“Small, red, and upright he waited,
gripping his new bookbag tight
in one hand and touching a lucky penny inside his coat pocket with the other,
while the first snows of winter
floated down on his eyelashes and covered the branches around him and silenced
all trace of the world.”
Han Kang, 2007
Pros: Critics have compared Kang’s work to Kafka, and the similarities seem deserved: taut prose, a spiraling journey into madness, and a bent towards the allegorical (okay, more than a bent) form the backbone of this can’t-put-it-down book. Told in three parts, the narrative circles via outside perspectives around the main character’s mysterious and sudden decision to become a vegetarian in a culture where forgoing meat is not an option; as such, the narrator’s choice becomes a matter of public and familial crisis, and the story explores the horrifying consequences of her refusal to give in and return to carnivorous habits. Kang’s decision to deprive the protagonist of a narrative voice is one of the smartest in a series of good writing choices that both immerse you in the writing and remind you that the author is in complete control; this is one of the best-crafted novels I’ve ever read, and one that makes me jealous: I wish I had written it.
Cons: Allegory may be coming back into style, but as a formal decision I’ve always found large-scale metaphor to be too on-the-nose, a little too obvious; The Vegetarian may suffer from the (perfectly-executed) simplicity of its symbolism. A brush with melodrama in the third section left me feeling letdown, though I found sections 1 and 2 entirely thrilling.
The Verdict: Grab a copy, and (ironically, of course) enjoy a steak while you’re reading: this book makes you hungry, and completely satisfies.
“This so gnawed at him on some nights that he lay awake wondering just how many unknown and similarly inconsequential accidents and bits of happenstance were at this moment occurring or failing to occur in order to ensure he took his next breath, and the next.”
The Red Parts
Maggie Nelson, 2007
Pros: Maggie Nelson is a master of memoir, and this autobiography following the trial of her aunt’s murderer is a brilliant examination of violence, gender, loss, and voyeurism. Nelson gets uncomfortably close to the underside of our interest in true crime and pain, and asks the reader to consider what the re-telling of such stories means to both the subject and the object. A perfect extended lyric essay.
Cons: For fans of clarity, Nelson still plays coy with some aspects of her life, though not nearly as much as in, say, Bluets or other more self-focused writing where lyricism takes precedence over plain old information.
The Verdict: A great introduction to Nelson, if you’ve never read her work, and if you have then snap this one up immediately. This is writing at its finest.