Books

Why So Serious?

Sang Young Park’s angrily funny work charts a new path for gay fiction

Spencer Lee-Lenfield
Illustration by Tung Chau. Photo by Bong-gon Kim

Queer fiction today tends toward the serious and bleak, telling stories of suffering either fatal or heroically redeemed. Even in countries where queer marriages are legally recognized, assimilation to the heterosexual comic marriage plot has (understandably) attracted little enthusiasm from writers, publishers, or readers. And in places where anything other than heterosexuality is threatened or suppressed, it is even easier to assume that all queer narratives must trace arcs of martyrdom, raging against social persecution in a doomed quest for a better world. As a result, most of the foreign-language queer fiction that reaches English through translation tells stories of great suffering punctuated by occasional flashes of passion. Rarely do these books sustain much humor.

So what might a comic alternative to the queer novel of tragic seriousness look like? It might look like the work of the Korean novelist Sang Young Park, who rejects with great élan the role of Agonized Gay Writer. His charismatic characters are partiers, quick wits. They’re tactically unscrupulous, sarcastic and judgy, often bored stiff by their unfulfilling jobs, in and out of love with men who are no good for them—latter-day Becky Sharps on the streets and in the clubs of Seoul. The narrator of one early story looks on, quipping madly, as his childhood friend stupidly sets his heart on a middle-aged German daddy. In another, two lovers who served in the same military unit decide to pilfer karaoke microphones out of spite. A third character contracts HIV, only to insouciantly nickname the virus inside him “Kylie Minogue.” These men are stymied by romance but uncowed by society. They see through everyone but themselves. They are hilarious.

If that sounds surprising, it’s because Korean fiction isn’t exactly known for its abundance of fun. (Park’s English translator, Anton Hur, says he used to joke, “The two great themes of Korean literature are: one, I had a miserable childhood, and two, I’m having a miserable adulthood.”) The books that have sold best in English translation tend toward melancholy, guilt, and anger (for instance, Please Look After Mom and The Vegetarian). And Korea’s film and TV successes in the U.S., like the Netflix series Squid Game or the films of Park Chan-wook and Bong-Joon Ho, have tended toward the gory, cynical, and high-concept.

Park’s fiction always has a pleasant scintillation of meanness around the edges.

In sharp contrast with that conventional route to success, Park debuted in 2016 with “In Search of Paris Hilton,” a short story about two narcissistic wannabe influencers that is markedly free of gravity and suffering. In the years since, he has become Korea’s best known queer writer domestically and abroad, flouting the notion that literary success overseas requires Nobel-contender stolidity. In 2018, he won multiple prizes for a short story collection, The Tears of an Unknown Artist, or Zaytun Pasta. (In contrast to American publishing, Korean publishing leans heavily on short fiction, and a book of stories is a near-mandatory first step for Korean writers before a novel.) Soon after, his columns for the left-leaning newspaper Hankyoreh turned into Tonight I’m Going to Bed Hungry, a book of wry, self-deprecating essays on body image, office life, and the inability to stick to a diet.

Park then published his first novel, Love in the Big City, in 2019, and saw it become not just a bestseller, but the country’s most successful work ever by a domestic queer writer. It’s now his first book to be published in English, in a translation by Hur with a voice every bit snarky and shrewd as the author’s.

Love in the Big City is structured as a chain of linked novellas tracking the emotional life of its protagonist, Young, as he makes his way through a series of defining relationships over the course of his twenties, in Seoul: Jaehee, his straight female best friend in college; his mother, who is battling uterine cancer and is still in denial about her son’s sexuality; and Gyu-ho, a boyfriend whose sweetness keeps thwarting Young’s cynicism. A casual reader might be tempted to call it a Bildungsroman—except Young progresses only from the befuddlement and frustration of his late teens to the qualitatively different but quantitatively equal befuddlement and frustration of his late twenties.

Young is never exactly happy, but he’s also too fed up with the world around him to feel haunted, even in the worst of circumstances. Recalling the time in high school when his evangelical mother put him in inpatient psychiatric treatment after she caught him kissing a boy, Young tells us how he turned the tables on her:

The fifteen days of examinations and consultations brought the psychiatrist in charge to one conclusion: that I exhibited trauma symptoms similar to those of someone who had gone to war. The cognitive therapist came to a similar conclusion. For sixteen years (my whole life), I had been subjugated to the force of my mother’s will, so I had repressed my psychological needs for all that time. The psychiatrist, after hearing everything that had gone on between me and my mother, concluded that it was my mother who needed urgent psychiatric attention, not me.

This narrator can be flippant, even arch, about traumas other writers would turn into the focus of a whole novel. With exquisite timing, he deploys the classic queer coping mechanism of deflective irony, which is often absent from more classically engagé fiction.

Park’s real stylistic achievement, though, consists of turning that cutting judginess, which might have easily descended into vapid cynicism, into a first-person voice that’s deeper than its extremely entertaining quips. Young recurrently confronts the strangeness of his own desires—how, in any situation, the mind can discern bad guys from good, wrong from right, and yet willfully choose the worst path. A handsome, lanky stranger walks into an after-hours philosophy class, takes the seat next to Young, and promptly grabs and drinks down Young’s iced Americano. Park’s description of Young’s gyrating thoughts is psychologically acute:

He clearly didn’t give a damn about my (no doubt) steaming gaze as he drank the whole thing down to the ice, which he then crunched between his teeth. For his introduction, he said he was “a creative” and left it at that. . . . I had an inauspicious foreboding that this man was seriously full of himself (a feeling that soon proved to be accurate).

After the class was over, the man came up to me and offered to buy me a coffee, to pay me back for the one he’d drunk earlier. The fact he had taken my coffee without permission gave me a bad feeling, not to mention his way of talking and the look in his eye—so I waved away his offer. He then said, very formally, that he wanted to repay me for the moral good I’d done. That we then proceeded to walk to a nearby Starbucks wasn’t because I couldn’t again refuse such a moral offer but because in fact he was actually totally my type.

The narrator grasps all the warning signs about the “creative” that the reader can see—the crunching ice, the angling for a date, the ventriloquized sanctimoniousness (“moral good”)—but the countervailing force of his attraction drags him helplessly in the opposite direction. The pivots from mimicry and slang (from “refuse such a moral offer” to “actually totally my type”) help make this a subtle portrait of weakness of will that’s as funny as it is melancholy.

It’s impossible to generalize meaningfully about attitudes in Korea toward queer people, partly because public opinion is in constant flux. Growing public visibility and increased warmth and acceptance conflict with ossified policy and (mostly conservative Christian) opprobrium. There are more and more queer characters on TV, in Web comics, and in books (André Aciman’s novel Call Me by Your Name was a bestseller around the same time as Love in the Big City). And you’re not going to be literally stoned for being gay. But you might be passed over for a promotion or shunned socially, especially when religion is involved; if you’re unlucky, you might get beaten up or assaulted. Sodomy prosecutions can still end military careers. Korean pop culture enshrines Date Night for heterosexuals, but I’ve never felt comfortable holding hands in public while out with a guy in Seoul. And I’ve never had a queer Korean friend who wasn’t frustrated with the government’s, and even the “progressive” party’s, hostility toward queer rights and refusal to legalize queer marriage. The recent election of a conservative president means this is unlikely to change anytime soon.

Korean fiction isn’t exactly known for its abundance of fun.

At the same time, almost all my queer Korean friends have been exasperated by American and European condescension about the issue, a condescension that often manifests itself as an assumption that to be queer in Korea is to live a life of suffering. Park’s work demolishes that assumption, constructing what the Korean critic Kim Geonhyeong calls “a new queer ontology.” It insists that a cutting sense of humor can grow out of the soil of pain, rather than being slathered decoratively on top of it.

This humor is different from the “queer joy” that American writers often try to articulate. Recent years of queer prestige writing have often operated from the implicit position that, in verse or prose, even moments of happiness or ecstasy must exhibit solemnity in order to attain the status of art. But Park’s characters aren’t joyful—they’re funny, and, in some sense, amused, even if their humor comes from a place of deep resentment, a feeling that other people are out of their minds in a world where they are powerless to do anything about it. The main character of the novella The Tears of an Unknown Artist, a semi-failed director, stews while watching as a more successful colleague, who has carefully crafted a dubiously queer public persona, is showered with praise:

Oh’s prizewinning movie was a disaster. . . . Watching [it] made me 100% sure that Oh was straight. Straight directors are all about the exaggerated nailing of the ass and slobbering ridiculous kisses when it comes to depicting gay sex. Oh’s movie fits the bill. I mean, the characters even cried after having gay sex. Why the fuck would two guys who love screwing guys cry after screwing a guy? . . . Not only was I sure Oh was straight, I doubted he knew anything about straight sex, either. . . . Critic Kim said the film beautifully showed a relationship between two people of the same gender and brought up homosexuality to the level of universal love. They all talked about ordinary people and what was universal like they knew exactly who these people were and what exactly was so universal. I had no idea what was so special about gay love, and I was actually gay. Jesus, straight people ruin everything.

The anger burns, but is also very funny to read—its ranting, rhythmic blend of social critique with professional grudge, percolating in frustration with an arts scene that rewards the performance of queer tragedy without caring much about anything else. Park’s voice, here as in Love in the Big City, stands out for the way it repudiates the glamor of martyrdom for the insouciance of humor.

In this respect, the Anglophone writer whose sensibility is closest to Park’s may be the novelist Bryan Washington, whose stories of love’s ups and downs, often featuring first-person narrators in the doldrums of underemployment, start from a similar place. But where Washington’s work is often genial, Park’s fiction always has a pleasant scintillation of meanness around the edges, a need to critique, to insist that others have got it all wrong, even as there’s very little one can do about it. Park spots how the timely slay isn’t some put-on act, an ornament on the personality. Instead, the armor of practiced cattiness grows inseparable from the soft-bellied being it defends.

For all that American culture embraces drag and the sassy gay friend, it tends to insist on an almost Greek separation of modes: either Dionysiac flippancy or ritual grief, RuPaul or Tony Kushner. Park offers a fusion of the two—that tragicomic mix at the heart of the tradition of the novel—that queer fiction in English (especially in the U.S.) seems to be having a hard time producing. Park’s work recognizes and articulates what Americans are terrible at admitting: sometimes things do not, in fact, get better, but every laugh wrested from an unfixable reality is a jab in the side of those who insist queer lives must be marginal and immiserated.

Spencer Lee-Lenfield is an assistant editor at The Yale Review, as well as a Ph.D. candidate in comparative literature at Yale University.
Originally published:
May 16, 2022

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