Title: The Vegetarian
Author: Han Kang
The Vegetarian is an interesting book, and I’m not quite sure what to make of it. Looking at its review page on Goodreads, people seem to have pretty strong opinions on it. It’s either “beautiful” and “compelling” or it’s “bonkers,” “pointless,” and “boring.” It’s definitely strange, in that it is purposefully surreal, and I personally did struggle with it a bit—but that’s not to say it’s without value or that it isn’t compelling: it is strange in an undoubtedly literary way.
I didn’t really “like” it—as in, think it was pleasant reading, or reading that I immediately clicked with—but it’s not a book to dismiss for that reason alone. Han Kang obviously has a lot to say. This book is apparently allegorical, and since the author is from Korea, I feel that unfortunately, as I am quite ignorant about the country, some of it probably went over my head—through no fault of the author’s. Still, there are some very strong images in here, ones that I may not have grasped the cultural significance of completely but which were nonetheless riveting, and, indeed, compelling. One of the main things the author seems to be talking about is gender, and she includes explorations of sexual assault, bodily autonomy, domestic abuse, agency, choice, gender roles… Mental illness also plays a big role in the book, and again it gets related to autonomy and agency. These are important ideas to me, and I appreciated the way the author handled them.
One of the really interesting things in this book is that there is so much meaning but that I don’t really know what to make of it. Sometimes it clearly points to one meaning, one I can easily grapple with and think about, and sometimes it’s off somewhere else. It’s very thought-provoking that way. Laura Miller wrote a great review of it for Slate, which describes pretty well how I feel toward the book: “The more avidly you want an explanation of the meaning behind a powerful and cryptic work of art…the less satisfying and comprehensive the answer can ever be. … You’ll never know. You can never know.” Surreal art—books and videos mainly, but sometimes paintings or photographs—can make my head swim, almost hurting with trying to figure out what they mean. They are not usually my favorite pieces of art, but I do find a lot of value in them. Trying to mine the meaning from them can be a fun or frustrating, and the inevitable giving up on it can be relieving, niggling, or both. If nothing else, it’s a stimulating exercise, even if it’s not one I want to engage in constantly.
Ultimately this book left me feeling unsatisfied in a way so complete that it was…almost satisfying. Go figure, right? I would recommend it to those who don’t mind an unsettling reading experience.