translated by Bruce and Ju-Chan Fulton
(Two Lines Press, 2018)
Kim Sagwa's English-language debut is both a difficult and complex read. Loosely comparable to the Mean Girls and Pretty Little Liars genre with tones of Bright Lights, Big City, the novel focuses on two young women failing to cope with their lives and with each other. Set in South Korea’s “P City,” Mina and her sometimes-best-friend Crystal suffer pressures common to most teens and while also specific to South Korea. These are girls of privilege whose parents are mostly absent but expect perfect grades, perfect performance. Driven and lost with virtually no adult supervision, the end can only be tragic.
Crystal is brutal, insecure, and a brilliantly wrought unreliable narrator. From her first appearance, attempting to strangle Mina (at Mina's own urging) while Mina's brother Minho looks on, we don't like her very much. Mina grooves to Kim Gordon, Minho shows a film with two women kissing, and Crystal tries too hard—to confirm that Mina is her best friend, to get Minho's attention, to be nonchalant about ditching another boyfriend. And then the attempt to be “cool” evaporates when both Crystal and Mina rush off to “cram school.”
Crystal is proud of her perfect grammar but unconcerned with the content of the essays she writes for school. She doesn't understand why one of their teachers bonds with Mina over books she has no interest in because they don't figure on the exams. For Crystal, life is about succeeding in school, collecting boyfriends, and having the most money without ever achieving any deeper understanding of what life is really about. It all seems like your basic teen angst drama (just set in South Korea) until Mina's childhood friend, Chiye, commits suicide, sending Mina into a deep depression. Mina drops out of school and temporarly out of Crystal's life.
Crystal cannot understand why Mina ends up at an “alternative” school, making her a "loser" in Crystal's eyes. School is, for Crystal, training for the exams to get into a good university to get a good job, and so on. Critical thinking and deep feeling don't come into it for Crystal and it is this lack that leads to her break down. Under pressure to constantly succeed, she lashes out when an instructor makes an error in an equation on a blackboard and refuses to acknowledge it. Instead, the instructor humiliates Crystal (in her view) and she storms out of class.
Throughout the novel Sagwa veers off on detailed critiques of South Korean society and while this might seem confusing or at least a distraction from the forward motion of the text, these mini-rants are essential in understanding the horrific violence that arises later in the novel. For Sagwa, there are only three paths in high school: for the brilliant to simply maintain their elite status, for most kids “to endure” and hope that college is better, and for those who have “lost their way” engaging in fantasies, falling into depression and often suicide. Crystal is a “model child” and a perfect mimic in a society that rewards mimicry and crushes independent thought. But trouble is brewing.
Chiye sends a text to Mina before she jumps from a school building but Mina can't answer her until she's home from cram school herself. By then it's too late. Despite the suicide, the school goes ahead with exams the next day. Crystal is confused and doesn't know how to respond to Chiye's death; it's not about the emotion but instead what look she should adopt. Her classmates all seem to know how to behave appropriately but Crystal worries “Am I the only one, the one person who's without a clue?” Crystal is eaten up with jealousy, no longer just of Mina's friendship with the dead girl but "she is jealous of Mina's sorrow." Crystal doesn't know how to feel and it's this envy of Mina's ability to feel that will be the undoing of both girls. When Mina drops out of school and briefly out of Crystal's life, Crystal is left asking herself over and over, “What do I do now?” In a culture that is based on rote memorization, duplication, and learning focused only on exams, girls like Crystal are left without the basic emotional tools to know how to cope with the loss of classmates to suicide, the pressure to succeed, and largely unconcerned adults. This is the message that Sagwa appears to be weaving into her narrative but it's not clear that this is enough to justify the brutality of Crystal's violence when she finally snaps.
Crystal spins out of control, first losing her temper with a teacher in front of an entire class, then taking her confused rage out on a homeless kitten—torturing the tiny creature to death while she photographs and films it—later bragging to her crush, Mina's brother Minho, and showing him the terrible images. Mina finally loses her temper with Crystal and in an extended dialogue we see the essential difference between the two girls. Mina doesn't want to be a perfect member of society; she thinks for herself, she rebels against the endless treadmill of exams, school, and cram school. She sees Crystal for what she is: jealous and without feelings except competition, envy, and rage. But Crystal claims she is not the heartless killer Mina claims she is. Instead she is lost, she doesn't know why she's violent, “Why would I kill a kitten? I'm afraid to know. I'm awful, I know that.”
When Crystal decides she wants Minho, she drops her latest boyfriend and then violently smashes her phone when he won't stop texting her. Minho is mostly passive, he keeps silent and makes no attempt to understand, as the novel tells us, “That's the lifestyle he's chosen.” When Minho and Crystal get together, there is an extended value judgment in the text that feels somewhat forced. We're to believe that neither Minho nor Crystal has any deep emotions, any deep thoughts, “They say nothing of substance and ask nothing of each other.” But Crystal is angry and her rage reaches a fever pitch. Over a banana smoothie, she tells her ex-boyfriend that if he ever calls her again, “I will kill you, you fucking bastard.” Later she confesses to Minho that she's not sleeping; she's consumed with rage and is thinking of killing another kitten, except this kitten is human. Minho is his usual nonchalant self, but admits that he doesn't believe her. It’s this lack of belief, the fact that Crystal believes no one takes her seriously, that sends her into her final spiral of violence.
While the narrative shifts tone in several places to give the reader a sharp critique of South Korean society, these shifts actually serve as counterpoint to the teen melodrama of Crystal's narrative. And while Sagwa’s use of long stretches of dialogue can be somewhat excessive, ultimately her strong characterization of these two troubled young women makes for a compelling and deeply disturbing read.