Review: A Character in Reality by Nicholas Bridgman

Self Aware? Not  really.

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‘A Character in Reality’ begins with Robert Gladstone, a fictional detective who becomes self-aware. He realizes that his actions are controlled by a narrator. He starts to communicate with the narrator and enters the real world. The story follows his journey in the real world as he struggles to get used to alien concepts such as liberty, and unrestrained human emotion.

The writing is lucid and is often crisp with a distinct lack of desire to be descriptive and verbose. While this makes the story relatively easy to follow, the relative minimalism in the work is hampered by significant flaws. At several points in the narrative, the first word which springs to mind is ‘superficial’. The lack of character development makes the driving motives of several characters extremely sketchy. The narrator in the story, rather ironically comes across as a rather unimaginative, incompetent author who conveniently swing from compassion to abject selfishness on an ad hoc basis.

His monolithic plot lines seem to leave no space for normal emotional interactions, which conveniently places Robert Gladstone in a position where he is forced to confront unrestrained human emotion for the first time. Even if this were overlooked, the subsequent experiments with human emotion come across as wooden and forced. At several points, there are missed opportunities to develop incidents into a thoughtful exploration of the issues covered. The point at which Gladstone confronts the narrator, threatening to kill him if he doesn’t reflect and the subsequent reconciliation take place over the course of a mere paragraph or two, merely highlighting the superficiality of the narrative, rather than the minimalist approach.

The latter half of the book seeks to incorporate issues related to immigrant rights, and the plot shifts to an election cycle where the legal status of Robert becomes the most significant issue. This portion largely suffers from the superficiality which carries over from the previous half and comes across as a half-hearted attempt to incorporate a pressing real-world issue into the narrative. The author deals with the sensitive issues of the partisan divide and immigrant rights in a highly reductionist manner, playing up traditional dichotomies without ever furthering the plot convincingly.

A Character in Reality struggles with a lucid narrative that fails to adequately capture the essence of self-awareness. There are several interesting plot lines, which aren’t developed. It largely feels like a missed opportunity. A little more character development coupled with a coherent plot line would have gone a long way towards making Nicholas Bridgman’s book an excellent read.

Review: The Vegetarian – Han Kang

Written by Han Kang, The Vegetarian has been translated into English by Deborah Smith.

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Before my wife became a vegetarian, I’d always thought of her as completely unremarkable in every way.

This is how Han Kang’s second work available in English begins. The Vegetarian, a tale in three parts, follows Yeong Hye’s decision to become a vegetarian following a recurring dream. Each part is narrated from a different first person perspective. What starts off as a seemingly innocuous transition in dietary habits slowly evolves into a frightening tale of deprivation.

The first part, ‘The Vegetarian’ is narrated from the perspective of Mr. Cheong, Yeong Hye’s husband, a laid back person with a predilection for an unremarkable lifestyle. This part of the story traces his struggle to reconcile his dormant wife’s rapid transition from a docile housewife to a strong, aloof vegetarian who refuses to consume meat. He makes multiple attempts to try to restore normalcy, first through subtle coercion and then by involving her family.

I think that this part stands out because of Kang’s ability to subtly bring out the characteristics of a patriarchal society and its inability to deal with concepts such as mental health. This is epitomized in Cheong’s reaction to his wife’s deteriorating physical state as her paranoia becomes worse. He comments, in two separate instances,

“In any other case, it was nothing but sheer obstinacy for a wife to go against her husband’s wishes as mine had done”

“I resisted the temptation to indulge in introspection. This strange situation had nothing to do with me”

The ability of these simple sentences to paint a clear picture of a typical self-centred patriarch should not be underestimated. To deal with an issue which is often the subject of verbose description with pleasing brevity that doesn’t eschew clarity is something anyone reading this book should look out for. Towards the end of this part, Yeong-Hye attempts to commit suicide following her father’s attempt to feed her meat forcefully.

 The second part, ‘Mongolian Mark’ is written from the perspective of Yeong-Hye’s sister’s husband. He is an artist, largely dependent on his successful wife’s business. This section of the book is arguably the best portion of Kang’s work. The narrative starts off after Yeong-Hye’s suicide attempt and her subsequent divorce from her husband. ‘Mongolian Mark’ sees Yeong-Hye eschew other facets of ‘normal life’ as she continues to be haunted by dreams which she attributes to her life as a non-vegetarian.

In-Hye’s husband develops a strong attraction to the idea of using Yeong-Hye as a subject in his artistic work. The narrative entices the reader with several sexual overtones, coupled with an insight into an artist’s obsessive, consuming drive to consummate the ideas which float in their head. Readers should look out for this conflict between propriety, sexual desire, and artistic drive. A portion which stands out for me is the short incident of marital rape which occurs, when In-Hye’s husband, driven by visions of his desire for Yeong-Hye forces his wife to have sex with him, even as she cries.

“She might have lain there sobbing for hours in the darkness. He didn’t know”

“But the next morning, she hadn’t acted any different from usual”

The questions this part raises, about the validity of consent from individuals who are struggling with disabilities and marital rape are not only relevant questions but are dealt with in a manner which seems driven towards introspection, as opposed to impact. In my opinion, this is what truly makes ‘The Vegetarian’ a riveting read.

If this is not enough of an endorsement of Han Kang’s work, the promise of an equally excellent third part ‘Flaming Trees’, told from the perspective of In-Hye should appeal to you. In-Hye, the woman who seems to epitomize the catch phrase that ‘women can have it all’ goes through a gamut of emotions as she deals with her divorce and Yeong-Hye’s deterioration in an institution.

What stands out about ‘The Vegetarian’, is the ability to use a relatively terse storyline to effectively tell a compelling story and illustrate pertinent social issues, thus making it a book that should grace your bookshelf.