When Adam Opens His Eyes
trans. Hwang Sun-Ae and Horace Jeffrey Hodges
Dalkey Archive Press, paperback, 126 pages,
The Korean Adam of this novel’s title is a ‘literary guy, specialising in literary competitions’, a lonely crammer student suspended between high school and university in the year leading up to the Seoul Olympics, and a sexual adventurist to boot. Abandoned by his girlfriend Eun-sun, who has gone on to pursue a career as ‘a published and recognised poet,’ and by his brother, an expert on the modern information society who has sold out to the American university system, Adam also cuts a familiar figure of isolation: an adolescent cynic left little choice but to report on the cynicism of those around him. This he does with affectless rigour, cleverly disdaining popular music, Korean movies in which men slap women in the face, derivative poetry, and cheap Korean novels that take exactly five hours to read.
The novel spans the year between Adam’s initial failure to gain admission to university in Seoul and his successful second exam, during which time he has two coming-of-age affairs. The first is with Hyun-jae, a melancholy and sexually promiscuous high school student who mediates her intimacies through the music she continuously listens to on her Walkman; the second with a mature artist who takes him for a model and lectures him about the accelerated state of contemporary media. The conspicuous problem which emerges through this narrative concerns character formation: what happens when the phoniness Adam detects in others’ tastes extends to the tastes of people he values? His identification with Hyun-jae’s love for ‘the classics’ – ‘the three Js’: Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin – is crushingly predictable, for instance, while his artist-lover’s Bohemia can only be described by a list of glamorous locations such as Paris, Munich and New York, an image of an artist’s loft, and a morning-after scene deliberately reminiscent of a pantyhose advertisement.
Perfidious cliché is the topic of this novel, but it is also its vehicle. The typewriter on which Adam writes the book we are reading, though bought second-hand and gesturing at a brake on the technological hyperbole of the modern world, cannot help but possess the lamentable qualities of kitsch (which the novel helpfully prepares us to decipher by citing Hermann Broch’s essays ‘Kitsch’ and ‘Notes on the Problems of Kitsch’). Circularity and knowingness are guaranteed in a work so intent on out-thinking the perils of style. We end the novel reading the same typed lines which began it, witnessing Adam’s act of writing the novel in which he has just appeared.
If this sounds hard-going, be assured, it is not; the translators’ English is simple, almost to the point of flatness, reflecting the dry, self-defeating aspect of the narrator’s character, and even the most jargon-filled passages about information culture or the condition of contemporary art pass quickly in ironically digestible chunks. There is no doubt that Adam can be an annoying narrator, complaining of passive male protagonists in bad novels to whom sexual misadventures happen while being a passive male protagonist himself vulnerable to sexual misadventure. He is a cipher then; but he is also a point of connection between divergent literary registers. The way the anguish of his adolescence passes to the sharpness of satire or the discursiveness of art theory in the space of a page or two means the novel is never guilty of earnestness. The legacy of partition in 1953, and of the South Korean coup d’état in 1979, as well as the manufacture of patriotic spirit in anticipation of the 1988 Olympics are all serious national topics, but they exist here as distillations of global problems, of problems of late capitalism, which in their own commodified form are quite laughable. There is something effective, if also troubling, about the way that as every weighty problem is summarised and exchanged, it becomes light, contributing to the hopeless humour of Adam learning to open his eyes.
Sex is the obvious metaphor throughout for literature struggling against its own lightness. If only literature could become more real, the explicit – and, in 1990s Korea, controversial – sex scenes seem to say. The detailed penetrations inflicted by Adam, but also suffered – he is sodomised by an old shop keeper for the sake of a retro record-player – suggest a desire for material reality beyond second-hand literary references. Ironically, however, the same explicit rendering of sexual experience serves as a footnote to the great encyclopaedia of literary sex bequeathed by the Marquis de Sade, George Bataille and the Beats. In this edition of the novel there is an appended short story called ‘The Seventh Day’ which intercuts pastiche of Bataille’s work with quotations from critical notices of Jang Jung-il’s novels.
All of which is to say, there is no escaping the economy of literary cliché. And especially not in South Korea in 1988, a country whose modernity is a badge of honour but whose cultural co-ordinates come second-hand, from elsewhere: French poetry, American counter-culture, English pop music and so on . Published in 1990, When Adam Opened His Eyes lives long in the memory bank of South Korea as a debut challenge from its enfant terrible to the pieties of the country’s culture industry. Reading the novel in English translation in 2013, and distanced from this national context, we might worry that its impact as literature is significantly diminished. Equally, we might reassure ourselves with Jang Jung-il’s suggestion that in modern Korea, belatedness is the spirit of the times.