Love in the Big City

Love in the Big City by Korean writer Sang Young Park, translated by Anton Hur, is one of three Tilted Axis Press titles long-listed for the International Booker his year, giving it a more diverse reach than has often been the case. The four-part novel (either autobiographical or disguised as such) tells of Park’s search for love, and his difficulty in recognising and accepting it when he finds it. In the first part he has little interest in settling down:

“I… got drunk and slept with a new man every night… Some of the men I met wanted more than just drinking followed by a one-night stand. No matter how many times I refused they kept going on about wanting to date me and threatening to come and see me at my apartment, at which point I would fend them off by saying I had a roommate.”

They assume Park’s roommate is male but instead it is a young woman, Jaehee. Similarly, her boyfriends think that she shares her flat with another woman and complain that they never meet her; one jokes that she must be a cat – “Why is she always at home? Why haven’t you introduced us? Why have I never heard her voice?” Park and Jaehee are very close – this section has the feel of a buddy movie, except it’s one where one buddy pays for the other to have an abortion, an example of how Park’s light-hearted tone admits more serious moments. The same might be said of the section’s ending, where Park must sing a song at Jaehee’s wedding, the importance of their relationship only really hitting home as he sings “Stay with me always”. Jaehee, however, rescues him:

“I sucked in my snot and finished the rest of the song with her.”

The second and third sections tell of failed relationships. The second begins retrospectively when an old boyfriend returns a diary. The relationship had begun at a class both were attending – “we ended up wandering around the area after each class, picking a place to have dinner.” The boyfriend is a complex, older character, something Park conveys, as usual with humour – noticing his “unfocused gaze” he wonders, “Was he part of a cult?” and he later says their conversations:

“…gave me the feeling that he was reciting lines from a Greek tragedy or an absurdist play, or even an eighties movie.”

He is politically radical – refusing to wear a Gap top with an American flag on it – but also embarrassed by his homosexuality:

“When I thought no one was looking I snuck a kiss on the back of his hand. He snatched his hand out of my grasp and said, ‘Don’t do that,’”

When Park asks him if he’s ashamed he replies:

“Yes, that’s right, I’m ashamed of you. You want to hold my hand in public, you call me baby. I mean, what would anyone think?”

Though they speak again after this argument, the relationship ends when he dismisses the idea it could be love. Once again, the emotional power of the story almost sneaks up on the reader, particularly as this section also deals at length with Park’s relationship with his mother.

The final two sections tell of Park’s relationship with Gyu-ho. It begins at the airport as they are about to depart for a trip to Japan – to celebrate their “two-hundred-day anniversary” – but Park has brought the wrong (expired) passport and can’t travel. He hands Gyu-ho the itinerary saying, “Follow this plan and find some guy to spend the night with.” The scene foreshadows the end of their relationship months later when Gyu-ho leaves for a job in China with Park still refusing to say the right thing when Gyu-ho asks him, “Are we breaking up?”

“Stop asking me. No one cares anymore.”

The carefree persona Park adopts is revealed to be less than the full story in the final section where we see the effect Gyu-ho’s departure has on him:

“In my dreams, he and I are laughing and talking it up, and he tells me he loves me. But even in my dreams, I know it isn’t Gyu-ho.”

As throughout, the gentle pace and gossipy narrative of Park’s novel disguises a sadder heart. Park observes the small difficulties of relationships but, more so, he reveals a resistance to commitment, a compulsion to take the first escape route. “Sometimes it feels as if everything was all my fault,” he writes, “and sometimes I think: it’s all so unfair.” Both are true but we cannot help feeling that perhaps Park wants it to be unfair rather than open up. Love in the Big City is a novel which is neither showy nor shocking and its episodic structure can give it a soap opera feel, but, like the narrator, it is good company most of the time.


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4 Responses to “Love in the Big City”

  1. banff1972 Says:

    In sum–pretty good, but not essential?

  2. International Booker Prize 2022 Longlist | 1streading's Blog Says:

    […] Love in the Big City by Sang Young Park, translated from Korean by Anton Hur (Tilted Axis Press) […]

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