Based on Yeon-Sik Hong’s autobiography, his story opens with a comic artist frustrated by the city, by his editors, and by the financial responsibilities of higher education and the cost of living. The artist and his partner look for a quiet place to move, and they somehow end up renting a house at the literal end of a mountain road.
Don’t confuse this with the typical narrative where the heroes will find happiness, tragedy, or peace in the world by moving away from modern life. Hong’s work shows readers a post-modern wilderness that denies both romantic narrative and ends the myth of the rural heterotopia. We follow a man whose unstable financial and social existence shapes his view of the world and threatens both his grip on reality and his ability to be contented with life.
While Hong based the story on his and his wife’s biography, the book offers a stark portrayal of contemporary consumer culture where student loans and uncertain jobs create constant anxiety that shapes people’s behavior and perception. While originally written for a Korean audience, Uncomfortably Happily illustrates the current plight of many in consumer nations.
In the US, student loan debt and the lack of adequate jobs remains a topic of both graduates and politicians. In a recent article in The Atlantic, “The Mystery of Why So Few Japanese are Not Having Babies”, Alana Semuels points out economic insecurity and the rise of freelance jobs are causing fewer Japanese to marry or even couple. The article cites experts who say similar things are happening around the world.
While the cultural traditions are different in Korea, Hong’s artist finds himself trapped in this modern problem of student debt and temporary, financially unstable employment. We see the artist emotionally distant from his wife as he procrastinates on his own work while complaining about the work he has to do for others.
From an interpersonal communication perspective, Hong demonstrates a committed relationship threatened as a couple navigates the problems in their lives. Often when the artist is with his wife he obsesses over his frustrations, and mostly uses her only as a sounding board for his internal conflict. Mostly he barely notices her, using his imagination to enact his frustrations with his publisher and with himself.
When she offers to go to work in the local factory to help pay their bills, the artist will not allow her to, with the excuse that she also has to spend her time on her own work. Consistently, he fails to support her as he seems to be ready to either fall asleep or critique her work when she makes it a topic of conversation. Hong shows the damage the artist’s negativity has on the relationship in single panels that shows her frustrations.
While Romantic literature has valued nature and rural living as a cure-all for urbanites, even prior to the industrial revolution, Hong creates a landscape that draws the evils from the city even to the most isolated mountain. The artist degenerates as he makes his way through the first year on the mountain. He has taken time away from school to work on his graphic novel. He builds a rock border between his lot and the road where hikers and holiday picnickers encroach on his peace. He focuses his anger on the outsiders, and when the area is snowed in and he and his wife are alone, he blames the mountain for his anger and the inability to work on his graphic novel.
As his anger consumes him, his health declines. The artist finds solitude in the chaos of his frustration.
A significant element of the story is the social role the artist’s wife portrays, and it develops as the most conflicted. The artist credits his wife for helping him learn to step out of his emotional maelstrom, but through most of the book, the reader sees the artist almost dismissing her as an assistant. I call her “the wife” throughout my review because that is how the character thinks of her. She calls him “honey”, but the term of endearment almost seems like a plea. I’m not sure if his referral to her marital position is a cultural norm, but her individuality only appears in conflict to his frustration, when she works to create her book, or when she goes behind his back to find ways to make the relationship or finances work.
While he outlines a future with children, she suggests they don’t need to have a child to find meaning in their careers. In the interpersonal interactions, the artist values his work and career above hers, even though the move to the country was supposed to be for the benefit of both partners. Yet, when she finds a level of success, he embraces her. Gender roles seem to fall away when she becomes a professional artist. He treats her as an equal only when he gives up a job that fuels his anger and she develops career success.
Consumer desire permeates the story and threads many of the themes to the relationship. Even though the couple do not have enough money to pay for their phone bill and health insurance, the artist always wants a new car or motorcycle. When he gets a motorcycle, his wife makes him promise he will not sell it because it makes him happy, no matter how much they might need the money. This interaction functions to add a new layer to how readers interpret the couple’s relationship. Frequently, commodities stand in for happiness or commitment, and when it comes to the partnership, both material objects and the partner’s art production signify the commitment they share.
Yeon-Sik Hong offers a complex view of a couple struggling to succeed in life and career. His simple narrative offers a critique of the changing workforce, shifting social norms, and the complex pressures put on contemporary relationships. He mirrors a world where the promise of upward mobility has been replaced with nearly insurmountable debt and the destruction of familial norms. It is a story of change, and the only salvation may be learning to expect less from ourselves.
Hong offers us a look at reality, not a fairy tale. In a world where we cannot escape the debts and sacrifice that allow us to survive, we can still find moments that transcend the frustration and find a way to live. No life is perfect and no mountain hideaway Xanadu. At its heart, Uncomfortably Happily does offer the hope that with commitment and an open mind, we can find our own happiness in the most uncomfortable places.
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