Review – Human Acts by Han Kang

Human Acts Han Kang

I have never understood the idea that structure could somehow supersede content in writing. The two can work in tandem (a la Pynchon) of course, but I just can’t get behind praising a work’s structure if it’s still otherwise weak. Han Kang’s Human Acts is far from a bad book, but it seems to me like something you can’t totally appreciate if you don’t appreciate structure above content.

Human Acts is an introspective take on the Gwangju Uprising, a South Korean student movement in 1980 in the city of Gwangju. During this revolt, city residents took up arms in response to South Korean troops firing at, brutalizing and killing Jeonnam University students demonstrating against the government. Kang’s novel is then historical fiction – as it describes the plights of many fictional but representative individuals involved in the uprising. At the center of the novel is Dong-ho, whose narrative takes place in the first chapter of the novel, which is itself told in a unique second-person POV. Dong-ho is killed, and the reverberations of the “human acts” of killing and being killed temper the minds of the rest of the novel’s POV characters. There is an editor struggling against censorship demands, Dong-ho’s friend, Dong-ho’s mother, a prisoner and a factory worker. Each character offers a different perspective, in a different storytelling style, painting a cruel and tragic picture of the Gwangju Uprising.

Truth be told I could only make it halfway through this novel, up to the end of the editor’s chapter. Now, as just described there’s demonstrably good content here. A worthwhile historical subject and an author who, as a South Korean woman, has a cultural as well as personal impetus behind writing about it. But as a reader I found it difficult to engage with. To get to the heart of it. The structure of the story isn’t even that experimental, but I often found myself distracted by the writing itself. It felt overly lyrical and verbose when it should have been crass and blunt. The images of burned corpses and dried sweat and misery and oppression really didn’t come through to me at all. Which took something away from the experience for me. Many readers describe the book as “unflinching” or “brutal” or other similar adjectives, but I couldn’t really get where they were coming from. The actual historical event upon which the book is based was certainly brutal, tragic, etc, and any sincerely committed historical account of it ought to be unflinching in its gruesome detail, but the novel itself? Maybe I’m desensitized (I thought large swaths of Blood Meridian were more tedious than horrific, to be fair), but I don’t think the novel itself communicated well the full horrible range of emotions that the uprising brought to light.

It felt like there was a dissonance between content and structure here that I think you could cast aside more easily if the way one writes is just as important to you as what one writes about. Which I feel like a lot of “literary” readers can do, but I can’t personally get a handle on. Historical fiction as a genre in general is fraught for me though, as I tend to read and then wonder why I shouldn’t read a nonfiction historical account instead. I had similar issues with, for instance, Mark Twain’s Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc.

But maybe that isn’t quite it either. Human Acts is not originally in English, so the problem could very well come from the translation. The second-person narration in the first chapter, for example, was hard to read for me. At first I thought this was just because it’s second-person, which is typically a little gawky. But I happened to have just finished reading Kiese Laymon’s How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America, which has a very compelling essay told in the second-person. Laymon’s work was told in his voice despite being second-person, and it really allowed you to get into his head. Something likely got lost in translation here, because I don’t think the same can be said of Dong-ho. Maybe it felt more personal in Korean, but here all I could sense was a literary author or translator trying to play with structure. Which just didn’t affect me the way it seems to affect many other readers.

 

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Growing up Lost in Translation

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My favorite movie since I was in my mid-teens has without question been Lost in Translation. Other movies have come and gone – the whimsical, melancholy, but ultimately juvenile Garden State, the gorgeous, existential, pretentious Wings of Desire, the hilarious, heartwarming, chauvinistic Sideways, to name a few – but my appreciation of Lost in Translation remains pretty much as it was since I first watched it.

If I remember correctly, I watched Lost in Translation for the first time in a hotel room with my dad and my brother. We were on a roadtrip. (To where I forget, maybe Colorado?) My dad, being the way he is, brought along a DVD player so we didn’t have to buy movies from the hotel streaming service or depend on the unreliable offerings from cable TV. I think we may have purchased Lost in Translation in a Target bargain bin or something like that on the road. Maybe my dad brought it along with a few other options. In either case, he was the one who suggested we watch it.

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No sugarcoating Laura Jane Grace’s memoir

tranny

Today’s upsurge in fictional and nonfictional transgender narratives represents the demographic in myriad ways. Some works are intelligent, some thoughtless. Some good, some troubled. Through both the good and the bad, there is a remarkable tendency to simplify what it means to feel gender dysphoria. The syrupy, optimistic tale of a transboy’s coming out in Ellen Wittlinger’s novel Parrotfish, for example, simplifies (despite its good intentions) the messiness and mixed feelings of transitioning by co-opting the feel-good trappings of a high school romantic comedy. Even Janet Mock’s memoir Redefining Realness, with its unflinching portrayal of family dysfunction, childhood sexual violence and poverty, deals little with the inner machinations of dysphoria. Mock, unlike many of her peers, had the certainty and the drive to transition at a young age.

These stories are important to tell, but they are disingenuously treated as representative of a whole. In fairness the art of the trans narrative is still very much in its infancy, but more works emphasizing the how no transgender experience is the same as another are needed. Arguably many narratives lack a nuanced treatment of the messiness of being transgender. Laura Jane Grace’s Tranny is one attempt to muddy the waters, to disillusion readers from the very concept of a linear coming out story.

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Slogging through narrative history in The Tunnels

I have this spectrum in my head for rating narrative histories. On one end is Erik Larson’s Devil in the White City, which a lot of people like but I find unreadable. This side of narrative history is saturated in flowery detail that drowns out the facts because it’s trying too hard to be like fiction. The focus is too narrow, it feels like I’m learning more about what Larson thought HH Holmes or Daniel Burnham might have been thinking on a particular day than understanding Chicago history. I don’t get an appreciation of the holistic reality of what Larson is trying to record. I just feel like he’s trying to turn history into a novel, which strikes me as disingenuous.

On the other side there is The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson, which uses individual stories as representative of larger historical currents. It traces the migration of black Americans from southern states to the north, and uses 3 oral history accounts to narrativize the plight of these black Americans. It appeals to the reader’s pathos in a fiction-like manner, yes, but it maintains its purpose as history by not treating these individual stories in a vacuum. Wilkerson puts them into historical context, takes time to describe the cultural and social climate for these individuals and others like them. She explains Jim Crow, the civil rights movement, the reasons why so many left the south and what many found when they found lives in northern cities. For every piece of micro-history, in other words, Wilkerson complements it with macro-history.

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Sumiko Saulson’s Black Women in Horror Writing #19: Zane

dark-dreams

“Resident Evil” by Zane, from Dark Dreams: A Collection of Horror and Suspense by Black Writers

Review by Bryan Cebulski (@BryanOnion)

Bearing no resemblance to any Japanese survival-horror videogame franchise, “Resident Evil” is the opening story of the collection Dark Dreams: A Collection of Horror and Suspense by Black Writers, edited by Brandon Massey. It’s an odd choice for the first story. Understandable though that they gave Zane opening privileges, since Zane might be the most well-known of the authors featured in the book.

Oddly enough I’m not really Zane’s target demographic, but I’m still familiar with her enough to know that she is predominantly an author of erotica. And, well, it shows in this story. “Resident Evil” is about a woman who has just moved into a new apartment building and discovers that it actually houses a centuries-old vamp-man who lures attractive women into renting there, at which point he turns them into vampires and creates his own kinky undead harem.

It’s an interesting setup for a narrative, but that’s all it ends up being—a setup. Relationships are established, conflicts brought to light, the whole situation of the apartment complex basically laid out—and then it ends. There’s a sexual encounter there in the middle, but not much else. Conceptually it’s disturbing, but Zane doesn’t do anything else with the disturbing implications beyond giving the story a sort of wry dark comedy edge. As one Goodreads reviewer put it, “This story was very immature, like every teen boy’s fantasy. It wasn’t horror – it was a comedy about a grown ass 500 year old MAN who still needs his MOMMA.”

Now, interestingly enough I think the story could have gone in a direction that subverted that “teen boy’s fantasy” of the vampire harem. The women in Zane’s story almost entirely make clear their dissatisfaction with their lot in, uh, after-life. The mother character especially could have gone somewhere, perhaps organizing a pained but necessary assassination of her son. But nobody ends up doing much of anything once the reader gets what the situation is. The characters develop—promisingly too, I might add—but don’t lead anywhere. There’s no moral, which isn’t necessary I guess, but more to the point there’s no arc. It’s not a story, it’s a premise.

Previous: Mixtape for the Apocalypse by Jemiah Jefferson | Next: TBA

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“admit it for eternity”

I’ve been browsing my old writing folders to get some inspiration and have found a few things that feel like they’re worth posting. The following is a poem(?) I wrote a few years ago as a result of listening to Say Anything too much and not handling not being in a relationship very well and getting fed up with the groupthink that many folks at my small liberal arts university developed.

Enjoy, I think…?

“admit it for eternity”

listen
everything is complicated and most things are beautiful
and i am neither david foster wallace nor joyce carol oates
keep these things close in mind
as i get mean, hypocritical, hyberbolic, and overly verbose

diatribe #1:
i will not endure your dry-ass pseudo-intellectual musings
about how everything is essentially dust
and about how we are nothing more than sacks of flesh
do not atomize me, lobotomize me, or tear me into theoretical shreds
i am not a participant in your bullshit ayn randian utopia
established as an excuse to avoid saying please and thank you
i do not abide by your dull, cold attachment to reason
it’s boring, it’s disgusting, you barely pass for a human being
and i don’t approve of your neurotic fucking maximalist writing style
you don’t need five hundred words to say what could be said in five
there is a finite amount of books that can be read in a lifetime
and i’m just not confident that infinite jest should be one of them
you are not as smart, busy, or important as you think you are
stop feigning superiority over people you don’t even take the time to get to know
i will not buy into this post-modern bullcrap
nothing is unknowable, history is not subjective and lost
tyler durden is the invention of a writer who tries too hard to upset people
i am in fact an individual unique goddamn snowflake
do not romanticize yourself as a misunderstood egomaniac
only use the word “byron-esque” when you’re being facetious
settle down and read some toni morrison with me, for chrissake

hear me out, okay?
try harder, do better, be nice, improve thyself
everything is complicated and most things are beautiful
and i’m too tired to be this angry

diatribe #2:
notice how none of you people ever talk about how much you like anything
how your alleged superiority over guys with clinical depression who are dicks sometimes
rests in a haze of petty scorn, unhealthy obsessions, and self-loathing
resist the urge to fetishize the things you hate by talking about them way too much
don’t dismiss someone’s emotional turmoil based upon a shallow passing judgment
nor will i wallow in put-upon cynicism and defeatist attitudes toward the patriarchy
stop recommending john green
he is a festering boil on the already-shitty face of white american culture
perpetuating bullshit teenage us-against-them mindsets and mediocre turns of phrase
i am not part of your depressing web of human longing and woe-is-me short prose pieces
knowing what the bechdel test is does not equate to being educated on gender theory
your passive aggressive self-righteousness is an egregious facade misusing legitimate social issues as a means by which to spend every moment of your life whining about how awful you think other people are
you’ve never stopped to constructively judge yourself or walk a mile in somebody else’s shoes
settle down and read some toni morrison with me, for chrissake

once again, alright?
try harder, do better, be nice, improve thyself
everything is complicated and most things are beautiful
and i’m way too tired to be this angry

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Cinemasculinity #6: Luke Cage – Shownotes

luke-cage

Script: Here.

Sources:

Unmasc’d:

  • Remedy for toxic black masculinity
  • Socially conscious superhero
  • Black masculinity as reformation story
  • Over-symbolic blackness

Further Reading:

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All sound clips are from Luke Cage. I do not claim ownership to these clips and use them for fair use purposes only.

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