Funereal by Giacomo Lee

October 28, 2015 § 2 Comments

South Korea is known for having a very high suicide rate, among the highest in the world, and it’s this subject that Giacomo Lee takes on in his debut novel, Funereal. Young Ha-Kim, who wrote a novel about suicide called “I Have the Right to Destroy Myself” twenty years ago addressed the high numbers in an April 2014 New York Times piece. He posits the various reasons that are often discussed for why South Korea so often heads the suicide statistics, including scorn for mental illness (aka mental weakness), lack of psychiatric help and loss of face for those who do seek it, breakdown of the family unit, economic insecurity, educational pressure.

Many of these conditions, though, have been present in other times and other places without having the same effect on suicide rates. In Lee’s novel we get a glimpse of what might be different about now, as we understand more about the context for Korean millennials: a country with very little economic prospects for the under-thirties; massive social pressure to perform, conform and stay young; and an overwhelming focus on appearance. South Korea is often recognised as the world’s plastic surgery capital, and this is not for older people seeking rejuvenation but something people might be given for a high-school graduation present: a BBC report from ten years ago estimated that around 50% of women in their twenties had had plastic surgery.

The novel’s main character, Soobin Shin, is working in a dead-end job at a café with no prospect of using her education or finding a career. She’s tired of her situation, her on-off boyfriend, her job, and the lack of prospects, but life becomes more interesting when she is headhunted by a café regular with an interesting project: he’s starting up a company called OneLife that allows the suicidal to rehearse their death, have a fake funeral, and then get on with life thanks to the cathartic effect of the quiet time alone in the coffin combined with the reasons for living provided by the love, respect and affection in evidence at the funeral. Soobin is the face of the company—friendly, natural-looking, cheerful—and things seem to be going well. That is, until clients start dying. This kicks off the plot-heavy part of the novel, which starts off realist but full of the flashing neon and bubbliness you might expect from KPop, and gradually moves into something more surrealist and sci-fi. It’s dark throughout, yet not unrelentingly so. It’s not quite as accomplished, structurally or stylistically, as the other Korean literature I’ve read this year, for example Hang Kang’s The Vegetarian (translated by Deborah Smith) or Kyung-sook Shin’s I’ll Be Right There (translated by Sora Kim-Russell), but in fairness I think a better way of putting that might be that Lee is not yet as sure of himself as an author as these more established writers. Nonetheless, Funereal is a powerful book that discusses an important subject without sentimentality or sensationalism.

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