Sang Young Park's 'Love in the Big City'

  • by Brian Bromberger
  • Tuesday March 15, 2022
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author Sang Young Park
author Sang Young Park

In the last five years, South Korea, known primarily for its cars (Hyundai) and cellphones (LG), has become a cultural juggernaut. The dystopian drama Squid Game is Netflix's most-watched TV show. K-pop stars like Blackpink, BTS, and Seventeen have sold millions of albums. Bong Joon-ho's class conflict Parasite became the first foreign-language film to win best picture at the Oscars.

Considering U.S. military presence in South Korea for decades, it's not so surprising they would be heavily influenced by American pop trends. It must also be noted the country didn't become a democracy until 1987 with their newborn freedom inspiring film, television, and music. Korean culture is willing to tackle complex social issues, such as income inequality, upward mobility, youth unemployment, and a high suicide rate, with their combative angst channeled into their entertainment.

This activist social awareness also extends to their literature, a theme of the 2019 queer novel Love in the Big City (referring to Seoul) by Sang Young Park, his first to be newly translated into English. The book has been a runaway bestseller (nine printings) in South Korea, astounding for such a socially conservative nation.

Queer life in South Korea has been termed "privately out of and publicly in the closet." There are no discrimination laws protecting sexual orientation or gender identity in employment or housing. Neither is there same-sex marriage or LGBTQ rights in the military. Many queer people still marry to satisfy their families, so any same-sex relationships are kept hidden. It's a 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' society. The stresses of living out this contradiction animates Park's novel, which also serves as a sociological exploration of contemporary South Korean queer life.

The novel is a series of interconnected short stories with a narrator variously called "Mr. Young" and "Mr. Park" (stand-ins for the author), navigating significant relationships from his student days into his thirties.

The opening chapter recounts his best friend Jaehee, who met him while he was kissing another man in a hotel parking lot. They are both college students majoring in French. Becoming roommates, they share accounts of sleeping with men, along with their drinking escapades, their love of coffee and Marlboro Red cigarettes, not to mention him helping her get an abortion. The narrator later reports on Jaehee's safe but boring marriage, with his subsequent decision to return to his sick mother's house.

The second chapter, which occurs five years earlier, relates his relationship with a handsome man twelve years older he meets in an adult education class. The man he calls Hyung (older brother) is controlling, but also self-hating and politically conservative as well as anti-American.

This section also details the narrator's troubled history with his mother, who is a tart, deeply religious evangelical Christian. When she sees him kissing another boy at age 16, she sends him to a gay conversion facility. His mother is slowly dying of uterine cancer, but doesn't want to deal with her protracted death.

The third key chapter has Young finding the love of his life, Guy-Ho, a bartender, who eventually moves in with him. Their relationship is complicated by Young's revelation that he is HIV-positive. He never refers to the virus, but calls it Kylie after the Australian singer/diva Kylie Minogue. A tempestuous two years with lots of sex and arguments leads Young to self-sacrifice his own happiness and end the relationship.

The final chapter occurs during a Bangkok vacation where he meets a wealthy older married man, but realizes he still loves Gyu-Ho. Throughout the book, the narrator embarks on a career as a writer.

Sly satire

The novel is a sly satire of the traumas involved with being LGBTQ in South Korea. So in the opening chapter, the narrator, who is conscripted into the military, instructs his lover, in writing him letters, to sign them as Jaehee, his female best friend, so as not to invite any official scrutiny. We read about gay couples strolling together in the early dawn where they won't be noticed. Gay nightclubs and bars are always dimly lit.

The narrator describes himself as going "full drama-queen mode," and interjects to another character, "I knew you were gay the moment I laid eyes on you." Random street people call him a faggot. And his boyfriend Hyung thinks homosexuality is a disease. As the narrator is talking to Jaehee, he observes, "She learned that living as a gay was sometimes truly shitty." At times reading Love is reminiscent of the homophobia one encountered in 1970s American gay fiction.

But as damaged as the narrator may be, what Park does stunningly well is to show his evolution in self-awareness as he searches for love and meaningful connections. The early Young is self-absorbed, temperamental, "would do anything I was told by whoever bought me a drink," exhausting to be around, and views other people as existing for his amusement or convenience.

As his life progresses, he emerges as his own authentic person with more sensitivity and depth. Many of the characters have a rebellious streak and are willing to chuck oppressive societal norms aside. The novel revels in it hilarious, even absurd moments, one of its chief assets.

However, it's the poignant episodes that rivet. When Young and Gyu-ho are walking in the rain, Young writes, "When I saw his face —Gyu-ho, who always seemed more at peace than anyone I know— my heart melted a little." Or when Young asks Gyu-ho why he continues in the relationship despite finding out his HIV+ status, he replies, "Because, whatever it was or wasn't, you were you," arguably a beautiful definition of love.

The book is so winning because of the breakneck writing (assisted by the effervescent translation with its lighthearted millennial slang by Anton Hur) which gives a dynamic forward movement to the narrative. One can relate to these flawed believable characters.

Some readers will find the non-chronological four-part structure confusing, as past and present are jumbled together and it can be tricky to figure out which character is speaking in a dialogue. Yet this instability is what propels the characters and their actions.

For all its exuberance and sparkling energy, ultimately the novel examines loneliness and what happens when love is missing in your life, which explains the veneer of sadness undergirding the book, but is never allowed to overwhelm it. Love in the Big City is a dazzling English debut of an exhilarating South Korean author that deserves a global readership.

Love in the Big City: a Novel by Sang Young Park. Grove Press, $26.

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