If you have any interest at all in writing produced by the cultural exchange — or culture clash, if you prefer — between the West and Asia, you might consider keeping up with Signal 8 Press. Though a relatively new operation, they've already put out quite a few intriguing books, ranging formally from novels to travel memoirs to short story collections to college guides and geographically from China to Hong Kong to Laos to the Philippines to Korea.
Having read my own writing on Korea for The Guardian, Signal 8 author Giacomo Lee (@elegiacomo) reached out and offered me a chance to read his upcoming novel Funereal, a dark and sometimes surreal exploration of the country's drive for perfection, its unceasing competitiveness, and its conformist beauty culture — especially as they all exist, in lethally concentrated form, in the enormous, shapeshifting capital of Seoul.
Lee, a British former resident of Korea, accomplishes a literary act of which I know no precedent: convincingly rendering Korean characters through Western eyes. His countryman David Mitchell essayed a dystopian Korea in one layer of Cloud Atlas, but he set it in the unrecognizably distant future. Lee writes of the dystopian Korea of today, one that, in his conception, has driven itself nearly to the asylum with its own increasingly impossible standards and hopelessly unrealistic expectations.
Funereal's protagonist, a young lady in her late twenties named Soobin Shin, finds herself plucked from her dead-end donut-shop job by a regular customer, an entrepreneur who has come up with the potential next big thing in a culture perpetually on the lookout for next big things: OneLife, a service that puts on fake funerals for Koreans overwhelmed by their very existences, unwilling to go on, and need of the moment of reflection that only bursting alive out of a coffin in front of one's gathered black-clad friends and family can provide.
Having taken on the role of frontwoman in this fledgling company, Soobin truly believes she has stumbled onto her true calling until everything goes pear-shaped in this enterprise of fake death when real death involves itself — an inevitability, I suppose, in a country with suicide rates second only to those of Lithuania.
Lee didn't make up the fake-funeral thing out of whole cloth. In his article "Does Writing About Suicide Inspire Suicide?", he references famous Korean novelist Kim Young-ha's I Have the Right to Destroy Myself, which "features a ‘suicide counselor’ who helps his depressed clients kill themselves, while the main character I present symbolizes the opposite, a woman who buries her suicidal charges alive so that they can overcome their depression."
"It is, of course, an extreme solution," he adds, "but one inspired by an actual company that operates in the most affluent area of the country’s capital." He also highlights the Vice documentary A Good Day To Die: Fake Funerals in South Korea, which surprised him "by showing not the private services imagined in my novel, as held in living rooms and offices for one person at a time, but by another way of doing business entirely": fake-burying en masse, for maximum efficiency.
Funereal doesn't come out out April 14, 2015, so I asked Lee to hand over the opening chapter so Boing Boing readers can give it a read and see what they think in the meantime. You can download it as a PDF here. As a fellow Korea enthusiast, I think I speak for both Lee and myself when I say that the country has plenty to love. But every country offers plenty not to love, and out of that grim material he as crafted the first Western novel of Korea's dark side.
Chapter one of Funereal by Giacomo Lee