August 19, 2017

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No easy escape

Korean writer and artist reflects on move from the big city to rural life

With its spacious and minimal artwork acting in service of a relatively simple initial hook, Uncomfortably Happily — the newly translated omnibus collection of Korean writer/artist Yeon-Sik Hong’s two-volume graphic novel — appears at odds with its own mammoth size, clocking in at a hair short of 600 pages.

But the autobiographical work, recounting a two-year period in which the author and his wife, Sohmi Lee, abandoned the bustle of Seoul for an isolated mountaintop home, quickly reveals itself to be much more than its basic "escape from the city" narrative would indicate.

The story begins with the couple, both artists at different stages in their career — Hong is a disillusioned work-for-hire illustrator longing to create his own material, while Lee is preparing her first picture book for a competition — financially and spiritually exhausted by their lives in Seoul.

Chance brings them to a rental house outside a small village in the Jukyeop Forest, a centuries-old nature preserve, and they immediately fall in love with its possibilities.

Though the themes inherent in this type of story most certainly rear their head — the initial thrill and the attendant reality of letting go of comfort and expectation, the impossibility of easily escaping the core of your self — Hong uses the move as a catalyst to examine more fully the bonds and divisions between the two central figures and the world that surrounds them.

The couple contend with their career imbalances, their assigned gender roles, the limits of their knowability to each other, as well as the domino-like effect of poverty (and its pervasiveness among artists).

In one example, the couple’s inability to afford a vehicle forces them to spend an inordinate amount of time in transit through various other means, disrupting their sleep and meal schedules, leading to illness that isolates them further. Throughout the book, simply keeping their unreliable gas stove lit or their cellular service connected provides pages of unusually affecting material.

Hong also casts a particularly unsparing eye on his own behaviour, depicting a descent into near-madness during their first winter, escalating anger issues and dark jealousy over Lee’s burgeoning success as an artist.

Lee’s heroic challenges and support, while simultaneously fighting her own doubts, are depicted in stark contrast and form the heart of the story as it progresses.

Hong gives all of these aspects ample space to breathe, allowing the couple to grow in a way that escapes cliché and feels magnificently earned.

As well, Hong’s own personal negativity marinates so truthfully, and for such a long period, that his ultimate realization and purge is devastatingly cathartic.

The artwork, also simple on the surface, reveals its riches as the book progresses. Hong’s simple figures are wildly expressive and his backgrounds capture perfectly the humble majesty of the mountain setting.

He additionally establishes clever visual shorthand for reverie, internal conversations and the passage of time that add extraordinary texture to the storytelling.

Though American writer and animator Hellen Jo takes care to provide notes on Korean art, cuisine and vernacular in her meticulous translation, both the depth of immersion required by the book’s length and the universality of its themes render this largely unnecessary.

Anyone who has ever-so-slowly stumbled into adulthood, suffered the sting of poverty and delayed satisfaction, or built a long-term relationship in spite of every external obstacle, will find a point of access in the unusual beauty and stunning honesty of Uncomfortably Happily.

Doug McLean is a Winnipeg writer and musician.

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