A REVIEW OF JANG JUNG-IL'S
WHEN ADAM OPENS HIS EYES
BY LEE SHEPPARD
The Rusty Toque | Reviews | Fiction | Issue 7 | November 30, 2014
You might want to know whether or not I think you should read Jang Jung-il’s When Adam Opens His Eyes, translated by Hwang Sun-Ae and Horace Jeffery Hodges. Let me say that Jang’s handling of time is masterful, though the comparison it conjures in my mind—the stretching and compressing bellows of an accordion—may not be a universally beautiful image that will send you running to your local library or bookstore; Jang renders images that are artful and unique; and When Adam Opens His Eyes has moments that read like essays and others that resonate and elude like dreams. It is a bildungsroman whose lessons echo each other, which makes it a descendant of Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, though Jang’s book is explicitly a baby of George Bataille’s Story of the Eye.
The book’s narrative logic seems to be a rhyming of images and themes while still observing a linear, chronological structure. “Story woven,” I wrote above the text on page 96. After a hastily drawn arrow, I continued, “Threads (vertical) (themes) emerging over events (horizontal threads).” Then I scrawled another arrow, this one dropping down from, “Story woven,” and followed by “like a plaid?” to remind myself to use tartan to describe the work of a contemporary Korean author. Then, in front of, “Story woven,” I wrote “Cliché,” because the metaphor came too easily to be anything else and I had some recollection of one of the Fates spinning the thread of human lives. I looked her up. Clotho, is her name. Cloth plus an “O.” A quick internet search for “story woven” turned up the information that “text” is actually derived from the Latin word that literally means “thing woven.”
So, our English language establishes for us the fact that stories are woven. What about Jang’s When Adam Opens His Eyes coaxed that cliché from my brain? Western rock and roll songs are named throughout, functioning as a kind of soundtrack, but typically, though not strictly, running perpendicular to the narrative threads. Poetry, religion, sex, violence, politics and the West (as in, “occident”) are other perpendicular threads, by which I do not mean to suggest that they have no affect on the narrative threads or are in anyway superfluous to the structure of the book.
For example, the narrator, Adam’s, girlfriend—his first as far as the book is concerned—is a poet. He meets Eun-sun at “a high school exhibition of poetry and painting,” that Adam explains, “was one of the few officially acknowledged places where students could meet members of the other sex.” Her poem “immediately caught” Adam’s eye. It is titled, “An Inferior Student.” Adam tells her, “‘It’s not bad, your poem.’”
She replies, “‘People think that I copied it.’” (I wrote, “Great,” in the margin; the comment seemed an accurate reflection of a teacher’s response to a student’s strong work. I am a high school teacher who has Google-searched particularly excellent phrases from my students’ writing. But that is not what Jang is referring to, at least not exclusively.) There is apparently a poem of the same name by Jacques Prévert that Eun-sun’s poem is, “similar to . . . only in title. No, actually in their nuance [the two poems] were also somewhat similar,” according to Adam.
Describing Eun-sun’s appearance, Adam says, “Her lips were full and her nose bridge high, as if she were part Spanish or Latin American,” and she, “has appealing creases on her upper eyelids.” I went to teacher’s college with a woman named Eun and she told me that it is extremely common for women in South Korea to have surgery to add a crease to their eyelid so they will look more occidental.
This young woman who looks like a westerner and writes like a French poet, “was the most attractive girl I had met in my seventeen years,” Adam says. They end up lovers. He admits to her that she is not his first lover, that he has been to a prostitute, though once the condom was on he could not maintain his erection. While lying naked in bed, “Eun-sun [laughs] for a long time,” at this, but eventually calls to him, “‘Come here, Adam. You are my first man. . . . From now on I will call you Adam.’” At first I read this as a blasphemous inversion of the story of Adam and Eve, who were innocent when Christened, though, of course, they are the pair responsible for sin, the fall, knowledge and all that, so maybe the narrator’s moment of Christening is a perfect reflection of that particular origin story.
Eun-sun and Adam go to a tearoom that plays Ted Nugent, Blue Öyster Cult, and The Edgar Winter Group. There, she insults him for comparing her work to a Korean poet, Choi Seung-ja. He thinks, “I could have elegantly slapped her cheek at that moment, but Eun-sun was always like that. As for slapping a woman’s cheek in daytime, the music that had been playing for some time was simply too beautiful for that.”
“‘The music is driving me crazy,’ I told her. ‘That song’s making me crazy for your body.’” So, instead of violence—an admittedly mild form, but we are still early in the novel—Adam chooses sex, an early instance of Jang Jung-il’s assertion of the interconnectedness of the two things.
Later in the book, Eun-sun is arrested for a poem she writes, “Land of Youth,” which a newspaper report says, “‘allegedly encourages and commends North Korea.’”
So, in Adam’s relationship with Eun-sun we have the themes of politics, sex, violence, rock and roll, religion, the west, and poetry, and they are all activated within the narrative in a variety of ways.
Maybe Adam is innocent when he is Christened by Eun-sun, whose name means graceful or good; though Eun-sun and Adam do have sex, it is barely equated with the violence that Adam comes to associate with sex through his relations with Hyun-jae—his girlfriend for the bulk of the novel—and the two partners he has one-night-stands with: a female artist and a stereo-salesman.
The artist asks Adam to model for her and seduces him to the sounds of Credence Clearwater Revival and Gordon Lightfoot. She tells him, “‘Regardless of whether they are old or young . . . men believe that they can do anything they want to a woman after embracing her once. Korean men—I’m really sick of them.’” Adam finds her attractive because she is in control of the terms of their intercourse. She does not do anything explicitly violent, though she clearly uses Adam and alludes to using other men in the same way.
The salesman offers Adam a record player if,
I would stay overnight with him, and I thought that this was not such a bad suggestion. Not because of the turntable, but because his suggestion was such a ridiculous one. Of course, his suggestion would not have been worth the humiliation of self-prostitution, certainly not that of losing one’s purity, or even having one’s cherry popped. But I assumed that it would be nothing special, more like just taking a crap. So I accepted his suggestion and watched him sitting, intoxicated in his own fantasy for a moment.
Aside from the narrator’s obvious disgust with the salesman, I can’t help but read as homophobic comments like, “Lovemaking with someone of the same sex seemed to be either purely platonic or merely biological.” Also homophobic is the fact that the only explicitly gay character is the most obviously pathetic. The salesman insists that to make love, two men must reach, “a consensus of souls,” which Adam cannot reach. Beyond the homophobia, the violence in this story is not just that the salesman turns Adam into a prostitute, but is the act of penetration itself: “He put some lube between my buttocks and inserted his sleek penis. I shuddered because it felt as if a pair of tweezers were probing an open wound.”
Adam meets Hyun-jae at a club “on May 5th, Children’s Day.” Of love, Hyun-jae says, “‘Isn’t it all just “give and take”? Give and take each other’s body for a short time. Sometimes even the heart, too. But it’s like borrowing each other. I would never give my body or heart completely.’” This prompts Adam to muse that, “The first thing that the old generation teaches young boys and girls in sex education is monogamy. Because it is already established as part of the social system, one learns it automatically, without being programmed for it.” But, he asserts, “Young boys and girls who have experienced sex at a young age will never again be satisfied with monogamy.” (In the margins, I asked, “Really?” and not for the first time while reading this book.) When Adam asks Hyun-jae about her first sexual experience, she tells him that it was in grade 8. “‘It started innocently, like children playing at doctor, and ended awkwardly. Also, I didn’t think much about it. Only from the 9th grade onwards did I start to enjoy having sex. Without it, I would have killed myself.’”
Adam and Hyun-jae spend a weekend at a motel. While Adam is urging her to leave so that she can be at school on Monday, she puts a cigarette out against her right breast. She says she doesn’t want to leave. Adam goes to a drugstore and gets materials to dress the wound. Then, “We fooled around so long the bedsprings nearly came loose.” They vacation until they run out of money, Hyun-jae spending all day inside, but venturing out at sunset to spend hours building sandcastles. This tension between Hyun-jae’s child-like behaviour and her self-hate is a totally believable and engaging part of the book.
Hyun-jae eventually kills herself. The last time she sees Adam she demands that he penetrate her anus, which he initially refuses, but then does, “without love or lotion.” She gets up, knocks over a pile of books, calls Adam an asshole and leaves. “When I found out about her death in the local evening newspaper, the first thing to cross my mind was her underwear. . . . I don’t know if she’d left it intentionally or simply forgotten it, but after she’d gone down the stairs, I found her pink underwear folded into a small shape resembling a carnation.” There is something lovely and disturbing about underwear as a suicide note. Adam feels it, too. “Confronted with her death, my focusing only on the underwear felt very disrespectful, but it seemed a fitting symbol for our relationship, and that made me miserable.”
The main body of the book ends with Adam earning entrance exam results that will get him into the university he wants to attend. At the last minute, he decides not to register; he spends the night with a prostitute and in the morning resolves to be a writer. “And if I write a novel, I will begin by depicting the portrait of my 19th year this way,” Adam says, his statement followed by the same two sentences that begin When Adam Opens His Eyes.
There follows a short story called “The Seventh Day,” that functions as the book’s coda. A man and a woman share a beachside cabin. Through the seven days described by the story, each character seeks to give him- and herself fully to the other, their desires leading them eventually to give their lives. While this final section is a pastiche of George Bataille—who is mentioned directly, though not by name—and as such an essay on the relationship between the erotic and death, it is also a fantasy that proceeds with troubling believability from vanilla sex to consensual, mutual destruction. Its artistry and ability to be both an essay and fantasy is a final assertion of the complex, deft, intellectual narrative that is Jang Jung-il’s When Adam Opens His Eyes.
LEE SHEPPARD is a writer, a contributing editor of the literary magazine Pilot Pocket Books and a teacher at West End Alternative Secondary School in Toronto where he has developed and currently teaches two project-based courses: ReelLit a film-studies and video production program and The West Enders, a creative writing and illustrating program that produces an eponymous illustrated literary journal.