Gangnam’s elite inspire new works of fictionA notable trend in Korean novels today is an increasing focus on the people of Gangnam, a wealthy area of Seoul with high real estate prices. The phenomenon is significant because the predominant subject of Korean novels was formerly the poor and the problems caused by poverty.
In the classic novel “Potato” by Kim Dong-in, Bok-nyeo sells her body for food and in Cho Se-hui’s “A Dwarf Launches a Little Ball,” Yeong-su’s midget father jumps from the chimney of a brick factory, both because of poverty.
Gangnam characters, however, come without such distress or anger. That isn’t to say that past Korean novels didn’t feature wealthy characters. But they were often depicted negatively, perhaps because the novels were written from the perspective of the poor, looking at the rich with moral superiority.
The so-called “Gangnam novels,” however, challenge this tradition.
Jo Jeong-hyeon’s “Flight on Balance Beam” is one such example. The story is about a character on the verge of adulthood and has romance, wanderlust and the pain of trying to break out of a cultural shell. Yet the attitudes are far from those in typical coming-of-age novels.
One passage reads, “If it weren’t for Areum, I wouldn’t have thought of going to college. People like me don’t need college. ... I didn’t have any intention to endure boredom, because I didn’t need to worry about my living.”
The narrator Seong Hyo-sin lives on the 31st floor of the Royal Tower, one of the first luxurious high-rises south of the river. His home is a spacious apartment that’s more like the lobby of a hotel than a home.
His parents run an entertainment club and Hyo-shin, after repeated transfers and expulsions from different schools, is admitted to Hwajin High School as a senior. He takes private lessons to go to college, but only because he wants to marry Areum, a girl who goes to college whom he has a crush on.
Hyo-sin, however, does not reach a moral epiphany even when the story ends. Perhaps that’s the novel’s charm. If he had been admitted to college, or had he jumped from his apartment as a sign of repentance, perhaps the book would have ended up as just another Korean novel.
Instead, Hyo-shin mumbles to himself at the end of the novel; “I am not going to get involved in something in which I have to put too much effort, because I don’t have to worry about making a living.”
That perhaps is the true meaning of Gangnam realism.
by Sohn Min-ho