Three Meditations on Loneliness and Violence

Hwan Jungeun, trans. Emily Yae Won, I’ll Go On

Tilted Axis Press, 284pp, £9.99, ISBN 9781911284208

reviewed by Tobias Carroll

In 2016, Tilted Axis Press published an English translation of Hwang Jungeun’s novel, One Hundred Shadows. It was a perfect example of what can be done within the confines of a short novel: it told an atmospheric story of two people living impoverished lives on the fringes of society, laced with a potent dose of the uncanny. It portrayed the frustrations of life in a region that might be developed out of existence at any moment, and was charged with the potential of human connection and joy that can be found nearly anywhere. Throw in a few phantasmagorical presences and you have a haunting work that eludes easy description: realistic in its treatment of class and economic uncertainty, but surreal in certain other details.

I’ll Go On is Hwang’s second novel to be translated into English, and it is at once more intimate and more ambitious than its predecessor. Here, the mode is strictly realistic, and yet the trio of narrators – sisters Sora and Nana and their childhood friend Naghi – all with their own, sometimes divergent perspectives, allows for a novel sort of ambiguity to creep into the text.

The dynamic among the narrators is a complex one. Certain of Sora’s comments suggest she may be asexual; she notes that ‘I have a strong aversion to being in too close a proximity to anyone; I loathe physical contact of any sort.’ Nana is pregnant with her boyfriend Moseh’s child, but struggles with feelings about how to deal with motherhood. Naghi, who has spent more time traveling the world than his childhood friends, is also more introverted, and spends endless hours ruminating on a former classmate who had once obsessed him.

The prospect of Nana becoming a parent causes all three to re-examine elements of their lives, from their feelings on emotional and physical intimacy to their perspectives on parenthood. Unlike Sora and Nana, Naghi has a warm relationship with his mother; Sora and Nana’s mother, Aeja, was neglected them during their childhood after the girls’ father died and the family descended into poverty. Their relationship with their mother remains fraught, whereas Naghi’s mother emerges as a much warmer character in relation to all three.

Nana’s commentary on Aeja’s current status is telling: ‘. . . she’s as good as dead; instead, she’ll occasionally cease all life-sustaining acts and fuck herself up, which fucks Sora up and fucks Nana up,’ she writes. (Nana occasionally refers to herself in the third person.) Here again, there are traces of the ambiguity of Hwang’s earlier novel: a sense of societal expectations that have fallen apart, and a generation forced to bridge the gulf between social demands and their own needs and desires. The conflict is a familiar one, but the peculiar way it comes to suffuse the language itself in Huang’s novel adds a depth of feeling that pulls readers further into the tale.

I’ll Go On juxtaposes language and perspective in each of its three sections. At the beginning of each of their respective sections, the characters analyze their own names, and this which extends into broader linguistic meditations. Nana notes that one component of the word imsanbu or ‘pregnant woman’ also ‘means wife or daughter-in-law.’ Since she has yet to marry Moseh, there’s a subtle imbalance there, a sense that the language used to describe her has also failed to accurately describe her.

This ambiguity extends to the very structure of this novel. Memories and dreams often overtake the present-day activities of Sora, Nana, and Naghi; Naghi’s narration in particular frequently cuts away from actions to indulge in reveries about his past. Nana shifts between the first and third person in her self-descriptions, while Naghi addresses the subject of his memories as ‘you’. The overall effect is one of both intimacy and alienation, with regard to the narrators’ childhood and for the experience of the novel as a whole.

There is something here of the chamber piece: three characters orbiting each other, each lost in memory and speculation. Done with less discipline, this might feel like three interwoven novellas, but the centrality of Nana’s pregnancy in the lives of all three – along with her ambivalence about life with Moseh – leads to a most physically and psychologically jarring moment that will have consequences for everyone involved.

The emotional tensions revealed here do not detract from I’ll Go On’s intellectual force. Its meditations on language, its subtle variations of structure, and its use of time and memory all lead toward questioning the nature of identity in general. To what extent are we shaped by our exterior – even by the names our parents give us? How much of ourselves can we define? What does it mean to view your own life as an observer, and does this view change when you are faced with a transformative event? Hwang’s novel leaves few concise answers for the reader, but allows numerous subtle provocations to arise in their stead. In this way, it taps into something essential.
Tobias Carroll is the author of three books: Political Sign, Reel, and Transitory. He is the managing editor of Vol. 1 Brooklyn and writes the Watchlist column for Words Without Borders.