off of her. Another woman summed up by her similarities to art.

Except C is wrong in that walls are rarely blank. They are filled with cracks and history and a stonemason's prejudices or geographic erosion over time. They only seem blank because we refuse to look deeper at them. We ignore their characteristics for their function, and then paint new characteristics on them because we are afraid of our own blasphemies against their nature. We lose part of ourselves to the wall because we were unable to see it for what it was. Maybe our fear of the blank wall is a fear of seeing something so undeniably alien to anything we have ever done.

We see this realization in the second chapter, as C and Judith are trapped in a car together. In this enclosed space, where they cannot merely leave because of the snow outside, they are forced to confront one antoher. This also is when K gets a better look at his own brother, Judith being his girlfriend, stolen by C. And outside of the car, the snow continues to fall and the canvas is made more and more blank and C is forced to face it. Until Judith leaves, tired of the closeness, and disappears from his life, only to resurface in Mimi's superficial resemblance of her.

C was torn apart as a child when he lost his favorite butterfly collection. We later learn that he lost it because he loved it more than his brother. As he loses Judith and Mimi, he seems to feel almost nothing, never being able to pin them down and keep them to begin with. At his last moment in the novel, staring at a blue screen of a empty monitor, he faces the blank wall of his own life:

His apartment at that moment was a deep, dark cave, and the lonely blue monitor shining within was Mimi and at the same time also Judith.

He pressed the rewind button. He was parched.

Then, at the end, we see one last time into the wall of the Writer. His apartment is filled with fake flowers that he waters. He plans on doing away with them, bringing in a new arrangement. He keeps them because they are merely to look at, and this way they always bloom. He helps people to cut their life off, to not drag it on. He convinces them to summarize their own life, to not indulge in superfluity. He tries to make them into plastic flowers, always in bloom. But like his flowers, he seems to feel the need to water his clients, to help them to reach one last pinnacle of self-awareness. He leads them to understanding their life, to grasp it. And then he helps them exit it, in more control than they have ever been before. He is the one who flees the scene afterwards, scattered and driven to travel when they are serene in their home. "Nobody can save anyone," he says.

Life is messy, complex, destructive, unsimplifiable, and blatantly corrupted by our presence in it. We face ourselves, and the miasma around us, by "facing" it. We turn it into a face that we can see, and what soul we are forced to deal with only finds escape in the eyes, which we can choose to not look up. We can focus on the skin, the nose, the hair, or, as Young-ha Kim has chosen to do through his narrative doppleganger, the mouth.

And so the novel is somewhere between life and death, depth and shallowness, but is mostly about plastic flowers that you water anyhow because you need them to bloom and to fill in the blank walls that they are covering up. Those who die in novel live conflicted and painful lives, and those who live in the novel are worse off. "No matter how you die," C says, "The world will always stay the same." But this novel is not about changing the world, it is about changing the direction of your life. Suicide might not be a fulfilling answer, but I saw the novel as not talking about suicide. For me, it was about leaving behind whatever face others have been allowed to paint on you. It is about returning to our blank wall.

Written by W Doug Bolden

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