PopMatters is moving to WordPress. We will publish a few essays daily while we develop the new site. We hope the beta will be up sometime late next week.

'Uncomfortably Happily' Considers the Radical Notion of Expecting Less of One's Self

Marriage and creativity through the eyes of an artist burdened by student debt and the frustration of a changing economy.

Uncomfortably Happily

Publisher: Drawn & Quarterly
Length: 576 pages
Author: Yeon-Sik Hong
Price: $29.95
Format: Paperback
Publication date: 2017-06

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.


Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology and hosting provider that we have less than a month, until November 6, to move PopMatters off their service or we will be shut down. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to save the site.





How 'Watchmen' and 'The Boys' Deconstruct American Fascism

Superhero media has a history of critiquing the dark side of power, hero worship, and vigilantism, but none have done so as radically as Watchmen and The Boys.


Floodlights' 'From a View' Is Classicist Antipodal Indie Guitar Pop

Aussie indie rockers, Floodlights' debut From a View is a very cleanly, crisply-produced and mixed collection of shambolic, do-it-yourself indie guitar music.


CF Watkins Embraces a Cool, Sophisticated Twang on 'Babygirl'

CF Watkins has pulled off the unique trick of creating an album that is imbued with the warmth of the American South as well as the urban sophistication of New York.


Helena Deland Suggests Imagination Is More Rewarding Than Reality on 'Something New'

Canadian singer-songwriter Helena Deland's first full-length release Someone New reveals her considerable creative talents.


While the Sun Shines: An Interview with Composer Joe Wong

Joe Wong, the composer behind Netflix's Russian Doll and Master of None, articulates personal grief and grappling with artistic fulfillment into a sweeping debut album.


Peter Frampton Asks "Do You Feel Like I Do?" in Rock-Solid Book on Storied Career

British rocker Peter Frampton grew up fast before reaching meteoric heights with Frampton Comes Alive! Now the 70-year-old Grammy-winning artist facing a degenerative muscle condition looks back on his life in his new memoir and this revealing interview.


Bishakh Som's 'Spellbound' Is an Innovative Take on the Graphic Memoir

Bishakh's Som's graphic memoir, Spellbound, serves as a reminder that trans memoirs need not hinge on transition narratives, or at least not on the ones we are used to seeing.


Gamblers' Michael McManus Discusses Religion, Addiction, and the Importance of Writing Open-Ended Songs

Seductively approachable, Gamblers' sunny sound masks the tragedy and despair that populate the band's debut album.


Peter Guralnick's 'Looking to Get Lost' Is an Ode to the Pleasures of Writing About Music

Peter Guralnick's homage to writing about music, 'Looking to Get Lost', shows how good music writing gets the music into the readers' head.


In Praise of the Artifice in George Cukor's 'Sylvia Scarlett'

George Cukor's gender-bending Sylvia Scarlett proposes a heroine who learns nothing from her cross-gendered ordeal.


The Cure: Ranking the Albums From 13 to 1

Just about every Cure album is worth picking up, and even those ranked lowest boast worthwhile moments. Here are their albums, spanning 29 years, presented from worst to best.


The 20 Best Episodes of 'Star Trek: The Original Series'

This is a timeless list of 20 thrilling Star Trek episodes that delight, excite, and entertain, all the while exploring the deepest aspects of the human condition and questioning our place in the universe.


The 20 Best Tom Petty Songs

With today's release of Tom Petty's Wildflowers & All the Rest (Deluxe Edition), we're revisiting Petty's 20 best songs.

Joshua M. Miller

The 11 Greatest Hits From "Greatest Hits" Compilations

It's one of the strangest pop microcosms in history: singles released exclusively from Greatest Hits compilations. We rounded 'em up and ranked 'em to find out what is truly the greatest Greatest Hit of all.


When Punk Got the Funk

As punks were looking for some potential pathways out of the cul-de-sacs of their limited soundscapes, they saw in funk a way to expand the punk palette without sacrificing either their ethos or idea(l)s.


20 Hits of the '80s You Might Not Have Known Are Covers

There were many hit cover versions in the '80s, some of well-known originals, and some that fans may be surprised are covers.


The Reign of Kindo Discuss Why We're Truly "Better Off Together"

The Reign of Kindo's Joseph Secchiaroli delves deep into their latest single and future plans, as well as how COVID-19 has affected not only the band but America as a whole.


Tommy Siegel's Comic 'I Hope This Helps' Pokes at Social Media Addiction

Jukebox the Ghost's Tommy Siegel discusses his "500 Comics in 500 Days" project, which is now a new book, I Hope This Helps.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.