In the very first of his Eclogues, one of the earliest and most influential collections of pastoral poems, Virgil focuses on two shepherds who meet in a field. One is resting and enjoying the easy pleasures of his land, while the other has been exiled and is on the road toward an uncertain destination. “How can you be at such ease when the countryside is full of turmoil?” the latter asks. The former replies that he had gone to Rome and found the patronage of a rich and powerful lord. To this the exile remarks: “So in old age, you happy man, your fields / Will still be yours, and ample for your need!” Getting to stay in one place is a distinct privilege when the norm is displacement and migration. All that the first shepherd can offer is a brief respite from movement: “Yet here, this night, you might repose with me.” The field conjured by the pastoral, this famous poem suggests, is a place of ease and stability only for the very few. For most people, it is a place where one can tarry for just a short time while struggling through a difficult life.
I start with these reflections because Yeon-sik Hong’s delightful and challenging graphic memoir Uncomfortably Happily, translated by Hellen Jo, at once seems to adhere to the Western pastoral tradition — depicting the escape from an overly congested and rule-bound city to a place closer (but not too close) to the wild — and to upend it. There are no singing shepherds or plump fruit waiting to be plucked in Hong’s book. Instead, there are two impoverished artists who must walk 25 minutes to the nearest bus stop, and who rely on a coal-burning stove in order to save on fuel costs during a cold winter. On their first night in their new home, a rented house high up the side of a mountain, the narrator recalls, “I definitely heard something on this dark mountain […] There’s no one but me and my wife. And so […] this place is scary.” What saves this moment from conjuring the specter of the wild — which in the pastoral means that you’ve gone too far away from the city — is the next panel, which shows his wife sticking a finger into his right nostril as they snuggle together in bed. They are physically bound up with one another, and know how to have fun.
This reconfiguration of pastoral tropes leads me to wonder what happens to the genre if fields are not available to you. In Korea, mountains and valleys dominate the landscape, and what flat lands have been carved out of this verticality are dominated by rice cultivation. There are fields in Korea, of course, but they don’t seem to be (from my limited vantage point as a kyopo, or overseas Korean) as important to the culture as they are in the United States and Europe. Such terrain is, I suspect, inhospitable to the imagination of a middle ground as conjured by the pastoral. And yet Hong’s narrator most definitely finds temporary refuge in just such a middle ground.
Or again, Uncomfortably Happily is divided into seasons, a common pastoral technique — think, for instance, of Edmund Spenser’s The Shepheardes Calender (1579) — but with no clear logic to the pattern. It begins in late summer; then fall arrives in two parts and winter in four parts; then spring, summer, fall, and winter each occupy single parts. The book thus tracks the seasons closely, but with a rhythm that is messy and hard to follow, and which suggests that seasons don’t work in regular or predictable ways.
The first winter in particular dominates the book and lingers seemingly endlessly. The numbering of its different parts tells the first-time reader nothing about how long it will last; and as it stretches on, the narrator Hong repeatedly gets sick, gets angry at a job he hates (he’s a cartoonist for a corporate-run comics series), and gets more and more broke. “What do we do now, honey?” his wife Sohmi Lee asks. “How […] how are we going to live from now on…?” In a feverish dream, Hong becomes a giant baby who multiplies into numerous versions of himself, yelling self-accusatory statements before conceding, “This mountain, this bamboo mountain, is a tomb. I no longer have the strength to resist my anger.” Before this section ends, Hong’s fever breaks and he takes a long walk by himself in the cold morning. At this moment, he’s overcome. “I never realized,” the narrator observes over several pages of spare but gorgeously drawn pictures that prominently feature the natural landscape, “that such beautiful snow existed so close to home.”
You might expect that this revelation marks the end of winter, but the winter continues. In “Winter Part 4,” Hong and Lee’s luck begins to change. They find more joy in each other’s company. They start to cut down trees and clear stones from a small yard by the house. While they remain poor, there’s a promise that they may be on the cusp of a major change in their financial situation. “If I feel happiness,” Hong comments, “I’m a shameless husband. But today I’m here just trying to be happy. I push my feelings of guilt and self-pity off until tomorrow. Just for today, I’ll be shameless.”
And then, just like that, spring arrives. Hong and Lee perform a lot of physical labor to maintain their garden. He finishes the volume he’s been working on and decides to quit, while she wins a major award for her artwork and takes a trip to Denmark. Food becomes plentiful as the garden begins to yield lettuce and other kinds of vegetables. The couple forages in the woods for roots and berries. Hong begins to exercise and regain his health. They fight back against littering hikers, demanding that they pick up what they carelessly toss away. If spring here plays its familiar role as a season of regeneration, it is, crucially, only an extension of a process that had in fact begun in the depths of winter. Hong and Lee’s rhythms are, the book suggests, not quite in sync with those of nature.
This point is reinforced by the fact that the section ends with Lee using her prize money to buy a car. She and Hong might be in nature, but they are also firmly a part of the carbon-belching modern world — before, it was the burning of coal; now, it’s more gasoline for the sake of mobility. One of the greatest hardships the couple faces occurs when they fall behind on their internet and cell phone bills, and lose both services for a while. There is no railing against modernity in this story. There is no anger like the kind Henry David Thoreau expressed in Walden (1854) against the train that ran close to his cabin. Hong and Lee’s refuge is no refuge without wi-fi.
To be candid, I struggled to get into this book. The title Uncomfortably Happily is awkward, suggesting perhaps that something idiomatic failed to translate from the original Korean. (I speak Korean like a five-year-old, so don’t ask me if this is the case.) It’s also very long — almost 600 pages — and dense, full of smallish panels and a lot of text. The images themselves are drawn in a rudimentary style, to the extent that it can be hard at times to differentiate between Hong and Lee.
Moreover, the book presents Hong as highly irritable and full of complaint. At the start, the copyeditor of the press he works for calls to request revisions on the comics series that Hong is writing for them. Hong resents being called so early. He resents requests in general. He resents having to work. All of this resenting doesn’t make Hong a likable person.
But as the story progressed I began to appreciate its willingness to let Hong’s flaws show. It added to the complexity of his character, as well as illuminating that of his wife, who supports him while pursuing her own career ambitions. Hong, who insists Lee focus on her art, keeps trying to tell her how she should draw. But she resists, and in doing so attains the personal style that eventually wins her the award. Hong and Lee do not have a perfect relationship by any means, but what’s important is that they care for each other and keep trying to do better.
In this regard, the length of Uncomfortably Happily allows the story to focus on everyday events, giving the reader insight into how the couple’s experiences unfold slowly, over time, following their own patterns. It also reinforces the sense that the couple has a genuinely happy marriage, one that gives them strength and succor no matter how uncomfortable their circumstances may be.
Uncomfortable Happily is, in this way, far from the sort of idealization that one associates with simpler versions of the pastoral. It is, instead, a rich exploration of characters who find in constrained conditions the possibility of a nourishing, satisfying way of life.
Ultimately, this is a book that insists upon attention. Even the drawings, which at first appeared crude to me, yield surprising details, especially of the countryside. While the human characters sometimes approach the state of visual abstractions, their surroundings are dense with detail. This contrast makes it easy for readers to pour themselves into this story, to inhabit this landscape, and to feel the texture of an everyday that is difficult but ultimately very satisfying. The ending is poignant and offers a damning critique of the capitalist need for expansion and development. You should most definitely take the time to read this book.
Min Hyoung Song is a professor of English and director of the Asian American Studies program at Boston College. He is currently writing a book on race and ecology.