Monday, December 12, 2011

Please Look After Mom - Kyung-Sook Shin

Does anyone else think that the cover of this book is a little creepy?  Doesn't the woman on the cover look sort of doll-like, waxen?  Even that shadow across the top part of her face doesn't quite save it from that posed look.  Maybe it's the hand, too.  Oooh, look!  I'm being distraught!  

Please Look After Mom is the story of a family whose elderly matriarch gets lost on a Saturday afternoon at Seoul Station when she and her husband come from the country to the big city to visit their grown children.  The family searches for Mom and in flashbacks, each feels guilt in whatever part they played in her disappearance, but the search efforts seem pretty lackluster.

I'm so grumpy.  I wanted to absolutely love this book and I don't.  I don't hate it -- I'm disappointed with some of the author's choices, but I love being able to recognize the history, culture, traditions and locations of the country I've lived in for the past seven years.  I also understand that the novel is going to play to Korean sensibilities much differently than it will play to someone with Western sensibilities.  I'm really pleased that it's an international bestseller.  Ever since I moved to South Korea in 2004, I've been waiting for that breakout hit.

'Hit' proves to be an apt word because author Shin unmercifully beats her characters as well as her readers over the head with the following message:  MOM GOOD.  FAMILY BAD.  In case the reader is in doubt, the parts of the book with the aloof, cranky older daughter (a novelist) and the horrible, self-centered philandering husband are written in second person, which gives the feeling of a tongue-lashing without end.

Seen through the family's eyes, Mom was perfect, but her gifts were taken for granted until she was gone.  She's a lot like O-Lan in The Good Earth, every breath a sacrifice for someone, mostly her children.  Seeing Mom in flashback, contriving for her family and trying to keep everyone from going hungry was admirable and made for good reading, but it just went on and on.  Mom becomes too good to be true;  she strains credulity.  Likewise, the family, particularly the husband, is a little too shitty.  Shin lays it on with a trowel and it starts to have the opposite effect that she intended.

But wait! Mom is not only the Korean version of O-Lan -- Mom is Korea itself.  Mom is kind and selfless Old Korea and the family represents thoughtless and soulless Modern Korea, which has run off and totally forgotten her.  She can wander through the darkest and dankest alleyways in Seoul, bruised and bleeding and time slips away while her family argues about what should go on a 'missing' poster that has a bad picture, erroneous information and a stingy reward.  

Does every book about Korea have to be an allegory?  For example, An Appointment with my Brother by Yi Yun-Mol was good, but of course the narrator is South Korea and the brother is North Korea.  Why does Mom have to be Korea?  Why can't she just be an old lady that got lost at Seoul Station?  It feels like Kyung-Sook Shin is straining too hard to force in all the elements of good literature.

Speaking of straining:  The novel is told from four points of view:  Oldest daughter, oldest son, husband, then Mom herself.  Four parts would have been an appropriately somber touch, since the number four in Korean sounds like the Chinese word for death.  However, Shin returns to the oldest daughter -- the novelist -- for a fifth section that feels awkward and amateurish and drags it all down.  If you just stopped after the fourth section, the novel would feel so much richer and you wouldn't miss a thing.  I promise.

Perhaps I would like the movie version of Please Take Care of Mom better.  I'm pretty sure there will be one.  I'm confident that this novel can be interpreted successfully.  Of all the art forms in Korea, cinema seems to be the one that is leaps and bounds ahead of the others.  A filmmaker would have a lighter and defter touch, using images to imply and inform.  Maybe a competent and wise scriptwriter adapting the novel  would pare down the dialogue and even give that clunky final section the heave-ho.  I hope so; I really want to love this story on some level.


Care said...

aha! A screen-writing throwdown?! I was convinced at first that I didn't need to read this. Darn.

Bybee said...

This is one case in which the movie would be better than the book.

fantsmacle said...

So is the author saying through allegory that old Korea is better than the modern, vibrant, healthier, more convenient Korea? Silly allegory. I guess my side of the argument is obvious, I would be one of the ignorant family members.

Danmark said...

This novel was interesting for a couple of reasons, both because it used multiple perspectives and in some cases, was written in second person. There were also a few elements of magical realism which added to the confusion of what had actually happened to So-Nyo (the mother). Interestingly enough, the novel focuses less on finding So-Nyo and more on revealing who she is.