Here we are, then: my top 5 reading memories from the last decade. I knew how this countdown would end before I started compiling the list. The reading experiences I’m talking about here… more than anything, this is why I read.Continue reading
You may have heard about the controversy around Lionel Shriver’s recent keynote speech at Brisbane Writers Festival. The flaws in Shriver’s argument have been outlined elsewhere (here, for example); but I was struck by how clearly some of her underlying assumptions illustrate a particular approach to fiction.
“Who dares to get inside the very heads of strangers, who has the chutzpah to project thoughts and feelings into the minds of others, who steals their very souls?” asks Shriver. “The fiction writer, that’s who.” At first glance, this might just seem to be common sense, but it assumes a particular relationship between the writer and her material: not just one of taking, but also one of assuming control over what is taken.
This can lead to situations such as one from Shriver’s latest novel, The Mandibles, which she describes later in the speech:
In The Mandibles, I have one secondary character, Luella, who’s black. She’s married to a more central character, Douglas, the Mandible family’s 97-year-old patriarch. I reasoned that Douglas, a liberal New Yorker, would credibly have left his wife for a beautiful, stately African American because arm candy of color would reflect well on him in his circle, and keep his progressive kids’ objections to a minimum. But in the end the joke is on Douglas, because Luella suffers from early onset dementia, while his ex-wife, staunchly of sound mind, ends up running a charity for dementia research. As the novel reaches its climax and the family is reduced to the street, they’re obliged to put the addled, disoriented Luella on a leash, to keep her from wandering off.
From Shriver’s account, Luella exists within the novel solely for the purpose of teaching Douglas a lesson, and being part of a neat little artistic counterpoint; and never mind that she ends up humiliated and presented as bestial. At one point in her speech, Shriver takes issue with the idea that there may be a difference between ‘representing’ and ‘exploiting’ characters. I would suggest that one definition of exploiting a character might be this: manipulating a life purely for fictional ends, with no concern for the implications.
So, what alternatives are there? One good recent example of a different approach, I think, is Han Kang’s novel Human Acts. This concerns the Gwangju Uprising, which took place in Han’s home town when she was a child; but, even so, the book does not treat the experience of the event as ‘belonging’ to the author. Indeed, the epilogue (written from Han’s viewpoint) brings the question of how to write about the uprising into the work itself. It suggests that Han could only apprehend these events from a distance and in fragments; and this is also how readers experience the novel. Han allows her material to be what guides her way of writing.
Human Acts is stronger as a work of art because it confronts the problems inherent in its own making. It illustrates something that I often feel about fiction: in the best work, there is a sense that the author has spent time considering what it is that she’s doing in writing that work.
When you shake off the hundred-plus books of a year’s reading and find that the one clings the longest is the one you read first, chances are that it’s a special book. Han Kang’s The Vegetarian was exactly that, so you can imagine how much I was looking forward to reading Human Acts, her latest book to appear in English (like its predecessor, translated superbly from the Korean by Deborah Smith). The new novel is just as powerful (If not more) as I could have hoped; but it also makes for an interesting thematic comparison with the earlier one.
The Vegetarian explored themes of personal control, the body, the larger ramifications of individual actions – but within the context of a scenario that was clearly exaggerated and artificial. Human Acts has a similar approach, but it revolves around a real event: the Gwangju Uprising of 1980, in which students and factory workers demonstrated against the ruling dictatorship, and were brutally suppressed. The fact of that reality – how to deal with it, how to write it – is the black hole that sits at the heart of this novel.
Each chapter is written from the viewpoint of a different character, but the main link between them is the subject of the first: Dong-ho, a boy who goes to the gymnasium being used as a makeshift morgue in order to find the body of his friend, and ends up becoming one of the volunteers handling all the corpses. One thing that particularly struck me on reading Human Acts was that the smallest things were often the most powerful – such as this from the opening chapter:
A thin scream rang out several times from the top of the road, and three soldiers carrying guns and clubs raced down over the hilltop, surrounding the young couple. They looked to have been pursuing someone, and to have turned down this alley by mistake.
‘What’s the matter? We’re just on our way to church . . .’
Before the man in the suit had finished speaking, you saw a person’s arm – what? Something you wouldn’t have thought it capable of. Too much to process – what you saw happen to that hand, that back, that leg. A human being. (p. 26)
That first chapter has no shortage of specific detail of violence and the gruesome drudgery of dealing with so many bodies and coffins; but what most hit home was this moment of incomprehension, in which people can only be seen as abstract body parts. I’m grateful to Melissa Harrison for helping me clarify my thoughts on this, when she suggested on Twitter that Human Acts embodies the way one’s brain tries and fails to grasp what is happening. I think she’s right: the horror is right there in front of us, but so vast that it almost becomes background noise – and so it is the smaller moments that leap out, such as an involuntary somersault, or the seven slaps to the face which one character spends her chapter trying to forget.
So much in Human Acts comes back to bodies, not just as repositories of sensation, but also as markers of identity. In one chapter, the spirit of Dong-ho’s friend hovers around his old body as it festers among others in a pile. “Without bodies, how would we know each other?” he asks. “Would I still recognise my sister as a shadow?” (p. 55). Elsewhere, the body becomes a battleground: one chapter describes the torture of a prisoner, who realises that the brutal treatment being meted out to him and his fellow captives is meant to make them believe they are “nothing but filthy stinking bodies” (p. 126). A few pages earlier, however, he describes what it was like to be in the uprising, among the crowd facing the soldiers:
I felt the blood of a hundred thousand hearts surging together into one enormous artery, fresh and clean . . . the sublime enormity of a single heart, pulsing blood through that vessel and into my own. I dared to feel a part of it. (p. 121)
A body could be lowest thing of all, but also something greater; it all depends on perception. The struggle for that perception – that meaning – is, it seems to be, underneath all that happens in the novel.
At the end of the book, Han tells of how she came to write Human Acts; by framing this as an epilogue, she brings the problem of writing about the Gwangju Uprising into the fiction itself. We can see echoes in the novel of Han’s experiences as narrated in the epilogue: for example, she was a young child in Gwangju at the time of the uprising, and her first encounters with the event are overheard snippets of adult conversation; likewise, the reader’s view is largely ground-level and piecemeal. But the question remains for Han: how can this event be treated most appropriately in fiction? Rather than zooming out and trying to encompass the uprising in a novel, she focuses in on its component parts – the individual human acts that make up even the largest swathes of history.
Now read on…
Book details (Foyles affiliate link)
Human Acts (2014) by Han Kang, tr. Deborah Smith (2016), Portobello Books paperback