Brazos Best: Lose Weight, Lose Your Mind!

Article by staff

The Book: THE VEGETARIAN, a novel by Han Kang, our February Brazos Best pick

The Chatters: Augusta Bartis (Inventory Manager), Ülrika Moats (Gift Buyer), Keaton Patterson (Book Buyer), and Benjamin Rybeck (Marketing Director)

The Plot: After disturbing dreams, a Korean housewife decides to become a vegetarian. As she loses weight, her mind begins to deteriorate as well, and her choice begins to affect three of her family members—her husband, her brother-in-law, and her sister (each of whom anchor a section)—in disturbing ways.

Benjamin: So, here we are, with the second Brazos Best title of 2016.

Keaton: Yeah, two creep-o books to start off the year. [Our January pick was THE BOY WHO STOLE ATTILA’S HORSE.]

Augusta: Yeah, very creepy, and very unsettling.

Benjamin: So what is it about this book that’s so creepy exactly?

Augusta: All the terrifying meat dreams! I understand why [the wife] goes crazy…I would too if I had dreams like that.

Ülrika: Her dreams start off the whole thing of her becoming a vegetarian. And it’s creepy to watch her slip into madness and how her family reacts to that. The book is broken into three sections, each focused on a different family member watching her lose her mind. From a cultural perspective, vegetarianism is not very big in Korea, so by not eating meat, she’s dishonoring her husband, her family, on and on, which adds onto her another layer of guilt. As you turn the pages, you watch her spiral out of control and never come back.

Benjamin: Yeah, and because each of the sections is told from outside of her, we’re never in her head. We never know what’s pushing her forward or propelling her. Everything comes from an exterior source—someone looking at her.

Augusta: Yeah, and it’s all about what those people can take from her. With her husband, she isn’t performing up to his standards. Then, in the second section, her brother-in-law just thinks of her as a sex object. So yeah, it’s interesting to see how we never know what she’s thinking.

Keaton: I like the idea that Han Kang [the author] presents the wife’s selective vegetarianism as a hugely subversive act, even though in Korea, vegetarianism has become more popular. But still, the vegetarianism pulls a thread, and the social mores around the wife unravel. Her obedience to her husband and her family, the whole idea of her place in society: everything starts unraveling as the author pulls this one thread. That was really disturbing about the book—watching the society fall apart and also her identity unravel.

Ülrika: The dreams start this all off, but in the beginning, you only get snippets of them. She doesn’t even communicate the dreams with the people around her. She doesn’t say, “Hey, I’m having these horrible nightmares, I’m envisioning myself covered in blood, in a meat locker, I wake up with the smell,” etc. etc. She keeps the dreams to herself, and then she starves herself, and then she becomes hospitalized…

Augusta: And then it’s no food at all.

Ülrika: And she’s descending into madness.

Benjamin: Is this a political book?

Keaton: Not overtly. But I do feel that she’s pointing out the cracks in the societal veneer.

Augusta: Yeah, cause it’s an allegory. It’s not directly political, but it does feel really tense and anxious the whole time. It’s very unsettling that way. But it does speak to the political climate in Korea, and I think the author’s trying to make some sort of statement about that.

Benjamin: So what’s that statement? Meat is bad? [Laughs]

Augusta: It’s about breaking from tradition. Eating meat is a traditional thing, so the fact that she doesn’t want to do it anymore, and that her family doesn’t understand the reasons—she clashes there. It’s a traditional, structured, rigid society, and she’s subverting that.

Keaton: She’s exercising an individual choice in a society where you don’t rock the boat. Towing the line and sticking with social conventions is valued in Korean culture, and her personal choice to pull away from conventions—it opens a gap, and that gap keeps widening and widening. And that’s where the book is making a point, I think: maybe that the individual has more power than society would like to say. But then again, maybe the point is that the individual isn’t strong enough on her own, and maybe that’s why she eventually loses it.

Benjamin: But everybody’s more or less fucked up in this book right?

Augusta: I think so.

Benjamin: I mean, is there anyone who seems to have it together? Cause the whole book’s about the structure of society, and transgressing against that—but the people that represent the structure have just as many problems.

Ülrika: But are they actually fucked up, or are we just taking our own political views and looking at them that way? Is that the case?

Benjamin: Well, how are you reading the book?

Ülrika: I read it as…well, I think there were a lot of social protocols and social norms here that, if you’re an outsider looking in, you might think are kind of odd. In a lot of Asian cultures, it’s family is important, and honoring your spouse, and all of that, and those are things that we in the United States—especially women—don’t have the same type of view about. I guess while reading this book, I tried not to put my own personal thoughts on it, if that makes any sense.

Benjamin: Yeah, also, if we think about the structured society, every character—or at least the main characters—are trying to break that structure. There’s rebellion everywhere in the book. Even the brother-in-law [who anchors the second section] is obsessed and out of his mind, but he’s still trying to shatter conventions in pursuit of something. Everyone is unhappy and pushing against the structure. It’s like, the structure makes them unhealthy, and then the fight against the structure makes them unhealthy too.

Keaton: I feel like in the first part, her husband, he’s the control group. He’s the one who’d be considered normal. He’s going out, doing his job. He wants to do as little as possible.

Ülrika: Oh my God, he’s so mundane, just like, “Let me float through life, I don’t want to make any waves, I just want to wake up every day and have there be food.”

Keaton: But that’s the, quote unquote, “normal” thing to be. But the book suggests that kind of normal isn’t necessarily good or healthy.

Benjamin: Why is the husband the book’s only first-person narrator? We have access to his thoughts in the beginning, because he’s the narrator, but in the other two sections, we’re distanced by third-person narrators.

Keaton: There seems to be distance building in this book. There’s this idea that we can’t ever really know what somebody’s thinking, or what they’re feeling, or who they are, and that gap between people seems to widen as the book continues. There’s also an almost post-human element to this book. I guess that getting away from the primacy of the human is creepy, but the book also shows us the problems with interpersonal communication in general.

Benjamin: So why is this a good Brazos Best choice?

Augusta: Cause it’s creepy! [Laughs] It’s different. Unsettling. You don’t know what’s going to happen. And there’s a lot that happens. It’s unexpected.

Keaton: When you finish it, you think about it. You didn’t totally comprehend everything, but you can think about it. It’s ambiguous. And that’s the kind of book we like here!

The Vegetarian: A Novel Cover Image
ISBN: 9780553448184
Availability: Backordered
Published: Hogarth - February 2nd, 2016

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