'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.


In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

Keep reading... Show less

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less

This week on our games podcast, Nick and Eric talk about the joy and frustration of killing Nazis in Wolfenstein: The New Order.

This week, Nick and Eric talk about the joy and frustration of killing Nazis in Wolfenstein: The New Order.

Keep reading... Show less

Which is the draw, the art or the artist? Critic Rachel Corbett examines the intertwined lives of two artists of two different generations and nationalities who worked in two starkly different media.

Artist biographies written for a popular audience necessarily involve compromise. On the one hand, we are only interested in the lives of artists because we are intrigued, engaged, and moved by their work. The confrontation with a work of art is an uncanny experience. We are drawn to, enraptured and entranced by, absorbed in the contemplation of an object. Even the performative arts (music, theater, dance) have an objective quality to them. In watching a play, we are not simply watching people do things; we are attending to the play as a thing that is more than the collection of actions performed. The play seems to have an existence beyond the human endeavor that instantiates it. It is simultaneously more and less than human: more because it's superordinate to human action and less because it's a mere object, lacking the evident subjectivity we prize in the human being.

Keep reading... Show less

Gabin's Maigret lets everyone else emote, sometimes hysterically, until he vents his own anger in the final revelations.

France's most celebrated home-grown detective character is Georges Simenon's Inspector Jules Maigret, an aging Paris homicide detective who, phlegmatically and unflappably, tracks down murderers to their lairs at the center of the human heart. He's invariably icon-ified as a shadowy figure smoking an eternal pipe, less fancy than Sherlock Holmes' curvy calabash but getting the job done in its laconic, unpretentious, middle-class manner.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.