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I’m Talking to YouJeong Yong-joon

“I know those eyes. I know the eyes of hypocritic adults who want me to take them into my heart. There are no adults that come to know me and are nicer to me. There are only those who know me and treat me more cruelly, more harshly” (p10).

『I’m Talking to You』

Author : Jeong Yong-joon
Publisher : Minumsa
Publication date : June 26, 2020
Number of Pages : 172
Format : 128x188mm
ISBN : 9788937473289

Jeong Yong-joon

His debut novel was published by Hyundae Munhak in 2009. Since then he published a short story collection Aren’t We Blood Relatives? and the novels Babel and Phantom. He received the Hwang Sun-won Literary Award and Midang Literary Award in 2016.

Confessions about Revenge and Forgiveness

 

Author Jeong Yong-joon’s fiction I’m Talking to You is a coming of age story of a 14-year boy. The protagonist “I,” an outcast, has a heavy stutter and suffers from domestic and school violence. In the winter of that year, he seeks help at a speech therapy clinic and grows up as if going through a rite of passage. The author once said that he’d like to encounter the characters of his novels in his dreams so that he could “apologize” and treat them to a nice “meal” (quoted from the postface for Aren’t We Blood Relatives? by Jeong Yong-joon, Munhakdongne, 2015). The key to the success of fiction lies in how the author creates a unique character and how that character is brought to life – and the plot of Jeong Yong-joon’s novel begins with a specific character, and reaches the conclusion through that character. The very first sentence reveals everything about the character of the story.

“I fall in love with anyone who is nice to me. If someone reaches out a hand, I give them both my hands. I am like a snowman who just lets my guard down when hugged and then melts away. I met my first love when I was 11 years old. She was the vice president of our class. She had small pimples all over her forehead and metal braces on her teeth and wore huge, horn-rimmed glasses. I thought she was the most beautiful person in the world. Come to think of it, her facial expression was too frigid and her eyes, like a fish, protruded out as she glared at me with utter disgust. But then, all that was lovely in my eyes. Why? Because she was nice to me.” (p.7)

She gives me a chocolate bar and a jar filled with 12 paper turtles. I know those were for another boy who refused to take them, and that she was dumping them on me. Still, “I” fall in love with her and my eyes always follow her like those of a stalker until she screams at me and throws an eraser at my face. The protagonist, who keeps falling head over heels at the smallest act of kindness, keeps getting hurt by the likes of the vice president. When he finally realizes nobody likes him, and he has nobody on his side he makes a resolution: “I will hate kind people. I will loathe people who are nice to me. I will not be fooled.”

Even when the protagonist was used as disposal for rejected gifts in such a derogatory manner, he’d mistake it for kindness, fixating on the fact that it was a gift all the same. Eventually he ends up getting hurt, blames himself, then finally shuts himself off, which all point to deprivation of affection and other psychological issues or defects.
“Growing up” refers to the process of an immature being transforming into a mature one, which requires one to have the “personality” and the capability to “stand on one’s own feet” and the adequacy of “socialization.” Key elements of coming of age narratives are refinement, formation and initiation. Based on these elements, the plot follows the pattern of the protagonist who changes in terms of capacity, physique and attitude, finds self-worth and becomes an integral part of the world.

In his previous books, Jeong Yong-joon’s protagonists were often described as helpless victims of abuse and violence by power-wielding external forces whose acts are justified in the name of absurd ideology. So those protagonists often suffer loss of speech or refuse to speak and finally, as a last resort, take their own lives.

Sadism, masochism, mutilation, loss of speech, oppressive norms and its reproduction, autistic tendencies and death awareness are signature elements that Jeong Yong-joon employs for his stories. His characters who are deprived of even the minimum human conditions or dignity suffer from shame, the urge to kill, social phobia and self-loathing. Eventually they take their own lives, which were darker than death, as if to perform euthanasia.

This novel also reflects some of Jeong Yong-joon’s typical elements that he used to delve out even to underage characters. However, the protagonist of I’m Talking to You is suggestive of a possibility for growth, who discovers a sliver of his own fulfilled world through some form of negotiation between an individual and society.

“I,” the protagonist, no longer writes out of revenge or miserable memories. His experience as a social misfit and the reaction to that experience results in the discard and change of name; which in turn expands into writing activities that identify and reconstruct the self. At times “I” write from the point of view of the son the old lady claims to have lost, and other times from the point of view of the old lady who does not remember her son. In the process, the protagonist begins to understand the dynamics between the head of the speech clinic and the old lady, and that of his and his mother’s. He realizes, regardless of whether it makes sense or not to forgive someone who he’d pledged revenge on all his life, giving a name, expressing emotions and changing one’s memory to write a story can make a real name, make new emotions and will become a reality – and through it all, it becomes his true self.

The author’s previous novel Tteo Tteo Tteo, Tteo, which is reminiscent of such 90s movies as What’s Eating Gilbert Grape and An Angel at My Table, the protagonist meets a girlfriend who saves him from misery, poverty and isolation. The protagonist “I” of I’m Talking to You, who greatly resembles the character from the previous novel, goes a step further and manages to find a way to reconcile with his true self through writing.

The head of the speech therapy clinic, on the first day of their meeting, is the first adult who tells the protagonist “Good job” and “It is OK.” It’s not that people do not understand him because they do not know him; as a matter of fact, people who know him were the ones who treated him more cruelly. That is why the protagonist vows not to be fooled again by the head, who truly understands him – teeth clenched and eyes glaring, he recalls to his mind all the names of the kids he wanted to hit and adults he wanted to kill. The leap from the first appearance of the protagonist, all huddled up and swallowing tears that threatened to overflow, to the postface where the author declares “He” is all grown-up and adds, “the future takes shape as the next step is written,” this gap in height turns the entire novel into one continuous motion that ends with a solid landing.

 

By Shin Su-jin
Literary critic



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