Fact or fiction? Lucky Us vs The Birth of Korean Cool
Ed Power pits a novel against a non-fiction each week. Suggestions to email@example.com
Fiction: Lucky Us
This rumination on how Korea lifted itself from developing world poverty to the apex of global "cool" (as the author sees it) contains valuable lessons for Ireland. Perhaps it is a lingering effect of the provincialism that cursed the country for decades, but many of us remain myopically convinced our national 'brand' is highly regarded overseas - when, in fact, we are widely condescended to as whiskey-chuggers and irreverent shysters (you will note how, in the current debate over corporate-friendly tax regimes, it is the feckless Paddies who cop most of the bad publicity, not the stern, prudent Dutch, with their very sensible tax minimization laws).
The message is that you have to sit down and think about how you are perceived abroad - a moral South Korea has taken on board with considerable guile and ambition. The most obvious manifestation of this is Psy's 'Gangham Style', a paean to a well-to-do neighbourhood of Seoul that, in 2012, become the most streamed song of all time. At first pass, Gangham feels like one of those flukes you can't account for: actually, Korea's 'K-Pop' industry received a $50 million government investment in 2009 to fight the corrosive effects of illegal downloading.
Similarly, Korea's technology revolution - which has seen Samsung emerge as the world's most influential tech player outside of the United States - was, in part, the result of a long-term strategy and state intervention (20 years ago Samsung was colloquially referred to, inside Korea and beyond, as 'Samsuck').
Having moved from New York to Seoul with her family at age 12, Hong brings the perfect mix of outsider perspective and insider understanding to her study of Korea's 'cool' industry. Her conclusions feel significant as we fret about the place of 'Brand Ireland': to become a player on the global stage you need to take ownership of your national narrative rather than rely on the kindness of others.
Non-fiction: The Birth of Korean Cool
Simon and Schuster
Critics in America have been swooning over Lucky Us - in particular, its zinger of an opening paragraph: "My father's wife died. My mother said we should drive down to his place and see what might be in it for us."
The narrator is Eva Logan, a wistful teenager surprised to discover that her professor father has a second family. She goes to live with her half-clan and becomes platonically besotted with sister-she-never-knew Iris. It's 1939 and, sophisticated and glamorous, 16-year-old Iris dreams of becoming a movie star. To that end, with a worshipful Eva in tow, she relocates to Los Angeles, on the cusp of a golden age of silver-screen decadence (back then, movie stars truly were gods among men).
Soon, the sisters are in the clutches of a hedonistic whirlwind. There are love affairs, Gatsby-esque blow-outs, laughters, tears, recriminations. In less nuanced hands, this could have made for a rather soapy affair: Downton Abbey meets Sunset Boulevard. However, Bloom is astonishingly deft - whenever you think you've got the novel figured out, she unmoors you with a sudden kink in the narrative (though never to the point where things feel clunking and shoddy). The shocks are consistently shocking, never cheap or obvious.
At the level of period romp, Lucky Us is a triumph. And yet, it's also a far deeper, more rewarding experience, speaking to such constants of the human condition as stifled ambition, spurned love, the sense that there must be more to life than the mundanity of the day to day (and the peace we must make with ourselves upon realising this is largely not the case).
Already a bestseller in the United States, the novel deserves to be a hit in this part of the world also - it feels both powerfully exotic and universal in its insights into the human condition. We may just have found the year's Gone Girl/50 Shades of Grey.