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WINTER 2008 Vol.22 No.4
Beauty of Korea
Byeoru (Ink Stone)
Background and Development of Korean Kimchi
Kimchi Ideal Health Food for a Well-being Lifestyle
Regional Influences Create Wide Varieties of Kimchi
Sharing Kimchi with Consumers Around the World
Seoul Hosts XXII World Congress of Philosophy 2008
Poet Ko Un “I am my own future!”
Archery Craftsman Yoo Young-ki Blends Strength with Resiliency
Elegant Earthenware Figurines Reveal Silla’s Spirituality
Magnum Korea Exhibition Images of Korean Society’s Diversity
Kevin O’Rourke Passionate Translator of Korean Literature
Sung Shi-yeon A Humble yet Forceful Presence at the Podium
Jeongseon’s Natural Beauty Endures the Passage of Time
Yaksik Rice Cake Tasty and Healthy Treat
Korea Delivers with Speed and Agility
Dance of Exorcism at the Fringe of Existence
SUMMER 2008 Vol.22 No.2
  Journeys in Korean Literature
  Does the Citadel of Desire Assure a Wonderful Life?
  Park Hye-kyung
Literary Critic
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Jeong’s stories are not centered on the internal conflicts or an impulse to flee of women living in a patriarchal society, nor did they voice criticism about gender inequality by means of a prickly assessment of a male-dominated environment. The female characters of Jeong do not passively accept their given fate as a woman nor do they react with aggressive resistance. They are a new breed of bad girls who employ their femininity as an elaborate weapon in their strategic scheming for success.
These women, in their pursuit of the capitalist myth of success, in regard to money, love, and fame, dutifully learn and apply the rules of conduct laid out by the social system in terms of virginity, beauty, and capturing a man’s heart. For these women, life is a daily battleground of the conflicting standards that dictate and control their behavior, as they intently focus their desires and actions on a singular goal of attaining success. They are less concerned with living like women than conforming to the image of a woman that is demanded by society.
Jeong’s first story collection Romantic Love and Society recounts, with vivid insight, the essence of capitalist desires, in which a devil lurks behind an angelic mask of success, from the perspective of a woman who obsessively chases after materialistic gains. But from this capitalistic phenomenon there emerges a notion that it is the misguided principles of society which should be blamed for the rise of these bad girls. In Jeong’s first novel Sweet City of Mine, which readers regarded as a perceptive and provocative portrayal of the sexual scene in contemporary Korea, the young women characters are fully immersed in the societal conventions that shape the desires of individuals. Along with a keen sense of reality, Jeong Yi Hyun vividly captures the inner turmoil of these women as they go about their everyday lives with her articulate writing.
In her second story collection Lies for Today (Moonji Publishing Co., Ltd., 2007), Jeong’s examination of the capitalist world goes beyond the desires of bad girls by delving into the everyday experiences of today’s middle class. Jeong’s stories repeatedly point out that, in today’s world, it is practically impossible for people to deviate from the social norms. For this, however, she does not rely on an exaggerated state of despair, resignation, cynicism, or agitation. Instead, she ponders such questions as: For people who adhere to social conventions and never get off track, does this assure a wonderful life? Can a life centered on social stability and normalcy provide people with a true sense of security in this day and age?
The detached voice that Jeong adopts in these stories sounds almost like that of someone gazing into this fictitious abyss called life, after having lost faith in its inherent truths. Jeong’s stories reflect a realization that the romantic fantasies propagated by society are fictitious illusions. By meticulously revealing cross sections of a despondent reality, without overstated expressions of despair or disenchantment, Jeong’s writing can detect minute cracks within the seemingly secure lives of the middle class.
Jeong’s short story “Sampung Department Store” depicts a woman coming of age in Gangnam, an affluent district south of the Hangang River in Seoul, against the backdrop of the structural collapse of Sampung Department Store, a real-life event that occurred in 1995. In Korea, Gangnam is a symbol of extravagant consumerism and the wonderful life of affluent households. The female protagonist, a recent college graduate who has just entered the job market, identifies herself as part of Gangnam’s consumer culture, in which your material possessions determine your social status. She describes herself as having “mildly right-wing parents, a clean, super-size single bed, translucent green Motorola pager, and four handbags.”
But at the same time, this Gangnam girl, who dismisses her possessions as commonplace, is just an ordinary woman, easily found in every corner of Korean society, who was once believed to be a gifted child, but has become just another faceless statistic of the unemployment ranks. Although she conforms to life’s procedures as dictated by social convention, she also abhors herself for doing so, and although she abides by the societal manual on urban relationships, she claims that “gauging the right distance between one heart and another was something very difficult for me then, and it still is.” She does not agree with the materialistic values of consumer-oriented society or with the conservative values of the older generation, but at the same time she does not want a life entirely divorced from these spheres, either. What Jeong portrays in this story are the day-to-day inner struggles of a young woman in Korea in the 1990s.
“Sampung Department Store” follows a timeline from the moment our protagonist encounters her high school classmate, R, a girl from the opposite side of the river who now works as a salesperson at the ill-fated store, up to the building’s collapse. Inserted within this narrative of the young woman’s tedious and ordinary days are paragraphs with a sans serif font, ominously tracking the silent, unnoticed developments that result in the ultimate collapse of this former landmark of the Gangnam area.
R disappears after the collapse and the protagonist is left with a key to R’s home, which had been received from R, who said she could use the place. The site of the store’s collapse is soon paved over and a towering commercial/residential building is constructed thereon, while the protagonist “puts the small, incomplete-looking silver-colored key in the bottom drawer of my desk and lets ten years go past.” Which door could she open in this world with R’s “small and incomplete” key? This story ends with a passage, “It was only after I left there that it became possible for me to write,” as if in response to the heightened pathos brought on by R’s disappearance.
In this way, Jeong seems to wonder if our reality is any different from what the situation had been within Sampung Department Store, as its clock ticked down to a disastrous conclusion. The lead character is described as a perfectly ordinary girl who does not dare to resist social systems or conventions. Perhaps this reflects the writer’s intent of suggesting that the collapse of this department store did not signify an extraordinary incident, but rather a pervasive reality underlying Korean society. If, as Jeong Yi Hyun’s story suggests, that life within this fortified citadel of desire, reinforced by our lifestyle of consumerism, is much like walking a tightrope without a safety net, then, how much safer is our life today, as compared to this sudden collapse that occurred a decade ago?
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