The Dead Don’t Rest

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South Korean author Han Kang has written two short novels translated into English in the past five years. In a time of global social movements for liberation like the mid-20th century, they would doubtless have been considered part of the literature of socio-political engagement. In the dyspeptic early 21st century, in the Age of Consequences that is now dawning, they are instead examples of what I would call a “literature of mourning.” What they are mourning for is the ever-less tenable idea that humanity is engaged in an irreversible process of triumph over its most destructive qualities.

Booker Prize winner The Vegetarian (2016) chronicled a seemingly average urban middle class woman’s disintegration and its consequences through the eyes of three people: the salaryman husband who overlooks and disdains her, the artist brother-in-law who becomes obsessed with her as an object of aestheticized desire, and the sister who tries hopelessly to understand and protect her, even as her own sham of a family collapses under the weight of her sister’s mania. As with many literary depictions of madness, the story exposes (for those who are willing to look) the appalling deficiencies in what is considered normal in contemporary life. The eponymous “unremarkable” woman, ignored or objectified by two domineering men, first tries to purge her carnivorous human identity, and then finally even any animal identity, as she seeks refuge in transforming herself into a…

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