Reading Like a Writer: The Vegetarian and Describing Emotions
The Vegetarian, by Han Kang (translated by Deborah Smith), tells of an unexpected vegetarian in South Korea and the destruction of her life and family as she turns into a tree. It's told from the perspectives of Yeong-hye's husband, brother-in-law, and sister.
It also employs some exceptional techniques for portraying strong emotion. In particular, we can learn from the brother-in-law's reaction to Yeong-hye's suicide attempt.
First, there's the event itself. Yeong-hye's husband presents an emotionally cold, though visually powerful, blow-by-blow of the moment.
Blood ribboned out of her wrist. The shock of red splashed over white china. As her knees buckled and she crumpled to the floor, the knife was wrested from her by [her brother-in-law], who until then had sat through the whole thing as an idle spectator.
Because the husband has given us the basic facts (Yeong-hye cuts her wrist and her previously idle brother-in-law jumps to life.), the brother-in-law's later summary can emphasize different aspects, the ones most meaningful to him.
A person had attacked her own body right in front of his eyes, tried to hack at it like it was a piece of meat; her blood had soaked his white shirt, mingling with his sweat and gradually drying to a dark brown stain.
Comparing the passages shows where each person finds horror and where each finds beauty. The cutting is treated as an impersonal but lovely thing or else as something grotesque and animalistic. One description focuses on the knife and how it is taken from Yeong-hye; the other seems obsessed with bodily fluids. Note the husband's use of the passive voice in introducing the brother-in-law, and how dismissive he is. The brother-in-law's choice not to mention his own role is something else, giving the sense that he doesn't think, but reacts instinctively.
And, of course, the rhythm of the language is distinct. The husband reports happenings as they occur and is more abrupt, more about action. The brother-in-law's account feels smoother and more processed because he's had time to reflect on the incident's meaning. As a result, his reaction—his horror—is encapsulated in the way the sentence starts with violence but ends with profound intimacy.
"Attack," "hack," and "like it was a piece of meat" emphasize brutality. Calling Yeong-hye "a person" creates abstraction, which might make the violence more palatable to the brother-in-law. It also makes her a stranger, emphasizing that the two don't (yet) have a particular relationship. Then, just a few words later, the two bodies come together, their blood and sweat "mingling." How much softer is that word! Their merge is so real to the brother-in-law that Yeong-hye's bodily excretions seem to be happening to him. Two bodies become one.
Because the violence and intimacy happen within the same sentence, they're made parallel. We recognize the opposites as two sides of the same coin. Yet the sentence is careful in its timing, gradually moving from one to the other, so we feel it as a shift rather than a conflation. They mesh only abstractly, as we (with the brother-in-law) look backward. Meanwhile, the quick turn mimics the wrenching of the character's emotions, even if the reader can't yet understand it.
We're often taught to prioritize showing over telling, but letting a character tell can enable more noticeable choices about how a thing is told. Because the brother-in-law has crafted this summary, we sense that he's aware of the relationship between violence and intimacy. It's part of what causes his reaction.
After the summary, the brother-in-law looks away. He talks about money and clothing and trivial topics, calculates coldly whether Yeong-hye should live or die.
The break lets us relax a bit so that when the intensity of emotion comes roaring back, we feel it more acutely. It also just makes sense. People do try to distract themselves from strong feelings.
Eventually the day's logistics bring him to the topic of his own art:
During the journey (to change his shirt), his most recent video work had come to mind, and he'd been surprised to find himself recalling it as something that had caused him unbearable pain.
And here's where we finally get a direct description of his feelings. He can't quite say how the moment of holding Yeong-hye made him feel—it was too quick and too powerful. But he can describe the way it changes his feelings about something else.
He had felt suddenly sick. Even though those images had undeniably caused him agony, even though he'd hated them, the individual moments contained in the work, which he'd stayed up all night wrestling with, struggling to face up to the true nature of the emotions they provoked in him, had now come to feel like a form of violence. At that moment his thoughts crossed a boundary, and he wanted to fling open the door of the speeding taxi and tumble out onto the tarmac. He could no longer bear the thought of those images, of the reality they portrayed. Back then, when he had been able to deal with them, it must have been because his hatred of them was somehow underdeveloped—or else because he hadn't been sufficiently threatened by them. But just then, shut up inside the taxi that sweltering summer afternoon with the smell of his sister-in-law's blood assailing his nostrils, those images and that reality were suddenly threatening, making the bile rise in his throat and the breath catch in his lungs. It occurred to him that it might be a long time before he was capable of making another work. He was worn out, and life revolted him. He couldn't cope with all the things it contaminated.
This passage blows me away. Maybe it's because I'm afraid to describe an emotion outright, to say what something feels like. I worry about seeming sentimental or melodramatic or like my characters are a bunch of whiners.
But look how Han Kang does it! And she uses some interesting tools to make it work.
First, the earlier setups, when we learn both what actually happened and the brother-in-law's take on it, are key. They provide essential information that we can pin the sappy stuff to, giving the emotions some traction. They also allow the writer to linger in the feelings, without retreating for any cold or functional explanations. The short phrase "his sister-in-law's blood" can remind us of an entire scene, but still be layered beneath the more important feelings of the moment.
This matters because emotions are slippery little things. They won't hold their shape or form unless you find a way to pin them down.
Han Kang does it in other ways too. She lets the brother-in-law think of something other than the slippery emotions and other than the event strictly responsible for them: his art. The art works well because it is concrete and possible to interpret in more than one way.
Another thing Han Kang pins emotion to is change. Because the brother-in-law's feelings are different than they used to be, there's a reason for them to be described. And, of course, a compare and contrast, instead of a plain description, gives us something better to hang onto.
I'm always tempted to avoid the direct description of emotion in fiction or maybe to pin those slippery feelings beneath actions. I love this example of pinning them right on top.
Allison Wyss is teaching the following classes at the Loft this summer: Writing the Apocalypse, The Ins and Outs of Publishing in Literary Journals, Beneath the Surface: Exploring Subtext, and the Online Summer Sampler. Her stories have appeared in [PANK] Magazine, The Southeast Review, The Golden Key, Metazen, MadHat (Mad Hatters’ Review), The Doctor T. J. Eckleburg Review, and Juked. She has an MFA from the University of Maryland. She tweets, mostly about writing, as @AllisonWyss.