The novel opens on the childhood of Choi Jeong-ho — known throughout the novel as Bugeye, a nickname he embraced when a police officer called him a “bug-eyed little punk” — and on the difficulties of his mother, struggling to make ends meet on the economic fringes of the metropolis’s lowest rungs. The plight of Bugeye and his mother is exacerbated by the absence of Bugeye’s father, who has been rounded up and sent to a government reeducation camp. These camps are a new phenomenon that followed the ascension of a mysterious despotic general, who has vowed to clean up society by sequestering and rehabilitating “undesirables.”
This setup, along with the authentic timeline for the Nanjido landfill, locates the reader temporally and thematically: this is Korea in the early 1980s. Well, it is and isn’t. The setting’s familiarity blends seamlessly with its otherworldliness to create the perfect twilight space, giving the story an air of fable or parable. It could easily be read as contemporary by foreign audiences, yet those who have lived through the trials and tribulations democratization has brought to South Korea will recognize the novel’s despotic general as a reference to Chun Doo-hwan, South Korea’s de facto dictator who seized power in a 1979 coup. His immediate abolition of all political parties and expansion of martial law was swiftly followed by a controversial campaign of social cleansing, which culminated in the imprisonment and forced labor of over 60,000 individuals in the infamous Samchung reeducation camp.
Hwang mounts a pointed critique of the economic and political paradigms of the peninsula. The author has long been a strong voice for liberty and democratization in South Korea, a writer and an activist in equal measure. His critical engagement with the regimes of both the North and the South reached a head in 1989, when Hwang illegally visited Pyongyang, North Korea. There, he spread awareness about democratization and worked to solidify a coalition of artists willing to stand as a cultural barrier against demagoguery and injustice. Those actions led to a seven-year exile from his home country, followed by five years in a South Korean prison upon his return. His literary works, from a childhood prize-winning essay to his most recent novels, consistently grapple with the human costs of exploitation and domination.
For a reader less familiar with the political history of the region, Hwang’s critiques are doubly illuminating. They bring into focus many of the systemic ills that plague South Korea, which have long been overshadowed by the more blatant and gloomy realities to the north. Rather than depicting a glittering utopia nestled next to a barren nightmare, as the contrast is often portrayed in the West, Hwang fleshes out a much more honest and uncomfortable vision of the dispersion of tyranny throughout the peninsula. For a nation perceived as synonymous with progress, South Korea scores alarmingly low on important metrics of basic human wellbeing; out of all OECD (Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development) countries, they hover near the very bottom for both overall life satisfaction and economic equality, and top the chart for highest suicide rate. These uncomfortable statistics blur the line between North and South, just as Hwang does in his novel. Brutish totalitarianism and numbing extravagance alike plague his ambiguous near-future, or alternate present.
A searing meditation on the cult of materialism underlying the societies of both North and South, Bugeye’s story nevertheless unfolds into a beautiful, at times almost uplifting tale of the recovery of truths wantonly discarded by the juggernaut of progress. Clinging to their urban subsistence lifestyle by the skin of their teeth, Bugeye’s family finally acquiesces to economic reality and prepares to leave. They head for a new life on nearby Flower Island, where, although relegated to a subterranean social class of trash pickers, they will nevertheless halve their expenses and double their income.
Their living arrangements in the shantytown that rests in the foothills of the trash mountain are shocking. They are put up in a lean-to, which shares a wall with the home of their recent benefactor, who appears to be pursuing an undefined yet intimate relationship with Bugeye’s mother. To Bugeye’s fury and confusion, no one in the village finds this setup the least bit disconcerting. Due to a large birthmark on the man’s face, and the fact that he is seeking to rupture the delicate equilibrium of his family, Bugeye dubs her mother’s suitor Baron Ashura, after the hermaphroditic, two-faced supervillain from the manga series Mazinger Z. The Baron has a son, Baldspot, who quickly becomes a brother to Bugeye, despite the fact that his father has largely disowned the child. The two boys take up residence in the lean-to while their parents shack up together on the other side of the reclaimed fiberglass and nylon wall.
Despite the exhausting work and the filthy conditions of his new life, Bugeye adapts to his strange, miasmic surroundings with the light-footed optimism that only a child can muster. He and the other children — Stink-Bug, Toad, Beetle, and their leader, Mole — carve out nooks and crannies in the trash jungle to erect their own private spaces. They scour and scavenge and eat their meals together, living in their parents’ midst, yet often occupying wholly different dimensions. Indeed, this generation gap is a major theme of the novel.
This loose-lawed, latchkey-kid chaos is neither idyllic nor wholly disastrous. It simply represents the logical arrangement of a new social organism operating within its specific spatial, temporal, and material parameters. The trucks arrive at a certain time, and the adults work to scavenge prized recyclables while the children are left to their own devices, often opting out of vestigial institutions like school and church. Their new modes of life provide a critique of the more settled familial structures of North and South Korea. The reorganization of kinship into loose-knit structures contrasts starkly with the sanctity of the patriarchal nuclear family embraced by both communism and Christianity, the twin imported ideologies that have utterly changed the face of Korea.
At one point, Bugeye and Baldspot, along with their plucky gamin troupe, go on a day trip to a local church that is giving out free noodles. Bugeye is struck by the mocking spectacle of Korean women from the city holding their noses to quickly take pictures with the fetid children. His disillusionment points up the hypocrisy and tendency toward Otherizing so often found lurking behind the facade of humanitarian efforts. The young Bugeye learns a harsh lesson that day: the final currency of the destitute is payment in dignity. Faced with this spectacle of narcissistic nurturing, he sums it up as “a fucking joke.”
The story of rediscovery and reclamation really comes into its own when the two young boys befriend an epileptic woman who lives on the periphery of the shanty village. The woman is largely shut off from the rest of the community, housing and caring for stray dogs, including the leader of the pack, a Chihuahua named Scrawny. Channeling an older, shamanic understanding of nature, the woman is given to frequent seizures that allow the spirits of past inhabitants of the island to possess her. As if to accentuate her role as medium between body and spirit, animal and human, she is known to the boys simply as Scrawny’s mama.
The spirits that visit her, known in Korea as dokkaebi, appear to the boys sometimes as floating orbs of blue light, and sometimes as ethereal people who have crossed some intangible border into their dimension. The dokkaebi tell the boys that they have been there all along, inhabiting another plane, a pastoral land that lives on amid the piled-up refuse and whose fate is deeply intertwined with the Flower Island they know. The dokkaebi farm the land, as they have done since the dawn of memory — though, as they explain, it gets harder and harder with all the trash in the way. They are a close-knit community of many generations living under one roof. One among them, the boys discover, is sick, and so they entreat the boys to go on a mission to bring them the cure: memilmuk, a starchy, gelatinous food made from buckwheat paste. This simple food proves to be a difficult treasure to obtain, as it is only produced and consumed by the very oldest folk in the village. To acquire it, the boys must go on a journey through the antiquated canals of the marketplace, receiving tips and clues from the old matrix of interdependent buyers and sellers, until they finally secure the sacred jelly. In this way, the pastoral spirits guide the boys on a quest of discovery through the wisdom of old relations, back toward the simple nourishment that sustained their ancestors for generations upon generations.
The realm of the dokkaebi is not the only alien world the boys bump up against. After the spirits help them discover a hidden sack of money buried in the garbage heap, the boys depart for a Home Alone 2–style whirlwind day of indulgence in Seoul. The glamour of restaurants and department stores awes the boys, yet leaves them feeling estranged, confused, and more than a little terrified. For Bugeye, this return to the city is full of a betrayed nostalgia. He hopes to return to a welcoming life, where folks remember him and are awed by his newfound strength, charisma, and wealth. To his dismay, however, he finds his old, familiar world tinged with indifferent novelty. The swirl and the pace, the chaos and the motion of the vast city have left no shrine to his memory. The imprint of his presence has been smoothed over and lost by a writhing city that promulgates an abstract individualism yet disposes of the memory of specific individuals with chilling swiftness. Those who remember him still treat him as a shiftless kid. They ask him about life as a trash picker, and he glumly realizes that this will now be his permanent identity. He can wash up, put on fancy new clothes, and flash bills around town, but in their eyes he will never cease to be a ragamuffin who lives on a garbage island. His economic caste is immutable.
The city’s rejection leads Bugeye to ponder the larger system of exploitation in which he is caught — a system where people use and abuse anything that serves their purpose. Heartbreakingly perceptive, Bugeye sees that this system does not simply process material goods but people as well, such as him and his mother: “People bought things with money, did whatever they wanted with those things, and threw them away when they were no longer of use. Maybe folks like him had also been thrown away when they were no longer of use.”
A curious thing happens upon the boys’ return to the island. The Baron, whose drinking habit has been worsening, stabs a man during a brawl. Police descend and arrest him; in an ultimate irony, the Baron winds up serving on the prison’s sanitation squad. Although he is glad to be rid of the violent caprices of his mother’s suitor, Bugeye categorically denounces all state-sanctioned apparatuses that extricate, repair, and redistribute people in society, including schools, churches, reeducation camps, and prisons. The fluid, ad hoc life of Flower Island fits uneasily into this social recycling system, leading Bugeye to exclaim in exasperation: “[W]hat [is] the straight and narrow when you [live] in a garbage dump?”
Its stark treatment of alienation and subjugation makes the book compelling reading, even if its precise genre is unclear. On the one hand, Flower Island really was a major municipal landfill on the edge of Seoul, boasting one of the highest trash piles in the world and hosting a relatively permanent community of people who made a living rifling through the refuse for recyclable bits. On the other hand, the presence of the dokkaebi and the overall picaresque tone lend an air of surreality to an otherwise grittily realistic tale.
Part of the novel’s speculative character comes from the trash itself, including, of course, the systems that produce it in such abundance. The real Nanjido may have been discontinued and turned into an eco-park, but the problems of overconsumption and accumulating refuse grow more pressing every day. There are far more people, including children, living and working in mega-landfills today than there were when Chun Doo-hwan ascended to power. South Korea, despite its relatively small size, still boasts one of the largest landfills in the world at Sudokwon. In the West, and more specifically in the United States, space is more abundant and trash is often kept out of sight and out of mind, yet the rising tides of accumulation threaten this naïve bliss. Two of the largest trash heaps in the world are in the United States: Apex Regional in the Las Vegas Valley and Puente Hills in Los Angeles County, while still much of the waste produced by the West is shipped abroad, to places like China and Western Africa. The threat to the global environment cannot be solved merely by treating its symptoms. This realization forms one of the core messages of Hwang’s story: the hellish landfill is the inevitable by-product of a materialistic society that churns out goods with efficiency and planned obsolescence.
Familiar Things is a cautionary tale, both a mirror and a portent for our own world. Yet, though it is a tragic tale, it is also a defiantly optimistic one. At every turn, the characters manifest remarkable adaptability and spiritual fortitude. Despite the filth and grime to which they have been relegated, they build a life and a culture that, though by no means utopic, nevertheless serves as a testament to human perseverance and the undeterrable growth of new cultural shoots. Though they subsist in a dirty, rotten world, swaddled in clouds of flies and a “vile combination of every bad odour in the world,” the inhabitants of Flower Island live one day at a time, adapting, helping one another, and finding those familiar things that make life worth living — in short: building a new world out of the rotten husks of the old.
Fionn Mallon is a student of social anthropology and a graduate of the University of Minnesota. He currently lives and works in Minneapolis.