Given it is called the Man Asian Literary Prize, there’s something to be said for the fact that a woman has finally won it. On Thursday, it was announced that Kyung-sook Shin, author of Please Look After Mom, had been awarded the Man Asian Literary Prize, making her the first woman and the first South Korean to do so. Those of us who were hoping that some feisty feminist novel would make this bit of history must have our hopes dashed. While Please Look After Mom is both written by a woman and about a woman, there’s nothing feminist about it. Rather it presents the good woman as a silent sufferer, a nurturer extraordinaire; in short, she is a Korean Mother Earth embodied in a dress, caring for her young and doling out rice and kimchi, even as everyone misunderstands and exploits her. If the Man in Man Asian Literary Prize was meant to represent the stereotypical male, I imagine Please Look After Mom is precisely the kind of novel that would win favour. The Man actually stands for a financial services company called Man Group and it’s mildly amusing that a prize sponsored by this company has gone to a book that is so staunchly against modern industry and commerce.
Please Look After Mom was originally published in 2008, is supposedly enormously successful and has been translated to an absurd number of languages, including English (courtesy Alfred Knopf in 2011). It is one of the most infuriating books I’ve ever read, and I’ve read Chetan Bhagat’s Two States of My Marriage. (Ok, so I sped read it; still counts.) There are some beautiful moments in the Please Look After Mom and at times, Kyung-sook Shin’s descriptions are heartbreaking. None of this makes up for the fact that Please Look After Mom is saturated with melodrama and espouses a set of values that feel almost pre-modern. The city is a bad, evil and divisive place while the countryside is idyllic and pure, despite all the hardship. The simple, pre-industrialised life is held up as ideal. As a contrast, the city sucks everything that’s positive out of life. Women who have proved their fecundity with multiple offspring, who toil as homemakers silently and value old superstitions are good. The single woman who focusses on her career is bad. And how does the character who was a bitch redeem herself? By collapsing into a puddle of tears, grief and apology at the foot of the Pieta at the Vatican.
An elderly couple come to Seoul to meet their children who live in the big city. They get off at a train station and decide to take the crowded subway to their son’s house. The husband gets in the subway and realises his wife wasn’t able to get in. By the time he’s able to return to the station, she is no longer there. In blurb-language, Please Look After Mom is a family’s attempt to deal with their lost mother. The novel is actually a few hundred pages of finger-wagging at the family who ignored “Mom”. (I’m using inverted commas because the word sounds dreadfully awkward — too casual, too foreign — in the book. Every time it pops up, you’re reminded this is a translation.) First, the daughter who is single and a writer is berated for not having been more sensitive to her mother’s pain and suffering. Next, the eldest son, who was the mother’s favourite, is guilt-tripped. Then it’s the husband’s turn. As each character remembers the mother, she gets pieced together as a perfect but passive person. Things are constantly done to her. She has no identity outside of the role of mother. Even the secrets she’s kept from the family, like her work at the orphanage, underscore what a consummate mother she was. Finally, we get to hear the mother’s voice. No, she isn’t found. But her ghost is watching members of her family fondly as it readies itself to leave the mortal plane. Yes, her ghost and this is not a device introduced for a laugh. Like everything else in the book, you’re supposed to weep as you read her gentle words.
I’m not sure what is more annoying — the judgmental third person narrator who is perched on a moral high horse and addresses the characters it’s punishing as “you”, or the overwrought language that doesn’t so much tug at heart strings as yank on them like one would at the emergency brake of a hurtling train. I presume the author chose to use the third person narrator and have them use “you” like this,
You thought you didn’t love your wife very much, because you married her after seeing her only once, but every time you left home and some time passed, she reappeared in your thoughts. Your wife’s hands could nurture any life.
in order to create some sort of empathetic guilt trip between reader and character. What it ends up feeling like is being subject to an unending lecture where you can’t get in a word in your own defense. Add to that lines like these:
“This was the same woman. Her eyes are the same. I herded cows when I was young, so I’ve seen eyes like hers, earnest and gentle.”
What I’d like to do is get Kyung-soon Shin and the panel of judges for this year’s Man Asian Literary Prize (which included Vikas Swarup, the man who wrote the novel from which Slumdog Millionaire was adapted) to watch Young Adult, the most recent collaboration between writer Diablo Cody and director Jason Reitman who earlier did Juno together. Starring Charlize Theron, Young Adult is about a fairly successful author of YA fiction who is riddled with neuroses. Mavis Grey obsessively plucks her hair, seems to survive on a diet of alcohol and Diet Coke and has a yappy little dog that has to be one of the most tragic characters seen on film in years. She’s also unable to write. When she receives a mass email from her high school boyfriend Buddy with a photo of Buddy’s newborn daughter, Mavis realises what she’s supposed to do: she has to rescue Buddy from the shackles of small-town domesticity and bring him to Minneapolis (where Mavis now lives) to live out their high school dream. So Mavis returns to Mercury, Minnesota.
Diablo Cody’s Juno was funny but precious. In Young Adult, Cody’s writing skills are sharp enough to draw blood. Imagine sentimental clichés and Hollywood stereotypes piled up like a stack of plates. Mavis Grey — tottering on her high heels; wearing the wig that covers the raw, exposed, hairless patches her scalp — comes up to the pile, picks one up and drops it. Divorce makes you grow up, mother knows best, small town America has a heart that eventually humbles arrogant city slickers, family is a comfort, high school was a warm and fuzzy time, happy endings involve two people, the hero of the film is a nice person at heart — one by one, all these ideas go, to quote Roxette, crash boom bang. Mavis Grey is a horrible person. She’s also terribly sad, lonely and in desperate need of a good shrink, but it isn’t as though people did this to her. People did things to Matt Freehauf (played superbly by Patton Oswalt). Because some jocks thought he was gay, they bashed him up so badly that he’s crippled for the rest of his life. There’s a hint that a careless remark by Mavis may have led to this happening to Matt, but Matt isn’t anywhere near as messed up as Mavis. He’s sad, yes, but he doesn’t hurtle blindly towards disasters like Mavis does. He’s grounded in reality, boring and unpleasant as it may be, while Mavis lives in a curious mishmash of reality and high school; much like the fiction she writes.
The policy of stumbling through life like a living crash test dummy doesn’t go too well for Mavis. She is humiliated, disillusioned and forced to confront and confess some truths. The cast is in general superb but Theron and Oswalt are fantastic as Mavis and Matt respectively. I’m not sure how Theron managed to make us care for the stunted human being that she played, but she did. As her illusions unravel in real life, the book Mavis is writing starts to take shape as she draws from what is happening to her and transforms it to create a triumphal finale for the central character of her YA novel who is leaving high school and readying herself for the real world. There’s very little triumph in Mavis’s life. Her car is busted. She looks like a homeless person. She has no one but a dog that she keeps imprisoned in enclosed spaces (handbags, hotel rooms, condominiums). And yet, she feels she’s superior because she’s able to leave this small town behind (for Minneapolis, mind you). Near the end of Young Adult, one of the characters reminds Mavis that the fact that she made a life for herself in the city is something that everyone wants to do in Mercury, Minnesota, but she’s the only one who managed. Then this young girl looks to Mavis with pleading eyes and says, “Take me with you.” Mavis, wearing her ruined but fashionable clothes, looks at the girl with her plain face, homey sweater and ponytail, and tells her that Mercury is best for her.
Someone should write a book titled When Mom Met Mavis.