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Friday, August 03, 2007

Book Review: I Have the Right to Destroy Myself by Young-Ha Kim

Young-Ha Kim has published four novels and numerous short stories. His latest novel is I Have the Right to Destroy Myself.

I’m not certain that we do have the right to destroy ourselves, but the narrator of Young-Ha Kim’s novel feels so.

I don’t encourage murder. I have no interest in one person killing another. I only want to draw out morbid desires, imprisoned deep in the unconscious.

The unnamed narrator is a bit of a contract killer, but the contract you take out is on yourself instead of on someone else. He wanders the city of Seoul, looking for the lonely. There he finds Judith and Mimi, both women who happen to become in some way involved with the same man, C.

In the Judith story, C and his brother K both fall for Judith. Judith uses them both and eventually leaves them both. In the Mimi story, Mimi is a performance artist who becomes involved with C, who is a video artist. As with Judith, C is unable to connect with Mimi and she too eventually leaves.

The subject matter of the novel is a tad sketchy, especially since it’s being recommended for older teen reading. I’m not sure that I’d want teens reading this type of novel and identifying with any of the characters. At the same time, the writing is highly dreamlike and cinematic. There’s a certain dark brilliance in the writing and how Young-Ha Kim has captured the tone of these listless characters.

I Have the Right to Destroy Myself is well worth reading, but I’d be careful recommending it to anyone lacking strong convictions. It’s not a glorified suicide book, but the intensity and aimlessness of the characters is alarming and the ease with which they seem to destroy themselves is unnerving.

The cover is gorgeous.

I suspect there’s a cultural element in there somewhere. When I first moved to Korea, I was surprised at how dying and being killed by something are so commonly used metaphorically in so many conversations. When people drink hard (which is pretty often in the case of young people and co-workers) one common toast is, “Let’s die!” and “I’m so hungry I’m dying,” is something my fiancee says all the time.

This had bled through into humor as well. When I was teaching in a University Language Center, there was a kid who confessed aloud that he might not be in class the next day because he was thinking of killing himself. Even his sister wasn’t sure whether he was serious, and the office staff took forever to listen to my demand that they call his family and mention what he’d talked about. They (and one or two students, but not all) said that he might have been joking, but the suicide rate here in Korea is so phenomenal, I think, because people too often dismiss such talk as “just kidding.”

I’ll have to look into this book, anyway. Thanks for the interesting review. By the way, have you read anything else by Kim? The stories in The Photo Shop Murder are really funny— especially “What Ever Happened to the Guy Trapped in the Elevator?”

Thank you for the cultural perspective. There is definitely a tone to the book that is different than the typical, realist, North-American read. That said, the writing is quite intimate even though the characters come across as shallow.

I haven’t read anything else by Kim but I understand that he’s won several awards for his writing. I’ll check out The Photo Shop Murder.

Thanks for the recommendation.

If you can’t find it—I saw it on Amazon.com but not Amazon.ca—let me know, I’d happily mail one to a friend of Alexis’. It’s short (2 short stories) and not an expensive book—but good fun and worth it nonetheless!

I’m a bit late here, but this might be useful for anyone else trying to find the work. Photo Shop Murder and Whatever Happened to the Guy in the Elevator .. can be found in a free pdf here:

http://iwp.uiowa.edu/writers/archive/2003works/Kim_Young-Ha.pdf

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