WHEN HAN YU-JIN, a 25-year-old law school hopeful, wakes up one morning covered in blood with no memory of the night before, he backtracks the lone set of bloody footprints from the foot of his bed down a hallway and discovers at the bottom of a flight of stairs the murdered body of his mother.
His first thought is that the killer is still in the house, and his second theory is that thieves broke in and he interrupted her murder and experienced one of his seizures after scaring them off (nothing seems to be missing), but he stops himself from calling the police because he can’t explain his own condition. He knows it looks bad, doubly so when he hears the news reports about a second murder victim in his neighborhood that same night, a young woman with a slit throat like his mother’s. He suspects that one killer is responsible for both victims and reluctantly opens up to the possibility that maybe he is that killer.
Over the next couple of days, Yu-jin sets two equally difficult tasks for himself. First, he has to hide the fact that his mother is dead from his adopted brother Hae-jin — especially difficult, as the three lived together — and his mother’s nosy sister Hye-won, who won’t stop calling or dropping by their home unannounced. Second, he has to solve the murder, or at least determine his own innocence or guilt, before either reporting it or going on the run.
The first task takes up most of the first half of the book. Yu-jin is busy hiding the body, cleaning the house, building an explanation for his mother’s absence one rickety lie atop another. He has to hide evidence from the brother he loves and the aunt he despises, as well as neighbors and policemen alternately canvassing the neighborhood in the wake of the other murder and responding to a mysterious anonymous call about a burglary in progress at his home. He looks up tips for removing blood stains and contemplates methods of disposing of an inconvenient corpse in between bouts of exhaustion and sensory distortion brought on by having gone off of his anti-seizure medication.
What’s noticeably absent in all the puzzled scrambling is guilt and grief.
I felt a glimmer of hope. If I could figure out why she cut her own throat and why I couldn’t stop her, I could call the police without worrying about becoming a suspect. I could figure it out. Or at least I could make it make sense. I had always had a gift for reshaping a scene to make it comprehensible, though Mother disparaged this skill, calling it “lying.”
Maybe he’s not stone cold though. Perhaps his lack of emotion can be chalked up to survival instincts kicking in or trouble resetting his equilibrium. Turns out his aunt has been pushing medications on him for the last 16 years. When he doesn’t take them, he’s prone to seizures, but on the other hand when he’s compliant he feels a bit lethargic and robbed of ambition.
Ambition he used to steer toward interests like competitive swimming. As a teenager, he was a burgeoning sensation on a national level, but he never felt supported by his mother. During his competing years he’d found that another side effect of dropping his meds was impressively improved performance. And heightened senses. Especially smell.
The smell of blood in particular has a special effect on him.
Maybe she was on her period. It wasn’t rare for me to smell menstrual blood in an enclosed space like a lecture hall or a classroom; it was easy to identify the person who was bleeding since it had a clear, unique smell. But in a forest or on a wide-open road? How was that possible unless you were a hunting dog?
Looking back, I realized that I had been attacked by smells every time I stopped my meds.
His second task, confronting the increasing likelihood that he is a matricidal psychopath, takes up the majority of the book’s second half. Yu-jin discovers a journal that his mother has kept for years since a tragedy that took the lives of Yu-jin’s father and biological brother.
It is in the book’s second half that the story is most engaging. The first half’s concerns are explored mostly through interior monologue consisting of thoughts most readers of books or watchers of films could fill in on their own. We, as an audience, understand why Yu-jin is reluctant to call the police when he is clearly the best suspect after a cursory examination of the facts, and we also share his doubts about the appearance of things because of the blank space where his memories should be.
We’ve read these books and seen these films and so we spend much of the first half of the story a step or two ahead of his narration wishing he would catch up instead of mulling over his options in a situation familiar to audiences. In his 1981 book The Prone Gunman, French novelist Jean-Patrick Manchette proved that a single point-of-view character could carry a story without an interior voice of any kind and delivered a thriller where the only clues to the protagonist’s intentions or feelings were his actions, a style aptly referred to as cinematic. Typically the idea of comparing cinema to literature is inappropriate in cross-medium criticism, but Jeong opens the door in The Good Son by peppering the story with film references.
More than one of Yu-jin’s fondest memories involve seeing and discussing movies with his mother and brother. Hae-jin works in the film industry, and one of Yu-jin’s favorite possessions is a crew jacket from Hae-jin’s time on the set of a film called Private Lesson. We never learn the plot of that film, but we are invited to read into the title by knowing the plots of other widely released films Yu-jin meditates on throughout the book. He recalls seeing Rob Reiner’s Jack Nicholson/Morgan Freeman dramedy The Bucket List with Hae-jin and their different takes on it: where Hae-jin thought that the film’s attempts at humor fell flat and felt false because nothing about dying is funny, Yu-jin recognized that the two characters from disparate backgrounds and via different routes found themselves on the same journey moving ever closer toward the end, but not yet dead. Remembering the film late in the book, Yu-jin attempts to communicate an important indication of his intentions to his brother, but the audience recognizes that the attempt will be for nought based on the opposing worldviews of the parties involved.
Or take Yu-jin’s decision to stop and watch an unnamed Kristen Stewart action movie (American Ultra) about a stoner more or less forced to smoke dope in order to suppress his lethal capabilities and muddle memories of his true identity: a highly trained spy and assassin. Paired with Yu-jin’s foggy memory and the anti-seizure medications that his mother and auntie obsessively monitor, it’s no random thing that he’s drawn to this story. Outside of suppressing epileptic episodes, is there an ulterior motive to the drug regimen he’s been forced to take and which make him sluggish and dull?
Perhaps most telling and personally significant to Yu-jin is the memory of going to the movies as a minor accompanied by mother and brother to see Fernando Meirelles’s City of God, the story of boyhood best friends growing up in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro. One becomes a photographer, the other a killer. Exiting the cinema, mother and brother are somber, remarking on the heaviness of the story, while Yu-jin found the whole thing delightful, “effervescent,” and thought that Lil Zé, the killer, was particularly hilarious — a reaction his mother is unsettled by.
Among Yu-jin’s other fondly recalled memories are family vacations in Japan, where the reader may wonder if he ever saw Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Cure, a film about a policeman investigating an outbreak of similar cases where otherwise normal people wake up having murdered loved ones and can’t explain why. Or perhaps he watched another 1997 movie, David Lynch’s Lost Highway, about a man who kills his wife and tells the police that he doesn’t make home movies because he likes to remember things his own way and not necessarily the way they happened.
The point seems to be that there are two ways to see every story, and that even seemingly terrible actions and events can have reasonable explanations — a sentiment echoed by Yu-jin reflecting on how he decided to pursue a career in law.
After secretly going off of his medication to enhance his skill for an important swim meet, Yu-jin suffered disastrous withdrawal consequences and, per a contract with his mother, quit swimming, his only passion, and decided to honor her wishes all the while leeching off of her the rest of his life as a means of punishing her. That is, until he read a book by a defense attorney that stirred his interest:
According to this attorney, criminal cases fell into two categories: those where you fought for acquittal and others where you entered a guilty plea and then fought over sentencing. The latter were harder to defend, as sentencing required consideration of the defendant’s age, intelligence and environment; his relationship with the victim; the reason he committed the crime; the method and result of his acts; and what he did afterward, in addition to ethics […] I understood that passage to mean that morality was all about painting a picture to help your case.
The two sides to The Good Son are told by mother and son. Once Yu-jin discovers and begins to read his mother’s journal and offers the reader his own take on each chapter of the story that she tells, stroke by (alternately conflicting and complementary) stroke a more complete picture is formed.
The final mystery of The Good Son is genre. Is it a psycho-noir or a tricky amnesia-tinged locked-room mystery? Either subgenre can support unreliability on the part of the narrator, and even after crucial bits of memory are recovered the mystery remains until the resolution. And that resolution is satisfyingly chilling and, depending on the reader, thrilling.
South Korea is a region whose crime films have been gaining a worldwide audience and earning a well-deserved reputation for innovation and invigorating the genre for the last 15 years or so. With this first English translation of best-selling Korean novelist You-Jeong Jeong (translated by Chi-Young Kim), perhaps the region will soon have a wider reputation for its crime literature to match.