The Vegetarian by Han Kang (trans. from the Korean by Deborah Smith) begins with a wife who stops eating meat. When her husband wants to know why she says “I had a dream”. As a reader we are privy to at least the text of her dream but her husband has little curiosity about this dream which returns over and over again. He never explores the dream with her because he thinks that he can be married and just go through the motions of the marriage relationship without any messy emotional subtext. He expects his wife Yeong-Hye to be the same. She will do all the wifely things the role requires and will be completely low maintenance and supportive. If women have fantasies about romantic love, perhaps there are men who have fantasies about no-fuss marriages such as this where no deep feelings are required, each partner simply plays their role.
Yeong-Hye’s vegetarianism is so extreme that it will no longer allow Mr. Cheong to live in his fantasy. The wife he chose for her ordinary ways is in a crisis that is disrupting the lives of her husband and also her family. I am what would be called a “maximillist”, if there were such a classification for people who like plenty of everything and who like it plush and fluffy. I guess the word often used is hedonist, although that word does not really fit. However, personally, I do have some experience with “minimalists” of varying degrees. I have a friend who is a fairly extreme minimalist, who does not even like gifts unless they are things that can be used up; who is so slim that she seems to be almost disappearing. This becomes the case with Yeong-Hye, who becomes so thin that her family tries to intervene, which ends up badly when her father slaps her and forces meat into her mouth.
The scenes change each time this book arrives at a new section. We think we have been transported into another story and that this is perhaps a book of short stories. It is, instead, more like a jazz piano composition that begins with a theme and then rearranges the notes in each new section only to have the main theme reappear and progress in new, but still familiar directions. This is a great book and short; a fast, but horrifying, yet artistically and intellectually satisfying, read.
How do we know so little about ourselves? How do we know so little about each other? Are most people this disconnected from each other? Even though this book is very sexual, it is not sensual. Even when connecting in very intimate ways these people have actually made little if any connection that brings any warmth to their daily lives.
Although we do get glimpses into Yeong-Hye’s young life because in the last section of the composition her older sister In-Hye becomes the narrator and she does, superficially attempt to unravel the reasons for her sister’s behavior, that dream that haunts Yeong-Hye is never satisfactorily explained (or maybe you will think it is). While certainly not a cheerful book, it is gripping and it plays on you like that jazz piano calmly going through its variations, with perhaps a somewhat emotional bridge in the middle.