Nobody Warned Me.

30091914Halfway through this book, I tweeted about the nightmares it was causing me.  And I’m not talking about Stephen King ghosts or monsters, but live human cruelty.  They weren’t dreams like others I have had, revolving staircases, or sudden drops into homes I knew, but had been subtly changed by my dream space.  These dreams were as visceral as the words on the page.  I felt the steel copper bullet – plunge –  slow motion into my rib cage.  Each bone flex forth and open like a cracked fence post.  When I woke up each morning, I had stones in my belly, and gnarls in my gut.  This story uprooted me.

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Photo from The Japan Times

And I wasn’t warned, so I’m warning all of you.  This story conveyed the human capacity for cruelty so well and so often that I almost couldn’t finish it.  While I believe it’s a story that needs to be told and a history that should not remain hidden, I want to scrape at the pieces of it that stayed in my mind for days afterwards.  For a full three pages, Han Kang describes some of the Gwangju boys’ torture, the crisp sizzle of a cigarette to an eye.  If you winced at that sentence, then I can’t recommend this book for you.  It caused me physical pain to read.

(And I know some of you will roll your eyes and say that this is nothing to the physical pain that the people of Gwangju felt resisting and standing up to their traitorous government, but feelings are allowed to be felt).

Today, Amnesty International reported hangings of over 13,000 in Damascus.  These hangings have been done secretly after victims are tried for under three minutes in a basement after being told they are being transported elsehwhere.  We sit around arguing on Twitter over what’s fake news, or how many alternative facts will be spun in the administration currently in office, and in Damascus, Syrians are being targeted and wiped out by the thousands in Civil War.  Until this moment, no news of these hangings had been released.  This is probably not the fault of our news media, but the fact that this is happening in our modern world – after the Holocaust, after Cambodia, after Tinneman Square and now after the Gwangju uprising, maybe we need to be a little more “woke.”

I listened to this story on NPR having just finished Human Acts.  I had been contemplating the number of stars I could give a book that I was hesitant to recommend, that I was angry no one had warned me about (most reviewers just said, “it has beautiful writing”) and disgusted with the bottom dark of human capacity put into elegant words on the pages of Human Acts by Han Kang (translated by Deborah Smith).

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Screenshot from Amnesty International Report

No where in my life have I had to contemplate the snap of a rope bruising and twisting my pale neck. Never the butt of a gun.  Never a protest that could end in the spray of shrapnel.  Comparing one’s life to another never makes anything easier, but I have been both lucky to be who I am, where I am, and lucky to read a book that makes me understand that luck is a physical phenomenon and not just a mental/emotional privilege.  I can only speak for myself, but all I really wanted to do in hearing that report was spit it out so it couldn’t become a part of me, of my existence.

“Soundlessly, and without fuss, some tender thing deep inside me broke.  Something that, until then, I hadn’t even realized was there” (202).

In the last chapter of this novel, the author becomes a character.  She describes her journey seeking out information on the massacre itself, but also on the family written throughout.  She is indirectly related to this family.  They lived in the house she moved out of at a young age, and they lost a brother to the Gwangju uprising while living there.  The narrator talks about her nightmares while researching the novel.  I know why.  I experienced nightmares as well.  I texted my best friend, and Korean scholar, Seth and asked him about what was told to him about this while he was in South Korea.  His first response when I began describing the book was “they don’t tell tourists those stories.”

I wonder how many stories are left dark in the world.  How many shoved into corners, buried against one another, corked.  This is no longer one of those cave stories, this mosaic novel of different voices interwoven.  It is really a connection of short stories, some more difficult than others to get through.  I believe Han Kang did exactly what she set out to do, make it so no one can desecrate these memories again.

“Please, write your book so that no one will ever be able to desecrate my brother’s memory again” (214).

In the beginning, I found hope in the short anecdote about the chalk erasers and board spray from middle school between the loving sister and brother in the novel.  I hung onto that for the rest of the novel because there isn’t much redeeming about the human spirit here.  This is a novel that very much lacks the bud of hope.  It doesn’t make it less true, it just, for me, makes it more sad.  If we believed the world ended like this, I don’t think any of us would continue letting it fester.

“Isn’t he your friend, aren’t you a human being” (43).

Street Lamps & Victory Laps | Tenth of December by George Saunders

Tenth of December by George Saunders

I was in the middle of one of the best stories in this collection when I thought, “Deja vu.”  I really thought I had dreamed this exact story at some point in that laddered cradle of a dorm room bed.  Somehow Saunders and I were sharing the same story column.  He had stolen this science fiction idea straight out of a ladle of drool.  I was sure of it.  And then I remembered the McCorkle had requested we read this one in our science fiction lessons.  Unlike JK Rowling, Saunders isn’t afraid to just kill off one of his characters, let their soul float above the death room and have them evaporate into blue cloud.  He’s a beautiful writer and a writer of momentum.

“Semplica Girl Diaries” Image @ The New Yorker

Never once did I want to take a break, okay, that’s a lie.  I did get bogged down in the “Semplica Girl Diaries.”  I had to actually google what an SG was because the science fiction in that story was so over my head.  I couldn’t fathom that people would possibly plug women of sex and slave trades and third world woe into their yards like Christmas lights.  After I discovered the truth, I wondered if they dangled their legs over gutters to entice the neighbors, if they waved to passerby’s walking their dog and staring from the driver’s side window.  What truth did their eyes say, that the dresses of roses couldn’t.  I actually read Chuck Palahniuk’s new story, “Zombie” just after I finished “Semplica Girl Diaries” and confused the two.  In “Zombie” students are using a defibrillator for their bad deeds, and I was thinking that the SGs were plugged into defibrillator stickers.  It was a strange late night reading session.

“Semplica Girl Diaries,” quote @ Longreads

“Semplica Girl Diaries” wasn’t my favorite story in the collection, but I was moved like a rolling boulder by the last story (and title story), “Tenth of December.”  The idea of an old man without a coat, staring death in the face up a snow-bound hill was too muchness.  A young boy who wants so badly to hit a peak in high school notices his coat resting on a bench and starts on a hero’s journey with both hero’s becoming themselves again afterwards.  It was seriously one of the most heartwarming stories I’ve ever read.  It didn’t make my eyes dampen like “Zombie,” but I did feel like I knew the kid and I could know the old man.  These were real people set in a reality of shadow.  The boy spent the story imagining the responses of his “woman crush Wednesday” and the old man spent the story thinking about how he was saving his children from the last months of his illness during the decline.  I often think about what will happen when the older people in my life that I love, have to inevitably decline.  I don’t worry that I will be washing them by myself, or keeping their mind alive with photo album memories, I more worry that they won’t be the same valiant supporter that I’ve known for my lifetime.  This story taught me not to worry because never is all hope lost.  We can watch those we love drowned in illness, but that thimble of hope is everything.

Image @ Horn! Reviews – AKA one of the best tumblrs there ever was.

My favorite stories by far in the collection were, “Victory Lap,” and “Sticks.”  “Sticks” is just a page and three quarters.  It’s about holiday decorations and family sadness.  It might also have one of the best endings for flash fiction … ever. From LOVE to the city drainage system.  “Victory Lap” is about a high school boy who winds up saving the dancing princess that lives behind him.  This is truly my childhood nightmare.  When I picked my room at my parent’s house, I picked it because it had the street light right outside the front window with an oak tree balancing its limbs on the house.  It felt safe right away.  It was a giant flashlight.  It was a tadpole of sun in the dark.  I just thought that no one would climb on the trash can to get to this roof and this window, I still feared this, but then my dad painted the window shut accidentally and I felt even that much more safe.  “Victory Lap” is the reason why I chose the room with the lighted view.  Seriously, this story scared the shit out of my high school self.  I had a brief flash back to the time I thought someone was peering into our living room.  It still gives me willies.

I think that’s my favorite part about George Saunders.  I picked his book up expecting nothing other than reading a great 2013 read thanks to the Goodreads’ Choice Awards, but it turned out to be all the things I feared, and all the things I found beautiful, in different stories.  It gives me hope for humanity, it scares me for humanity, and not just global warming wise, but weird, non empathetic, humanity wise.  This collection will make science look like more than a petri dish and make our culture look both heartless, and lionhearted.