x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Drifting House: Koreans search for a place to call home

Krys Lee's insightful collection of short stories focuses on Koreans struggling to cope with the breakdown of social, cultural and economic systems.

How do we measure a diaspora? Is it by the place a dispersed people make home? Is it a few streets comprising an ethnic enclave in a large city? Surely it’s a figurative space as much as a physical one. In Drifting House, Krys Lee’s debut work of fiction, everyone lives in a kind of diaspora, even if they are ostensibly at home. For Lee’s characters – Koreans, Korean-Americans and their children – exile is a state of mind as much as a political condition. They all wish to return to a place, an imaginary homeland or familial sanctuary, which can never be recovered.

The Korean War is omnipresent in these stories, if only as a source of elegy and lamentation. Everyone lost someone; many were separated from their families by the armistice line that, once laid down in 1953, divided the peninsula in two. For Lee’s men and women, that is a metaphysical line as well. It represents the disunion of their lives and the impossibility of putting them back together.

Only children in Drifting House seem to have much urgency or any sense of hope, though it is often drawn from the congenital optimism of youth. The title story – the only one set in North Korea – follows three children as they trudge through the country’s frozen wastes, hoping to make it to China, where they believe life will be better. Abandoned by their mother, the children are starving, and Lee treats them with a characteristic delicacy – it seems as if they could evaporate at the slightest touch.

The story, which takes place in the late 1990s, features some of her most remarkable descriptions, such as that of a “crippled sister” who is “the weight of a few books”. In the North Korean charnel house, people become objects and the subzero landscape becomes frighteningly allegorical: “The night was a black glove. The mountains an endless rubble of loose stones.” As if listening to a chorus, we are told, in a breathlessly unpunctuated sentence, “Once children had obeyed the mother who obeyed the father who obeyed the Dear Leader”. The narrator continues: “but the systems had fallen apart.”

Indeed, the breakdown of systems – social, cultural, economic – is the chronic malady in this book. In story after story, Lee puts forth a critique of the stringent, neoliberal, success-above-all culture for which South Korea has become known. Years of feckless or venal governance have only worsened the situation. Several stories take place in, or refer back to, Korea’s dark years of post-war autocratic rule, a time when disappearances were commonplace but little discussed.

In such a milieu, steady economic growth and the development of South Korea into a regional power are a meagre salve – particularly for the men. Dead-eyed and sombre, Lee’s male characters are “strangers in their lives”, which have been further upended by globalisation, economic crises, immigration and the dissolution of traditional family structures. These men medicate with drink and fall back on ominous axioms, like “Koreans need to be beat”, in the words of one businessman.

No story better encapsulates this condition than The Salaryman. It is about a life whittled down by shame and self-abnegation, by the inevitable failure of substituting success for self-esteem. Taking place after “the 1997 IMF crisis destroyed the job-for-life policy”, The Salaryman describes the vertiginous decline of Mr Seo, an office drone who loses his job. Unable to face his family, Seo simply does what thousands of other men like him did: he decides to live on the streets, trudging daily – until he can no longer bear it – to wait in line at a government jobs office.

Narrated in the second person, The Salaryman shows what happens when, in a place where professional achievement matters above all else, one is suddenly cast out. “That’s when you realise you are no longer needed,” Lee writes. This sense of need animates many of her male characters, even if they don’t realise it themselves, and once it can no longer be satisfied, when the job or family unravels, so too does the man himself.

After Lithuania, South Korea has the highest suicide rate in the world and suicide is the most common cause of death for South Koreans under 40 years of age. While Seo doesn’t choose suicide, his decision to live on the street can seem tantamount to it. Like one of his new street friends, a man who calls his family each week and pretends that he’s in the United States, Seo is shrouding himself in lies, replacing himself with a fantasy. Things will be better, he seems to believe, if only he doesn’t face the truth. In the context of the story, his choice seems not like a form of giving up, but rather an understandable outgrowth of a society lacking a discourse with which to confront failure.

The Salaryman is Lee at her best, and despite its riches-to-rags premise, it skirts one of her occasional pitfalls as a writer: a tendency towards melodrama. This is largely a side effect of Lee’s prose, which strives for a kind of measured, lapidary romanticism. When one encounters descriptions such as “the car [was] a reliquary of their failings” or “the neutral colours he wore that made him resemble an animal seeking camouflage”, it’s possible only to nod in admiration. Yet lines like “he hummed as if hope were enough to sustain him” or “she burrowed into his armpit and breathed in his accumulated disappointments that equalled her own” can quickly turn a sympathetic story into something tendentious and mawkish.

Lee sometimes has trouble resting on the strength of her premises and her penetrating dissections of Korean life. In one such story, Wuseong, a middle-aged professional, finds himself troubled by feelings he has for a carefree young man who travels around with a goose under his arm. (He happens to believe that the goose is his reincarnated mother.) Wuseong is angry and driven to violence by his confusing irruption of emotion, and we are told, quite directly, why: “Raised in a media and around conversations where such feelings did not officially exist, he could not fathom them.” The resulting story is a little too dichotomous: the stuffy, traditional Korean versus the pixie-like boy who might change his life.

The best stories in Drifting House – and several are wonderful, a few more quite good – achieve their power because they cast off this sense of an underlying argument. They do not replace description and action with overwrought sentiment.

In The Pastor’s Son, a young man tells the story of his father, who obeyed his dying wife’s wish by marrying her best friend, a shrewish woman who had never been married. The union is supposed to be based on friendship, honour, a shared love for the deceased (notably, we get a firm sense of Korean cultural mores without any histrionic excess); but the relationship proves disastrous from the start. The father bears some similarities to several of Lee’s father characters: he is quietly menacing, prone to spells of violence, proud and haunted by thoughts of his family “trapped north of the 38th parallel since 1953”. He drinks too much and asks his son gnomic questions like “Son ... where is my heaven?”. Once a gangster, he is now a pastor, accorded the attendant respect from his fellow men, who have little concern for the opinions of women, stuck as they are in “a thousand years of tradition”.

A man equally disturbed by memories of his far-gone family and his deceased wife, prone to violence, drink and portentous sayings – we’ve seen this recipe before, and its end result is something bitter and combustible. But Lee’s story is no less effective, and effecting, for being recognisable. The Pastor’s Son, like much of her collection, takes familiar elements of the refugee and immigrant experience and anoints it with the particularities of post-war Korean and Korean-American life. Her withering judgments about the privations of Korean society come through fluidly but without condescension. This fine young writer is more likely to break a reader’s heart when she doesn’t telegraph her intent.

Jacob Silverman is a contributing editor for the Virginia Quarterly Review. His work has appeared in The New York Times, Los Angeles Times and the New Republic.