Kafka’s Metamorphosis has in part occupied such a terrifying place in the modern imagination because Gregor Samsa’s awakening in the body of a “monstrous insect” involves the change of both his appearance and perceived usefulness. The idea that a person could simply wake up one day, look different, be considered less relevant to society and therefore be plunged into isolation is a horrifying concept appropriate for our socially agitated times. But considering this a purely theoretical existential dilemma or test of perception ignores the fact that there are people to whom this very thing happens. No, you’re not going to wake up one morning having spontaneously changed ethnicity, biological sex or into a big icky bug (well, probably), but it does happen that previously able-bodied people suddenly find themselves with a disability, and this is what happens to the main character in The Hole by South Korean writer Hye-young Pyun, out in an English translation by Sora Kim-Russell this month.
The novel is no less horrific for mostly seeming plausible. Oghi, a geography professor and cartography lecturer in his mid-forties, wakes up from a coma after a car accident to find that he’s paralyzed and unable to speak, only able to communicate with hospital personnel by blinking. He’s lost his wife, who was in the car with him, though he experiences a vision of her above him as he lies in his hospital bed.
In many ways, The Hole reads like classic horror. Oghi, in his supremely helpless state, is left to the care of his mother-in-law, the only family he has left, a distant and poised woman who he has always admired and wanted to impress. She oversees his hospital appointments, surgeries, physical therapy and home care, but seems to become gradually more resentful of him over time, possibly due to her snooping through details of Oghi’s previously capsizing marriage with her daughter, a situation that may have caused the accident in the first place.
Still mostly unable to speak, and only able to write shakily with his left hand, Oghi is barred from explaining his side of whatever story his mother-in-law may have extracted from notes his wife kept about him in her study. He’s not even sure of what his wife has put to paper regarding his past sins, but having cheated on her more than once and broken many promises, he’s aware that it might not look so good. He also isn’t cheered by the fact that his mother-in-law seems to have taken over his wife’s obsession with gardening—or, shall we say, “gardening.” That mysterious, eponymous hole she’s digging? That she says, or at least implies, is for a fish pond, but might be for something else? Oh, you guys, I don’t think it’s for a fish pond, do you?
As banal of a statement as this may be, what makes The Hole more than a straightforward horror or suspense thriller is its reliance on character development. In fact, it would make for a great example to use in teaching the importance of “character fiction,” if you’re into that sort of thing. The seeming urgency of the plot distracts the reader from considering potentially interesting facts about the people who inhabit Pyun’s fictional world. This isn’t a spoiler, because I was warned of as much myself beforehand and still plowed through the book like a happy idiot. Either way, The Hole is a highly enjoyable, if very dark, read. Whether you’re just getting the pants scared off you, watching the slow trickle of events or sinking into the depth and ambiguity of Pyun’s well constructed (and Kim-Russell’s well translated, I suspect) sentences, you can always opt for another read while training your attention elsewhere.
It’s hard to separate the societal from the personal in The Hole. It’s no Get Out, but there are social elements worth noting. Oghi’s mother-in-law is a half-Japanese woman (living in Korea), and the way Oghi reacts to finding this out is telling. He seems to have a chill, laissez-faire attitude when it comes to people who differ from him or occupy different places in the world, but he is, according to his late wife and in the face of certain evidence, a snob. There are many elements of his treatment of (or indifference to) others that don’t seem to register in his awareness until his disability winds up making him feel more-than-marginalized and invisible himself. Ultimately, however, while there are elements of social horror in The Hole, its focus is on the horror of the human condition. It’s about blindness, the kind from which no one is exempt.
There’s also a feeling of inevitability, a sense that Oghi’s predicament may not have been preventable. The gift of Pyun’s novel is that you can’t stop thinking about the details, but in the end, the details may serve a different purpose than you expected. The stakes may not be what you thought they were.