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“The Naked Tree”: Nothing Is as It Seems

“This is a very 'post' book: told in recollection, set during a long-ago war, hinging its stakes on a romance that never happened,” writes critic Max Winter.

Sometimes the transmissions books send us are very simple, as easy as “Love fades” or “Maturing hurts” or “War is hell.” But when we bear down on these concepts, they acquire layers that represent their lives as ideas and their development inside the individual work, with each layer displaying its own peculiar character. Could it be that the idea driving The Naked Tree, a graphic adaptation of a novel by Park Wan-Suh about repressed love and repressed lives set during, after, and before the Korean War, is that “nothing is as it seems”? An almost absurdly simple idea, until you take it to mean that the way things seem may be a social construct, pressured by socioeconomic or historical or cultural conditions. And then you have to take it to mean that the people you see around you have their own life histories, of which you have no grasp. And then you have to take it to mean that what one does for a living may have only the faintest connection with what one does for a life. And then you have to take it to mean that the life one lives may in fact be a substitute for the life one could have lived, and so on. All these stories are told in Keum Suk Gendry-Kim’s at times deceptively matter-of-fact graphic novel, translated coolly and plainly by Janet Hong.

The book is a story within a story, “told” by Park Wan-Suh, who starts writing it after learning that a former coworker has died. The story we receive reimagines Wan-Suh’s younger days, giving her a different name, Lee Kyeonga, as the novel is written before our eyes. Lee has a dreary, unsatisfying life. She lives with her aging mother in a small house in a largely wooded area and has a quiet job managing a US army store, where customers walk in and pay artists to paint their portraits based on photographs. Her customers range from earnest but stupid GIs to one of her coworkers, an aging woman who wants to make herself appear more attractive to possible wealthy partners overseas. Lee keeps herself amused by quietly making fun of her customers while making sales. She resorts to mock broken English when communicating with the GIs, masking her true resentment, and reminding us of how powerful stealthy language can be in registering protest of inappropriate behavior. Lee’s profession, managing portrait painters, is itself a metaphor and a question: how well do we humans differentiate between the way we want to see ourselves and what we actually know to be true?

One day, Lee’s life changes when an unassuming young artist, Ok Huido, comes to work at the army store. After a few bumps and scrapes, he reveals himself to be proficient at his craft (having had remarkable artistic success in the past, as Lee finds out from a friend), and a misshapen friendship starts between the two—not exactly unrequited love on Lee’s part, at least in her telling. But the graphics, as is often the case in this book, tell a deeper story, making the moment when she meets his wife and children particularly poignant.

Indeed, the visuals carry as much storytelling weight as the text in The Naked Tree, not so much because one supports the other as because both are animated by similar energies. What is striking about the visual style here is the intense mixture of rough and fine, as if to parallel the story’s balance of tenderness and roughness. Some faces are exaggerated, like the faces of characters I remember from Sunday comics, whereas others are discreetly and minimally rendered. The minuteness of the approach might run to both extremes in the same frame, with a detailed face against a rough background, or vice versa—you never forget the mind of the artist/storyteller, who is calibrating these elements as if they were plot points. The translation, similarly, is often controlled in its tone, though the content itself is not dry; Janet Hong’s work doesn’t show many signs of a struggle, whatever the struggle may have been. Straightforward description walks alongside wrenching confession, and at moments I felt truly linked with the characters, as if they had revealed themselves with directness and immediacy. In the final analysis, the book masters both the close shot and the long shot, visually and verbally.

Such balance is necessary for a book that is first and foremost an urban tale of people managing urban lives. Their urbanity is sometimes represented by certain crucial details: a puddle on the street, an empty shop window. At other times the panels are dizzying, showing the human plenitude in urban life, one tense-looking figure against a crowd, aggravated by the sheer stress involved in getting through the workday. The angles of the images are off-kilter; rarely do we get a straight shot of any particular tableau. This is a destabilizing move that pulls you into the narrative as much as it pushes you out of it, reminding you that the book is a personal story of one individual’s alienation in love and life, but also a story of widespread alienation during and after wartime. The author gives a good sense, indeed, of the painful logistics of war—of the difficulty, the impossibility, of hiding family members in her house as they fled, which leads to one of the book’s most tragic episodes. Part of the aggression behind the illustrations is perhaps driven by the sense that we are all exposed, that we can neither hide from ourselves nor each other.

The book has several moments in which the graphics show, in almost electric fashion, the crystallization of the characters’ emotional states. In one frame, we see a huge stack of speech balloons from Lee next to one from Ok, a perfect way of showing the dynamic of their conversation as well as the crucial difference between the emotive Ok, grappling with the sad difference between his past and his present, and the pent-up Lee, who has not yet realized her passions and doesn’t necessarily express herself in such an open way at all times. In the background is a tree, recalling the book’s title. As the conversation dwindles, the representation of the tree breaks down into its most basic parts until it is no more than an arrangement of black and white shapes on the page, blurring as the intensity of the chat fades. In another frame, early in the book, Lee responds to a customer’s persistent flirtation with “Do I seem easy?” Her face, at that point, becomes half-shadowed, as if to indicate that, in some ways, she is uncomplicated, open, vulnerable, but in other ways she is the exact opposite. To a certain extent, this is, of course, what most graphic novels do. And yet, in this case, where the emotions are ramped up, there is a special force in seeing synthesis like this.

The book wants to haunt you. It doesn’t want you to hang on every plot machination—it is, after all, on its surface a simple story of a woman who chances to meet a man with a fairly extraordinary life history who has been reduced by the struggle to stay alive and support his family. The thrill here, if you could call it that, is in the aftereffect, the tang of a could-have-been (Lee’s romance with Ok) intertwined with the story of a wasn’t (the expected success of Ok’s art career, hampered by the need to provide for his family). As the story moves forward to its nonending, then leaps ahead to remind us that what we have read is a recollection, we realize that it’s slid a lot of pain into its quiet interior, which moves with startling fluidity, pushing us from one image to the next.

This is a very “post” book: told in recollection, set during a long-ago war, hinging its stakes on a romance that never happened. And yet it reminds us that the past doesn’t always stay past, that moments we thought were “over” have a way of becoming “not over” without warning. When Wan-Suh sees a news item about her artist friend, now deceased, it inspires the writing of the novel, centering around emotions thought to be long since processed. In so doing, the novelist is forced to grapple with how she has arrived at her current position. We too are tempted to extrapolate and philosophize about what the story’s various meanings might be—and yet the only meaning that makes any lasting sense is its most basic one: that our lives are never entirely what they seem, either to ourselves or to others.

The Naked Tree by Keum Suk Gendry-Kim, translated from the Korean by Janet Hong (Drawn & Quarterly, 2024).

© 2024 by Max Winter. All rights reserved.

English

Sometimes the transmissions books send us are very simple, as easy as “Love fades” or “Maturing hurts” or “War is hell.” But when we bear down on these concepts, they acquire layers that represent their lives as ideas and their development inside the individual work, with each layer displaying its own peculiar character. Could it be that the idea driving The Naked Tree, a graphic adaptation of a novel by Park Wan-Suh about repressed love and repressed lives set during, after, and before the Korean War, is that “nothing is as it seems”? An almost absurdly simple idea, until you take it to mean that the way things seem may be a social construct, pressured by socioeconomic or historical or cultural conditions. And then you have to take it to mean that the people you see around you have their own life histories, of which you have no grasp. And then you have to take it to mean that what one does for a living may have only the faintest connection with what one does for a life. And then you have to take it to mean that the life one lives may in fact be a substitute for the life one could have lived, and so on. All these stories are told in Keum Suk Gendry-Kim’s at times deceptively matter-of-fact graphic novel, translated coolly and plainly by Janet Hong.

The book is a story within a story, “told” by Park Wan-Suh, who starts writing it after learning that a former coworker has died. The story we receive reimagines Wan-Suh’s younger days, giving her a different name, Lee Kyeonga, as the novel is written before our eyes. Lee has a dreary, unsatisfying life. She lives with her aging mother in a small house in a largely wooded area and has a quiet job managing a US army store, where customers walk in and pay artists to paint their portraits based on photographs. Her customers range from earnest but stupid GIs to one of her coworkers, an aging woman who wants to make herself appear more attractive to possible wealthy partners overseas. Lee keeps herself amused by quietly making fun of her customers while making sales. She resorts to mock broken English when communicating with the GIs, masking her true resentment, and reminding us of how powerful stealthy language can be in registering protest of inappropriate behavior. Lee’s profession, managing portrait painters, is itself a metaphor and a question: how well do we humans differentiate between the way we want to see ourselves and what we actually know to be true?

One day, Lee’s life changes when an unassuming young artist, Ok Huido, comes to work at the army store. After a few bumps and scrapes, he reveals himself to be proficient at his craft (having had remarkable artistic success in the past, as Lee finds out from a friend), and a misshapen friendship starts between the two—not exactly unrequited love on Lee’s part, at least in her telling. But the graphics, as is often the case in this book, tell a deeper story, making the moment when she meets his wife and children particularly poignant.

Indeed, the visuals carry as much storytelling weight as the text in The Naked Tree, not so much because one supports the other as because both are animated by similar energies. What is striking about the visual style here is the intense mixture of rough and fine, as if to parallel the story’s balance of tenderness and roughness. Some faces are exaggerated, like the faces of characters I remember from Sunday comics, whereas others are discreetly and minimally rendered. The minuteness of the approach might run to both extremes in the same frame, with a detailed face against a rough background, or vice versa—you never forget the mind of the artist/storyteller, who is calibrating these elements as if they were plot points. The translation, similarly, is often controlled in its tone, though the content itself is not dry; Janet Hong’s work doesn’t show many signs of a struggle, whatever the struggle may have been. Straightforward description walks alongside wrenching confession, and at moments I felt truly linked with the characters, as if they had revealed themselves with directness and immediacy. In the final analysis, the book masters both the close shot and the long shot, visually and verbally.

Such balance is necessary for a book that is first and foremost an urban tale of people managing urban lives. Their urbanity is sometimes represented by certain crucial details: a puddle on the street, an empty shop window. At other times the panels are dizzying, showing the human plenitude in urban life, one tense-looking figure against a crowd, aggravated by the sheer stress involved in getting through the workday. The angles of the images are off-kilter; rarely do we get a straight shot of any particular tableau. This is a destabilizing move that pulls you into the narrative as much as it pushes you out of it, reminding you that the book is a personal story of one individual’s alienation in love and life, but also a story of widespread alienation during and after wartime. The author gives a good sense, indeed, of the painful logistics of war—of the difficulty, the impossibility, of hiding family members in her house as they fled, which leads to one of the book’s most tragic episodes. Part of the aggression behind the illustrations is perhaps driven by the sense that we are all exposed, that we can neither hide from ourselves nor each other.

The book has several moments in which the graphics show, in almost electric fashion, the crystallization of the characters’ emotional states. In one frame, we see a huge stack of speech balloons from Lee next to one from Ok, a perfect way of showing the dynamic of their conversation as well as the crucial difference between the emotive Ok, grappling with the sad difference between his past and his present, and the pent-up Lee, who has not yet realized her passions and doesn’t necessarily express herself in such an open way at all times. In the background is a tree, recalling the book’s title. As the conversation dwindles, the representation of the tree breaks down into its most basic parts until it is no more than an arrangement of black and white shapes on the page, blurring as the intensity of the chat fades. In another frame, early in the book, Lee responds to a customer’s persistent flirtation with “Do I seem easy?” Her face, at that point, becomes half-shadowed, as if to indicate that, in some ways, she is uncomplicated, open, vulnerable, but in other ways she is the exact opposite. To a certain extent, this is, of course, what most graphic novels do. And yet, in this case, where the emotions are ramped up, there is a special force in seeing synthesis like this.

The book wants to haunt you. It doesn’t want you to hang on every plot machination—it is, after all, on its surface a simple story of a woman who chances to meet a man with a fairly extraordinary life history who has been reduced by the struggle to stay alive and support his family. The thrill here, if you could call it that, is in the aftereffect, the tang of a could-have-been (Lee’s romance with Ok) intertwined with the story of a wasn’t (the expected success of Ok’s art career, hampered by the need to provide for his family). As the story moves forward to its nonending, then leaps ahead to remind us that what we have read is a recollection, we realize that it’s slid a lot of pain into its quiet interior, which moves with startling fluidity, pushing us from one image to the next.

This is a very “post” book: told in recollection, set during a long-ago war, hinging its stakes on a romance that never happened. And yet it reminds us that the past doesn’t always stay past, that moments we thought were “over” have a way of becoming “not over” without warning. When Wan-Suh sees a news item about her artist friend, now deceased, it inspires the writing of the novel, centering around emotions thought to be long since processed. In so doing, the novelist is forced to grapple with how she has arrived at her current position. We too are tempted to extrapolate and philosophize about what the story’s various meanings might be—and yet the only meaning that makes any lasting sense is its most basic one: that our lives are never entirely what they seem, either to ourselves or to others.

The Naked Tree by Keum Suk Gendry-Kim, translated from the Korean by Janet Hong (Drawn & Quarterly, 2024).

© 2024 by Max Winter. All rights reserved.

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