I’ve recently spent a lot of time inside a book with a pink and green and obnoxious cover. This isn’t the book’s fault. Nobody really chooses their skin.
The skin was given to the book, as a means of selling it to those passing it by (on shelves, on Instagram squares, on websites, in the hands of strangers on public transport). The way you put clothes on a model, saying, sell it, meaning, sell yourself wearing it. Regardless. I spent a lot of time in this book, maybe because it was slow-going, maybe because I am a slow reader. Maybe both. It’s a book that worships the ‘both’, the way one worships a gun. The violence (though not that of guns) is everywhere in this book: it starts where the colourful brightness of its cover ends and the black on white of its story begins. And then it just seeps from one page through to the next. I’ve spent a lot of time between these pages, finding the stickiness of the violence slowing down my ability to turn them.
After I finished reading it, I felt as though I had gone on several hikes underwater. What a dumb simile. I’m not trying to be clever. I wanted to keep thinking about the book, however, to keep engaging with it – out of guilt, perhaps, for not having engaged with it wholeheartedly for a while, in the middle, where things got heavy, where things got even slower, even more difficult? Is it my own pace as a reader I’m apologising for?
Regardless. It’s a book in two parts, named I and II. It’s a book trapped in its concerns between the anxiety of either/or, frothing up into the ‘both’ – not just I or II, but I and II, and also not-I and not-II, all of them blurred and blended. I’m not making much sense.
It’s a book about children. Who are also not children. Who are real and also not real: imagined and also taken from reality, which may also have been imagined. The children exist in a world of violence, in which violence is entirely possible, and also erased.
The book begins, not with a child but with a dog. The dog floats down the stream. No. He doesn’t float. The either/or we are given is between swimming and drifting. The stream is strong, the dog is black and mostly submerged. The dog looks as if it’s swimming, purposefully, with the stream, but is it possible to swim with a stream? The dog may well be drifting, no matter what it looks like. The dog may well have sunk.
Then the dog fades and there is a child. This child is lucky. Later, the child will be less lucky, but this is not what I took from the book. The book doesn’t just do either/or, it also does this: doubling. There is the child, who is lucky, meaning if she loses an object it can be replaced, doubled; then, there is the Child, who isn’t lucky or unlucky but luckless, and she doesn’t get objects or replacements thereof. Her replacement is another one: it is the replacement of reality with something else, something that covers up reality. Sentences that sound beautiful but tell a very abstract, impersonal story. The cat has yellow eyes. The open window let in the leaves of Spring. That sort of thing.
This is so that what is written deep into the body of the Child will not be seen or uncovered: the deep red and black and green marks on her body, left there by the violence of presence and the neglect of absence. The Child’s fingernail ripped from the skin, leaving behind the raw and painful absence of it. We are left to assume this violence spills forth in the domestic realm, from the hands of parents, or would-be parents, but it is hard to tell – hard to feel told – in so many words.
The children that populate the class they all attend aren’t given much attention or backstory. They are given a chapter, Chapter 18, in which their individual fates are thrown at the reader in small sharp glimpses. Then they return into a forgotten space, a space of neglect. The author, later, when the book’s flow switches from part I to part II, seems consumed by regret about this neglect, of all these children she brought into a kind of being, a form of being that isn’t complete or autonomous but dependent, object-like. These children, who are described as part-plant part-animal, find their agency, their delight, in choking one another at the back of the classroom when the teacher leaves them alone for a moment. A child’s hands clasp around another child’s throat and squeeze until the child’s eyes close and the child’s body sinks to the ground. The children, who are part-plant part-animal, buy chicks from street vendors and flush them down the toilet, drop them from the tops of buildings.
In class, they write into journals under the supervision of their teacher. They write their thoughts into those journals and hand them in. Overnight, the Child, who has made a duplicate of the classroom key, steals the journals and adds sentences to them, imposing upon the children thoughts other than their own. It is unclear whose thoughts they are: they seem plucked from a shared mind, one spongy and drenched in shared violence. The key that enables this then disappears again. No trace must be left. This is what she says.
‘No trace must be left.’ (79)
No trace, because everything is a trace and the imperative to leave none is absurd, and therefore violent enough to impose. A touch leaves traces, a breath leaves traces, writing leaves traces; the entire book, a trace.
And then the second part, in which the trace comes to the tracer and asks: why me?
The character confronting its writer – familiar, and yet. The unsettling resumes: the character is both real and not real, both there, in the narrator/writer’s flat, drinking the orange juice she didn’t know she had, and not. The character is both a made-up child, tortured to the point of becoming violent herself, and not – a foil for the narrator, and not. The vagueness is like fog with spikes in it, the spikes of the continuation of the either/or, into which the reader runs ceaselessly.
Like perhaps other readers I read on, trudged on, wishing I could just let myself drift through the narrative, but the voice was sharp, and heavy. The narrative turned to brick. I mean: in a dream, which separates and connects part I and part II, the writer/narrator has a dream in which every part of her world slowly turns to brick.
The anxiety of the either/or has become such that the only response is paralysis, and not the dignified paralysis of rock or marble: the base, hollow, porous paralysis of brick. Brick infiltrates the narrative and the elements that make it up in the same way that the words ‘blue’ and ‘kettle’ make their way -parasitically- into a Caryl Churchill play. Progressively, every thing, every word (because in the realm of writing a thing is no more than a word) becomes brick, infected with brick, this adjective brick tethering itself to the word like concrete shoes. If it is all caught between sinking and sunken, then brick will cause it to sway towards more concrete a state. Or is brick perhaps too porous to properly sink? This question isn’t asked, therefore it isn’t answered.
The book is frustrating, not so much because it is self-aware but because its own self-awareness sends its narrative into a spiral of self-doubt that rang too closely to my own mind while I was reading it. I read The Impossible Fairytale while traveling, and then still found myself within its pages when I returned home. I hadn’t focused much on my own writing while away, and when I returned my routines seemed for a while impossible to re-enter. I wanted to write, but couldn’t find a thing to write about, couldn’t find a single thread to pull on. Or perhaps I couldn’t find the energy to pull on any thread other than feeling sorry for myself.
I can’t write a single sentence. Still, I don’t think I’ve yet lost the least bit of my ability to form a sentence. I have no problem writing, “I can’t write a single sentence.” Therefore, the previous sentence is a lie. I cannot stand lies. What I cannot stand is starting with the sentence, “I can’t write a single sentence.” I sat at my desk for a long time, trying not to write that I couldn’t write a single sentence as my first sentence.
– Han Yujoo – Lament (at Words without Borders) http://www.wordswithoutborders.org/article/lament
The above is a text in which some of Han Yujoo’s figures and tropes from The Impossible Fairytale resurface: snow, footprints, running shoes, dogs, dead dogs, rivers, the uncertainty of responsibility in the face of death. And, of course, the interrupted writing process.
The key, which fell/was dropped into the earth, lies here: Chapter 28
‘I am erased from the dream. Night is crouching. Before this dream disappears, before it retreats to the far side of recollection, before it retreats beyond the midday shadows, I must put this dream down in writing. But I soon fall back to sleep again and am thoroughly separated from the dream. The dream that has drifted by forgets me. It is forgetting me.’ (140)
A river is bookending the narrative: a river in which a black dog swims with the stream, which, the narrator is told, is impossible: the dog cannot be swimming with the stream, he must merely be drifting. But the dog is mostly submerged, and the stream is quick: how can we tell, other than by what the authoritative voices on the shore tell us to believe? The dog: is it swimming despite the stream, or does it merely appear to swim but instead drifts helplessly along, into the unknown endpoint towards which the stream is running?
The stream isn’t out-there, exactly, when it comes to metaphors for the unconscious mind, or for the narrative. It’s the helplessness that matters here: to be dragged along by a stream absolves you of all responsibility of direction: you cannot control where you’re headed; the responsibility and agency are the stream’s. The only responsibility you have lies in the entering of the stream; the beginning of the writing process, the trace you left, the immersion of yourself.
But how willing was the immersion? How willingly are we born? How willingly is the character dragged piece by piece, atom by atom, from the tip of the fountain pen? And how willingly does the writing hand lay the words on the page?
The whole book redacts itself, for fear of an outside hand and authority reaching in to redact it after the fact. ‘You can’t use the expression ‘dried out’ for a dog.’ (140) Or: you created a character only to kill her. Or: you created a child just to have her kill another.
The Child –capital C– redacts the writings of the children. Sneaks into the classroom at night, when the violent parents or parental figures have left home, giving her some time to escape, and to act. The children’s journals aren’t private, although their thoughts in them are expected to be written as if private, in a mindless trusting way.
The Child redacts the writings of others, but not to make them less suspicious, less autonomous: she adds to their journals, in writing that approximates their handwriting, sentences, phrases, that seem to come from a collective mind drenched in violence, in suppressed desires to afflict violence upon the world. They may be the Child’s own thoughts projected into the mouths and minds of others, or they may be the thoughts the Child suspects the children of having, of wishes the children had: if others have them, then the world is confirmed to be a place as cruel and upsetting as the Child was taught to see it.
And it is cruel, obsessed with cruelty while holding it at arm’s length:
When I grow up, I’m going to buy a fountain pen, says Mia. Do you know you can kill someone with a fountain pen? she asks. I got that from a book. If you drop the pen from high up at the right angle, the pointy tip will pierce right into the person’s head. It’s because of acceleration. It was in a detective story.
Because, even though the narrator reminds us it would be ‘far more effective to drive the pointed metal tip into someone’s throat’ (11), the fact remains that Mia is a ‘lucky child’, to whom death and killing are still abstract. Dropping the fountain pen from a distance, from the safe height of a dangerously tall building, calculating the angle at which it would enter a pedestrian’s skull is the book’s blossoming image about responsibility. Efficiency –driving tip into throat– is all well and good, but cannot be covered up: it tethers you to the crime, to the death. What the book is interested in is not so much the responsibility between characters, but that of the writer towards her characters: creating them, giving them lives and detailed existences, just to have them kill, or killed. Wiping the writer’s fingerprints from the crime because they weren’t the writer’s hands around the child’s throat.
How much right does the writer have to write a murder and then stop the narrative short, to retreat into self-doubt, into writer’s block, into a pocket of the narrative where the own writer’s block is discussed at length rather than offering continuation of the story in which the murder occurred? This suspends the characters in Limbo, a place in which their lives cease to move, cease to flow, and therefore cease to matter: they cannot die, and they cannot live. The writer has returned to her own consciousness, via a spongy layer in which she seeks opposites and synonyms, in which she faces her world turning to brick, and then: a character rises to the surface with the writer, to the surface of the writer’s consciousness, and says: ‘Why me?’ Meaning: ‘What right do you have?’
And I must wait for her. We will talk about someone’s death, and about some things like death. She will come without warning and leave without warning. I must wait for her. (154)
And the writer’s role is to let her, the accuser, the proxy, the foil, the double (and yet none of these things) into the house.