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The Pleasures and Sorrows of WorkJang Ryu-jin

“I spent a sleepless night wallowing in humiliation, wondering if my personhood was disappearing. Morning came without fail, and I faced the fact that I still exist in the world and that I had to get ready for work” (p. 51).

『The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work』

Author : Jang Ryu-jin
Publisher : Changbi
Publication date : October 25, 2019
Number of pages : 236
Format : 145x210mm
ISBN : 9788936438036

Jang Ryu-jin

Jang Ryu-jin won the Changbi Prize for New Figure in Novel in 2018 with her debut work. She also received the 11th Young Authors Award and 7th Sim Hun Award in Literature. The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work is her short story collection.

A Revolution of the Senses

 

Jang Ryu-jin’s book tells us the following: “I’m trying to teach you the principles that make this world go around. You have to spend $50 to receive $50. So if you give $12, you get back $12 in blessings. You may not know it yet, but it has always been like that here” (p. 28, “I Will Live Well”). The world operates in definite ways. It is a place where you receive just as much as you have given. Where you pay the exact price for what you have done. The pluses and the minuses are calculated without any concessions. A capitalistic society consisting of rational human beings pursuing goals of profit gain forms the foundational framework for the world depicted in Jang Ryu-jin’s stories.  Individuals who must survive in this strict system laugh and cry over work, love, money, leisure, gender bias and human relationships. Examples of such people include: a woman who marries her coworker while experiencing gender discrimination in their corporate culture (“I Will Live Well”); a 33-year-old worker seeking work-life balance at a startup company (“The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work”); and a married woman without children who buys her first home while working as a department store manager (“A Helping Hand”). How do these ordinary people fare in the complex web of capitalism? This question is the jumping off point of Jang Ryu-jin’s debut short story collection.

What is lacking here is the true inner self or the well developed ego that Korean literature has been nurturing for a long time. Deep sorrow and poignancy are replaced by precise and objective sense of self, spirited actions and the willingness to cherish life’s little pleasures. Rather than drowning in the depths of their emotions, these individuals live their lives lightheartedly and adroitly, neither exceeding nor falling behind in all that they do. They are not the paragons of ideal career women or soldiers fighting against big, unjust systems. Nor are they social misfits or sufferers of great pain. They are the most ordinary people of our times who draw clear lines between work and daily life by understanding the joys and sorrows that work entails. Individuals featured in Jang Ryu-jin’s novel possess a precise understanding of capitalistic systems, a keen sense of survival and lifestyle choices and the will to defend quality of life and happiness. They represent the new faces of today’s Korean literature.

Ordinary professionals in their 20s and 30s make up the character base in this first short story collection by Jang Ryu-jin. They diligently and resolutely go through each stage of their human life cycle, balancing work, love and leisure along the way. It would be interesting to piece together the various characters from different stories into one coherent coming-of-age narrative of a young professional who overcomes obstacles in moving on with each stage of his or her life.

The short story “The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work” is a direct account of work life and career ups and downs of an ordinary worker at a startup company in Pangyo Techno Valley. It is a remarkable story that sets new heights in the “office story” genre in Korean literature. The story makes astute observations about the capitalistic nature of corporate life, with all of its irrational and conflicting ways built into the system. For example, the workers waste much time in team projects at the behest of the CEO trying to streamline operations. The company’s effort to build an equitable, horizontal corporate culture by using English names backfires by reestablishing another form of rank-based hierarchy. At the core of these problems is abuse of power. This is well represented in a story about a worker at a credit card company. For provoking the CEO who tried to monopolize an Instagram classical music concert announcement, he gets paid in points instead of money. Authoritative and restricted power structures are still firmly in place, scoffing at any attempt to keep up with modern social values of equality. It is the responsibility of each one of the workers, who stand on the disadvantaged side of a capitalistic system, to cope with the repercussions of existing power gaps.

In his stories, Jang Ryu-jin does more than just point out the unreasonable status quo in our society; he probes into the private lives of the individuals who must survive in it. For example, the response of the credit card company worker who uses an online used goods marketplace to convert points to cash is ingenious. She initially cries in defeat as someone on the wrong side of power dynamics. But realizing that “money works just like points in our world, the system in which we live” (p. 52), she faces her difficulty by trading in her points for cash. In a harsh capitalistic society, that kind of insight and adaptability leads to smart survival tactics based on keeping exact tabs on the pluses and the minuses in finding optimum balance. The main character, who lied when she asked, “Have you ever cried at the office?” (p. 51), is also a character who doesn’t crack under the pressure of going up against the system. The story ends with purchases of a Cho Seong-jin recital ticket and a plane ticket to Hong Kong, which are “a bit expensive, but it’s okay since today is payday” (p. 63). In this way, the stresses from work are traded in for a gift to self. The resulting happiness comes from knowing the value of one’s hard-earned paycheck and one’s leisure activities. In this way, Jang Ryu-jin does not in any way disregard the importance of enrolling in four main types of insurance or retirement plans, experiencing the joy of a trip to Italy funded from a savings account and being awed by a Cho Seong-jin recital. These stories that detail the pleasures and sorrows of work are a tribute to the ordinary lives coping with the systems in our society and a gift of comfort to all the readers who will nod in private to the question “Have you ever cried at the office?” (p. 51).

 

By In A-young
Literary critic



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