“Caring for Plants”
by Hye-young Pyun
translated from the Korean by Sora Kim-Russell
from the July 10 & 17 issue of The New Yorker

The New Yorker is in a stretch that fits nicely with the other aspects of this blog — William Trevor, Italo Calvino, and literature in translation — and I’m excited to see that this week they’ve published a story from the Korean! Well, a “story,” I think. This appears to be an excerpt from the forthcoming translation of her novel The Hole, which comes out from Arcade Publishing next month. It sounds dark! I hope this excerpt sparks our interest in more of Pyun’s work.

Having sampled the first bit, I’m intrigued. Here is the first paragraph:

Oghi opened his eyes to a faint glimpse of white clothing. He heard his name: “Oghi. Oghi.” The voice was soft, kind. Eight days had passed since his emergency surgery, eight days during which he had slipped in and out of consciousness.

I look forward to the story and to your thoughts! Please join in the conversation below!

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By | 2017-07-06T18:36:59+00:00 July 3rd, 2017|Categories: Hye-young Pyun, New Yorker Fiction|Tags: |19 Comments

19 Comments

  1. David July 3, 2017 at 3:35 pm

    Trevor, I thought it might be an excerpt from the novel as well, but the author interview indicates that this was written as a short story a year before she expanded it into a novel. I have not read it yet, but it sounds like it should work as a stand-alone story. Fingers crossed!

  2. avataram July 5, 2017 at 4:33 pm

    Deadpan writing, thought it was going nowhere, but it turned out to be a wonderful horror story. I think this story stands on its own, and “The Hole” maybe an expansion of it, as David says.

  3. Dennis Lang July 7, 2017 at 4:43 pm

    Right, the story becomes sheer agony, eliciting empathy for this horribly broken, totally dependent man even as he seemed to me described from an almost ironic remove (if that makes sense). A descent slowly into hell!

  4. David July 8, 2017 at 12:26 pm

    This is a very poorly written story. The major problem is that for a story that wants to be a kind of horror story, there is no horror at all. Oghi suffers terrible injuries as a result of the crash, which cause physical pain and severe limitations in what he is capable of doing without assistance. That is a terrible circumstance to be in, but is not itself really something that counts as “horror”. There is no suspense, not even any indication that his health will get any worse as a result. Oghi is taken care of a caretaker who is rude and disrespectful and a mother-in-law who hates him. And that’s it. The end. Whop-de-doo.
    .
    Well, there is one more thing, but this just makes the story ridiculous more than scary. The mother-in-law is digging a very large hole among the holes in the garden. It seems to be suggested that this hole is one she will use to bury Oghi. Ok, but this is absurd. There is no way that she could realistically expect to be able to kill Oghi, dispose of his body in the yard, and get away with it. If Oghi were some random hitchhiker she had picked up, then sure, it might work. But this is Oghi’s home and many people know he is there and know he is physically unable to leave it on his own. So how would she ever be able to explain his sudden disappearance? It seems ridiculous. And if she doesn’t care about being caught, then the hole is pointless.
    .
    The revelation of the hole also seems very tacked on at the end, so if it even provides some horror (which it didn’t for me – I laughed), it leaves the first 95% of the story as dull with nothing much going on. We also get tacked on to the end the gimmicky “plot twist” as Oghi reveals that he crashed intentionally. What makes this no better than a wasted cliche is two-fold. First, we were already told that it was his fault, so changing the situation from him being at fault because he was careless or reckless to he was at fault because he wanted to kill them both changes little. It certainly is not needed to explain why the mother-in-law is so angry – him being at fault due to carelessness is enough to explain that. Second, Oghi claims that she knows what happened in the car, but this is ridiculous. She has no magic powers to see inside the car and know the crash was intentional and, as mentioned, it is not needed to explain her behaviour.
    .
    I don’t wan to even get into the terrible cliche of the title – “Caring For Plants” … Oghi is like a potted plant after the accident … yes … how ……. clever.
    .
    The author interview mentions the novel Misery for comparison, but that just points out everything that this story is not. When I was reading this story I was reminded of Minette Walter’s short novel, The Cellar. It is a story that, in part, is about someone taking care of a family member who is an invalid and the horror that results. It is infinitely better than this story was. I am not tempted at all to read The Hole. I’d much rather read The Cellar again. Or if I want to read something new I might try What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? There are a few books that this story brings to mind, and it loses out by comparison every time.

  5. Ken July 8, 2017 at 3:54 pm

    This is not about the current story but a question–Why are the comments now being closed after a few weeks. I’ve been reading through the last 3 months of stories and would like to comment. Forget about me, though, but I don’t see why they should be closed EVER.

  6. Dennis Lang July 8, 2017 at 6:15 pm

    I didn’t notice Ken, but agree. I wonder if it’s a technical necessity of some sort. Trevor???

  7. Trevor July 8, 2017 at 10:00 pm

    No, it’s not necessity or desire. For some reason my site keeps defaulting to closing comments after some time. I keep shutting it off, opening them up, and then seeing this again. I will do it again and see if I can figure out why my changes are not sticking!

  8. Dennis Lang July 9, 2017 at 12:58 pm

    Hey David–As usual forcefully expressed and thoughtful viewpoint: “This is a poorly written story…wants to be a horror story but no horror….”
    That’s a grabber!
    I may have missed your point, but wonder if applying a premise predetermining what constitutes a horror or suspense story is to miss the deeper beguilement I believe this author achieved by enclosing the reader in this sealed environment that can only be described as “horrific”–heck, I was sweating it out with the character–while planting speculative clues as to causation and ultimate outcome.
    I’m obviously not a literary critic and lack your context for comparison (“The Cellar”) but question respectfully if caution shouldn’t be exercised before bracketing an author’s work in a theoretical subjective argument–what it should be and did it meet this standard, ie. “this is a poorly written story”–then what it is, and the voice in which it was written (that clearly I found compelling).
    That said, your personal viewpoint well taken.

  9. Ken July 9, 2017 at 3:39 pm

    Thanks, Trevor. I’ve been posting intermittently on this site for a few years and always love joining in even if late sometimes.

  10. David July 9, 2017 at 5:02 pm

    Denis, for starters, I have no idea what you mean by “a theoretical subjective argument”, so I can’t respond to that, but I can say something about your earlier comments. When you talk about “predetermining what constitutes a horror or suspense story” it sounds like you think there is some checklist I have in mind that the story does not tick off enough boxes. But there is nothing in my comment that should suggest this. You have a tendency to assume that people are using preconceptions when being critical of stories. This is not the case.
    .
    The author makes it clear in the interview that this is mean to be a horror story and specifically cites Misery as a point of comparison, so I don’t think I’m doing any presuming by thinking this is the kind of story it is supposed to be. After that, for a story to be a horror story it needs to have some frightening things happen or there to be the threat that something frightening might happen to the character or characters. This is not me forcing some definition of my making on the story. It is just the most general and (I would have thought) obvious description of what it means to horrify.
    .
    In this story Oghi’s situation is terrible as a result of the accident, but to merely describe his miserable condition as a result of the accident is not horror. It might make you feel sorry for him (although even that is mitigated by the accident being his fault and him having caused a death due to what we think at first is just carelessness). But that is not horror. And merely describing a miserable state after an accident is not really a story at all. So what is there to this? The caretaker is rude. Ok. No horror there, is there? I can’t imagine how anyone would think that there is. His mother-in-law hates him. Again, this is bad, but not horror. Until we get to the absurd and laughable hole-digging, she is not presented as a threat other than as someone who is angry at him and so not very nice.
    .
    I would suggest that if any reader while reading most of the story was wondering in anticipation what the mother-in-law might do to Oghi that this is more the anticipation the reader generates based on the hope, if not the promise, that this is supposed t be a horror story. The text itself never gives us any reason to think this is the case, again, until we get to the ridiculous hole business.
    .
    Denis, you seem to like everything you read and want to dismiss anyone who is critical of a story as having preconceptions or applying rigid standards of analysis like some sort of story checklist. This comes up over and over in your comments. Perhaps if you read comments as generously as you read stories you might see that I have not invoked any such thing. I just read stories and react to them as you do. When they are dull because no impending danger is even hinted at for most of the story, then that’s what I say. Nothing happens and we get little more than a description of Oghi’s condition as a result of the crash. That’s not much of a story, horror or otherwise.
    .
    If you would like to expound on what parts of the story you found interesting and why, whether any of it seemed to be scary or to invite the reader to anticipate something horrible might happen to Oghi, then that would be worth hearing. But short of that, I see little value in the story.

  11. Eric July 9, 2017 at 9:11 pm

    The Stephen King influence was certainly obvious; for me this was very much like a King story, though not as good. I generally like King OK when I run across him but I’ve never thought he was good enough to seek out, so I doubt that I’ll bother with anything else from this author either.

    Probably the story is richer and more subtle in the original Korean.

  12. Judy Soloski July 15, 2017 at 2:45 pm

    The art of fiction is tell more than the words indicate, not less. If, as it seems, this is part of a larger work, I would have appreciated a heads up, rather than reading through it seeking something that was never included.

  13. Greg July 19, 2017 at 1:45 pm

    The harshness of this piece played to my secret fears of having to count on other people to take care of me. The mother-in-law’s mean attitude was very distressing for me.

  14. Greg July 19, 2017 at 1:47 pm

    Also, on a brighter note, I absolutely loved this writing:

    “There were fewer photographs of Oghi and his wife than there were of people unrelated to them: foreign women who looked beautiful but headstrong. When he had asked his wife about them, she’d got excited and explained who the women in the pictures were. One was a writer who had committed suicide; another was a dancer who had died of some disease. A cosmetics model, a famous journalist. Some of the women Oghi recognized and others he didn’t. He figured out right away what they had in common. They were all successful women – women who had succeeded to the point of having influence on a perfect stranger.”

  15. Dennis Lang July 19, 2017 at 1:55 pm

    Right Greg. Truly harrowing. It may have been alluded to earlier here but it becomes all the more harrowing in the ruthless objectivity–cold and matter of fact– in the way author describes it. Without sentiment or judgment, a character sealed in a space without escape, without future, at the mercy of his “care takers”.

  16. Dennis Lang July 19, 2017 at 2:12 pm

    Yes, and the line you quote, provocative, yet hauntingly elusive.

  17. O'Baire July 22, 2017 at 8:31 pm

    I felt this piece was amazing and a much needed other viewpoint from Korea. Where are her comments on the role of suspense in fiction? What a strategy to hint at what the mother-in-law was up to as well as some frank images of what she was doing and the monologue about money, selling the house etc. It was clear she did not want any more expenses. Yet how was she going to cover up his disappearance? How he felt about her arranging the loss of his work so that he had no life to work for or go to. How convenient he had no family. I have a close Korean friend and the workings of family felt very familiar in this situation – the mother’s losses and the affronts to Oghi’s manhood.

    Very interesting. I look forward to more of this author’s work as well as more international authors in TNY.

    O’Baire

  18. Greg July 23, 2017 at 8:12 am

    Thank you Dennis for your thoughtful feedback to my posts!

  19. Kieran Maynard July 28, 2017 at 10:44 pm

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