I've touched base with Giacomo Lee on twitter about what it's like to be a newly published author and the process of getting picked up by an indie publisher, and it's been a really fruitful and interesting discussion. Having been to Korea about a year ago and having a passing interest in modern Korean culture, I decided to pick up a Kindle copy of his novel Funereal. Check out the synopsis below:
Soobin Shin is an aspiring young woman in a near-future version of Seoul. Ever since her college graduation, she has struggled to escape from her dead-end job in a doughnut chain. Her twin sister Hyewon is one of Korea’s most recognizable models, but Soobin just can’t seem to find her lucky break… until one evening, a creepy regular customer offers her a job in a company he has just started. OneLife Korea is going to save South Korea one funeral at a time… by burying the living in order to help them find some peace of mind in the country with the highest suicide rate in the developed world. Soobin has already lost her mother, and her relationship with her boyfriend is on the rocks. What else does she have to lose? Everything at OneLife Korea seems perfect until high-profile clients actually start dying. Soobin Shin is Korea’s beautiful new angel of death, and Funereal is a snapshot of a city in flux, taking a look at the dark side to surgery, survival, and stardom in the near future of one of Asia’s most dynamic capitals.
Funereal is an interesting novel because it touches upon the third rail of suicide in East Asian cultures. It's also interesting to me because, despite being a Caucasian writer from the West, Giacomo didn't fall back on old tropes about "White man visits Asia and bangs beautiful oriental women thereby liberating them from the strictures of their rigid societal blah blah blah," a movie we've all seen before.
In fact, having had several close East Asian friends commit suicide, I think it's an urgent topic, and one that isn't adequately addressed by a culture that often values face over mental health. I don't think it's at all controversial to point out that the cultural literacy of East Asia in terms of mental illness is quite limited (arguably much more so than in North America). It's hard to pinpoint what the various factors are behind this, but it's presumed to be some combination of social atomization, a strong pressure to conformity, the interplay between the reputational importance of face and shame, and the immense pressure in these new economies to succeed.
Soobin Shin is a realistically drawn character that splits from the common disempowered tropes around passive Asian females that live more as observers than as active agents. Lee writes Koreans as people, and this is not an easy thing for any cultural interloper (I believe he's lived in Seoul in the past). His prose has a straightforward cleanliness to it that, for me, was strangely reminiscent of Murakami's minimalist style. There is a queerness to the plot that's almost a form of magical realism, but not quite there. Sufficed to say, it's difficult to pigeonhole genre-wise.
There's a haunting melancholy vein that courses through the novel as people seek psychological release from the strictures of their lives with mock funerals. Funereal can be read as a critique of modernity - or at least, a critique of the speed with which modernity has been wrought upon South Korea, a hyperconnected society where, much like ours, people feel a growing sense of isolation. The heart of of the novel is a commentary on the costs of Korea's full-speed-ahead clash with modernization, and projects forward to the future, extrapolating current trends into the realm of the absurd. Lee seems to be saying that there is a heavy price to be paid for Korea's ruthless advance to the future - it comes at a human cost. As with any culture that strongly prioritizes some things over others, tradeoffs have to be made. Having been close with several Koreans from Seoul, the sentiments he echoes seem to quite common, but rarely find their way into the pop-culture Korea is known for.
A caveat, though: this commentary does not descend into bland Orientalism or the well worn tropes about the rigid collectivization of East Asian societies, rather, there is the sense that social trends are the terminal endpoint of numerous untold factors converging together to produce something wily and unpredictable in its consequences. Against such forces, the individual is rendered powerless. Hence the need for an escape, for catharsis: the central service offered by Soobin Shin's OneLife service.
Funereal may initially read as satire, but at its heart, it's a sincere piece of work. It asks important questions, and affirms the value of grief, real grief, as an undeniable testament to the value of loving other people. If you're a person interested in contemporary, Korea, I wouldn't hesitate to recommend the book. It's an enjoyable, quick read and well worth your time.
people I admire
Bret Easton Ellis