Bük Kloob: The Vegetarian

Bük Kloob is a series of book reviews loosely related to a book club I started.

They say you are what you eat.

So what if you eat nothing: do you become something more or less? What if you eat yourself: do you become more like yourself? What if you only ate meat? What if you only ate vegetables? What happens to your mind and the mind of others when you change how you eat?

That is the main surface level thrust of Han Kang’s Man Booker winning book The Vegetarian. The book was released in Korea in 2007 and was given English translation and release in 2015, hitting the United States in 2016. The book is controversial for two reasons: it questions the rigidity and politicization of a diet in a conservative Korean family while also serving as an all-too-timely allegory for women’s rights.

Caution: soft spoilers ahead.

First, the diet. The book is about a typically unremarkable woman named Yeong-Hye who decides relatively randomly that she is going to become a vegetarian, after a “dream” inspired her to make the decision. She says she hopes to end violence. To who? Unsure. Her husband immediately takes offense to this. That offense spreads to her family. Everything rushes in revolt against her diet until an eventual first act climax where her father forces meat down her throat, pushing her to a psychotic break.

Then, the rights of women. Amidst all of the shenanigans of questioning Yeong-Hye’s diet, people force onto her what they think a woman like her should be when she chooses to remain silent, stoic, even meditative in her new diet. Her husband forces sex and violence on her since he expects Yeong-Hye to roll over to his every demand. Vegetarian or not, she must be subservient and do what he says. Her brother-in-law subtly forces sex upon her as a release for himself masked in artistry. Her sister forces food and life upon her although by the end of the book it’s clear Yeong-Hye has evolved into a spiritual plane of existence with the trees.

The book is about questioning the nature of personhood via independence. Yeong-Hye’s choice to become a vegetarian isn’t a matter of changing a diet but a means to claim or reclaim her life. The story unfolds quickly and often violently as everyone wants to police her and her body for what she chooses to do for and to herself. There is a constant attempt to negate her, to put her in the backseat of her own life. By the resounding white noise of a conclusion, Yeong-Hye is able to finally do what she wants and that requires drastic measures. Like what? Refusing to eat. Taking in the sun. Becoming a plant.

The book is not so subtle in both its political and allegorical framing. It has gotten a lot of comparisons to Kafka’s Metamorphosis for good reason—and knowing that boosts the fast two hundred page novel into a sprint toward a darkly fantastic reality. Kang excels at conserving words and pointing paragraphs, creating a text that parallel’s Yeong-Hye’s psyche. Kang is both distant and too close in her reading of the happenings, making it both comfortable and caustic. The book is so at home in hyperbole that it becomes apparent very fast that this story isn’t actually far fetched at all: this entire situation is extreme but has probably happened to someone (A woman.) before.

It’s an excellent translation as well, never losing the story to a footnote or a bungled turn of phrase. It might seem like light reading at first but it’s a book that follows you around and filters your life through the experience of Yeong-Hye.

The Vegetarian is the sort of casual seeming read that lands on your desk hoping to be a little foodie thriller but marches all around you in a parade float of politics. The book is booming with ideas and flies by so fast that you’ll wonder how Kang crammed so much between her pages.

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