Park Min-gyu Blends Adroit Humor with Insightful Criticism
Lee Myoung-won, Literary Critic
Park Min-gyu has produced two novels and a collection of short stories.
As seen in these works, his most noteworthy literary talent is his keen
sense of humor. As such, this humor, which does not get overwhelmed or
buried in the storytelling, elicits a thoughtful reaction by
maintaining a rational distance and restrained sensibility.
The world illuminated by Park’s writing involves an old order that has
come to shape our everyday life of today. In this world, a global
system of capitalism has taken hold of people’s lives and souls, along
with turning everything into an object of ownership. The characters in
Park’s novels experience a sense of helplessness in this environment,
which also includes corruptive aspects. His characters, burdened by
financial difficulties and with limited potential for upward mobility,
harbor a deep sense of self-resentment and propensity for failure.
What can such downtrodden people do in this world that offers so little
hope in the way of prospects for a brighter future? By necessity, they
are engrossed in a game of survival, in keeping with the existing
order. But there is no escape from their grave circumstances, which
only worsen even as they exert their utmost efforts.
This is certainly the case for Gi-ha, a main character in the short story “Korean Standards.”
A person of staunch principles, Gi-ha is a democracy activist, a
product of Korea’s struggle for democratization in the 1980s. But 20
years down the road, he is living a completely fruitless life. He
attempts to uphold the convictions of his youth by promoting ecological
activism in the countryside, but these efforts totally collapse in the
face of reality.
This failure is symbolically expressed through a wholly absurd account
of an invasion by aliens. For Gi-ha, after having his dreams dashed in
the city, he seeks redemption in the countryside, only to face utter
despair. His desperation is rooted in the new industrial structure,
which has severely damaged the livelihood of country people, along with
eroding the personal relationships that rely on trust. Moreover, this
state of affairs has taken root due to the notable transformation of
people’s attitude toward life.
The narrator of the story observes: “Quietly, from being someone hoping
that society would change, I turned into a person hoping that his
office ranking would change.” This confession clearly reveals the
dramatic shift in the attitude of Koreans, between the 1980s and the
2000s. In the past, the younger generation, who were filled with
Utopian ideals, believed that they could change the world,
fundamentally and rapidly. But over the course of two decades, this
younger generation has become today’s middle-age group, who somehow
abandoned their dreams along the way. Meanwhile, their lofty hopes have
been replaced by an overriding desire to simply survive.
In this process, their lives have become unfulfilling and even
wretched. But what distinguishes the author’s perspective is that,
while depicting in detail the extreme desperation, he describes their
situation with emotional restraint, thereby enabling readers to
maintain a sense of objectivity. This emotional distance and objective
perspective are hallmarks of Park’s style of humor, which embodies a
mature pathos rooted in a dispassionate perception of reality.
Another factor that facilitates this style of humor is the author’s
literary mechanism of not allowing readers to develop an emotional
empathy, or personal intimacy, with the characters. On the one hand, he
does utilize hyper-realistic expression, but by introducing fantasy
elements, such as an alien invasion, he tends to caricaturize the dire
circumstances through the involvement of unusual or bizarre incidents.
This approach causes Park’s readers to give up on the notion of
developing an emotional bond with the characters. Moreover, the
humorous and unpredictable unfolding of events, along with an absence
of personal sentiments, encourage readers to seriously contemplate the
reality of their world. That is, the story provokes questions about the
underlying motivation for people to accumulate wealth and whether
personal relationships are ultimately about gaining an advantage.
As for Park, through his humor, he seeks to have readers discover a new
prism for viewing reality, based on an objective mindset unclouded by
emotional attachment. When the reader attempts to identify with the
characters, an unexpected paradoxical situation occurs to disrupt this
process as a result of Park’s humorous presentation. As such, this
humor is best appreciated by those who are not overwhelmed by reality
and can thus maintain a rational outlook.
Park Min-gyu’s writing is characterized by an adroit humor and
insightful criticism of reality, along with lending support to people’s
struggles against suppressive elements. Interestingly, this humor is
more universal in nature than it is about a particular Korean style.