Korean writer Park’s new novel examines the mysteries of attraction and the falsehoods of beauty.
“Write about something pretty,” Park’s narrator, an aspiring writer, hears from a friend—but the narrator lives his life in revolt against the beautiful, having seen how aesthetics wrecked his family when his movie-star father drifted away in favor of glitz. For this reason, perhaps, the 20-year-old narrator finds himself drawn to “the world’s ugliest woman,” a sweet person his own age who works with him. Although ugliness is one of the novel’s themes, Park’s work is anything but. The novel glitters with poetic language (“Her three words, I love you, were [a] blade of grass”), often blanketing the characters in snow, making the novel feel hushed and still—a story told in a whisper late at night while, elsewhere, people try to sleep. Park’s novel has a youthful wisdom that occasionally borders on the pretentious and/or mundane, as youthful wisdom often does. “This world is one big sham,” says a young man named Yohan, the narrator’s friend and the third major character. This idea of sham isn’t an unfamiliar sentiment in novels about young people, but what Park occasionally lacks is a perspective on this sort of philosophizing; does he find it naïve, astute, absurd or what? This is a small complaint, however, about a book that works, more than anything, like music, with the lyrics of specific songs (particularly “Strawberry Fields Forever”) woven through the pages like a soundtrack. (One might recall the films of Wong-Kar Wai—how they often repurpose the same two or three songs in a multitude of situations.) The ending dips too far into metafictional trickery, but the result is an oddly optimistic book about broken hearts.
The warmth and romance of this novel will make cynics smile.