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Post Road Magazine #32

The Vegetarian, by Han Kang

Matthew Salesses

Full of rage, I used to write op-eds. I wrote them not because I was angry, but because, honestly, I wanted to share anger with others. I wanted to change people's minds, stir up their lives, overthrow the kind of limp thinking that keeps us captive to society's poor imagination. I had some success getting these essays published, and when people shared them in their social media feeds I felt like I was doing some good in the world. Then I started to realize that the people who shared these essays and who read them already shared my anger; , their minds were not changed, their lives were not stirred, they believed they were right, and my essays allowed them to feel even more right, to become even more calcified. They didn't need to change any further, because they were already enlightened. I didn't share this belief.

What I wondered was simple: how does one write something that compels a person to tear down her life, continually, that not only fosters sympathy for a character who tears down her own life, but also teaches the socially conscious reader to do so, too? Not write about resistance, but write in a way that encourages a reader to resist the manicured surfaces of their lives?

There is a book I read last year: The Vegetarian, by Han Kang, which won the 2016 Man Booker International Prize. It is about a woman who decides to become a vegetarian. No one around her wants her to do this. In the first third of the book, her husband, in first person, despises and does terrible things to her, because she will not give up giving up meat. In most books, the story is about the narrator. As I read The Vegetarian, I found myself sympathizing through only the entrapment of first person. We see as he sees. What I had to do, if I did not want to hate myself as I hated this narrator, was to resist the I.

The second third book moves to third-person, following the perspective of the woman's brother-in-law, who is far less hateful. At first, it seems a relief. But soon the brother-in-law becomes obsessed with the woman. He's married, with kids, but he wants to sleep with his sister-in-law. He is an artist and he wants to turn her into a work of art, and as he starts to manipulate her, the same resistance is needed—if you let your guard down, you will find yourself allied with another man, less obviously hateful but no less terrible.

The last third of the novel returns to first-person, through the woman's sister, who loves her and is trying to take care of her. By this time the vegetarian does not want to eat at all—one might think she has gone through trauma enough for her desires. Our new narrator has to commit her own sister, where the staff violently force her to eat in horrible detail. The narrator would rather not hurt her beloved sister, but this is the price of staying alive as a human being. Finally we have someone who means well, but by now we want only for everyone to leave the woman alone to do what she wants.

I haven't stopped thinking about the book since I read it. The book has gotten under my skin, as they say, lodged deep in a place from which it refuses to come out. It resists, and every day it teaches me to resist. Let it teach you, too.

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