How to Capture an Entire Society

21 Apr
Nowhere to Be Found by Bae Suah tells the story of a young woman trying to make sense of her life and world in South Korea.

Nowhere to Be Found by Bae Suah tells the story of a young woman trying to make sense of her life and world in South Korea.

Some stories are about individuals, and the drama between them is so intense that the backdrop could be the Death Star or a blank wall and it wouldn’t matter. In other stories, the backdrop matters. Take it away, and the story vanishes. Whether the story is about a society as a whole or a particular town or neighborhood, the challenge is to establish the backdrop as quickly as you’d establish a character. This is, of course, not easy.

One story that shows how it can be done is Bae Suah’s novella Nowhere to Be Found. It was originally published in 1998 in Korean and was recently translated into English by Sora Kim-Russell and published in the United States. You can read the opening pages here.

How the Novella Works

Here is how the novella begins:

In 1988 I was temping at a university in Gyeonggi Province.

Mostly what I did there was send lecture requests to part-time instructors, make adjustments to their class schedules, mail them their paystubs, and field complaints from students. As far as the work went, I didn’t have any major complaints of my own. It was the kind of clerical work that anyone could have done without any special qualifications or expertise.

Many readers will likely be familiar with the tedium of such work and also the way it was done:

At this job we could chew gum or do our nails while answering the phones and take over two hours to type even the sparest syllabus. We weren’t lazy or indifferent or anything. It was just the nature of the work…I didn’t have too many tasks, but I also wasn’t so idle that I could have passed the time knitting. When I was working, the hours went by at what I can only call a measured pace.

Another writer might have dug into the absurdities that are intrinsic in such work, but Bae has something different in mind:

We got a month off while classes were out of session. I spent that month working part-time in a dye factory close to my house. My job was to screw caps onto tubes of dye using a mechanical device. That was a long time ago. I’m sure that dye factory has since found a more modern solution to that primitive final step of production. But then again, if they had modernized any earlier, I wouldn’t have spent that summer wrapped in the suffocating smell of acrylics.

Bae is up to something larger than the story of a single person stuck in a soul-killing job. The novella’s target is 1980s-era South Korean society as a whole, and, as you might expect given the nature of the work, there is some large, inhuman imagery:

“That’s how things get done, just as the less delicate components of a machine submit to the will of the machine without any conscious thought or shred of volition while being ground down.”

What makes this novella bold and interesting is that it finds perverse ways of bringing the machinery of society to bear on the components. Here is a great example from early on:

Even now I think maybe my family is just a random collection of people I knew long ago and will never happen upon again, and people I don’t know yet but will meet by chance one day.

These are recurrent themes in the novella: larger, impersonal forces and disconnection. They’re powerful and interesting, and yet they have the potential to lose their power as soon as the reader becomes used to them. And so Bae introduces the novella’s first dialogue, between the narrator and a “guest lecturer on criminal sociology”:

“This week’s topic is murder.”

“Oh.”

When I was an undergrad, one of my literature professors made fun of 1920s political poetry, with its predictable imagery of downtrodden masses and greedy capitalists. This novella is different because it so often jolts the readers out of their expectations—causing them to lean forward to really pay attention and setting them up to be smacked down by the societal machinery all over again. Nowhere to Be Found manages to replay that cycle—beat-down, jolt, beat-down, jolt—for 100 pages. It’s an impressive feat.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s try writing about society (without becoming predictable) using Nowhere to Be Found by Bae Suah as a model:

  1. Create a machine for the society. Another way to put this is this: Create a metaphor. In Nowhere to Be Found, the jobs are clearly representative of the society as a whole. The jobs are noteworthy because of how they reveal the mechanics of the society. While you can create a metaphor by thinking, “I’m going to create a metaphor now,” you can also approach the task from another angle. Try finishing this sentence, “When I think about (the place), I immediately think of _____.” Trust your imagination to fill in the blank with a job or hobby or whatever. Don’t worry about if it’s a good metaphor. If it’s an essential part of the place—not to everyone but to you—it will eventually take on the role of a metaphor.
  2. Acknowledge the machinery. In other words, give the narrator or characters some awareness of the situation. (Without that awareness, you risk writing a morality play.) There are different levels of acknowledgment. The highest level requires a statement like this: “The whole society was about _____.” While this is possible (Bae writes sentences like this), it’s also difficult to pull off. It’s often more manageable to let the characters think practically about their immediate surroundings, as the narrator does in this sentence: “It was just the nature of the work…” Try using that word, nature. Let the character ponder or make a statement about the nature of whatever surrounds her. You may find yourself working up the scale to the nature of the society as a whole. Or, you won’t. Stop when the writing begins to crumble under its own weight.
  3. Give the characters agency. Part of the reason that Albert Camus’ The Stranger is so powerful is that the narrator acts. He chooses to do things. The motive behind those actions isn’t always clear, but the action is dramatic. This is an important lesson to remember: even if characters are just floating along, they need to occasionally act as if they have some control over themselves. (In The Stranger, the narrator chooses to help set up his friend’s girlfriend for a cruel joke.) In Nowhere to Be Found, some of the moments of highest tension occur when the narrator behaves in ways that grind against the machinery she’s caught in. A good rule of thumb is this: When a scene feels like it’s about to end on a down note, keep writing. What if the character suddenly pushed back and refused to accept that down note? What would happen then?
  4. Reveal the machine at work in a surprising way. Machinery tends to work on several levels: the obvious one and the less obvious one. In Bae’s novella, the machinery is the economics of South Korea: the way that low-paid, tedious work turns people into laborers and into automatons. In other words, the machine is exterior to people. What’s surprising is when Bae makes the machinery interior as well, as in the passage about family members seeming like random people. Don’t create an impermeable wall between a character’s interior and exterior. How can her thoughts or actions reveal the presence of the forces she tries to resist?
  5. Throw a wrench into machine. Make the readers believe that the machine can be broken or that it’s possible to step outside of it for a period. Again, there are obvious and less obvious ways to do this. There’s the V for Vendetta method: bomb Parliament. Then, there’s the Nowhere to Be Found method: introduce a wild card: “This week’s topic is murder.” These wild cards don’t need to become part of the plot, they only need to throw askew the reader’s expectations. No society is totally flat. Every place contains pockets of unexpected absurdity or evil or goodness. Create those pockets in your story. How can you introduce a character, even momentarily, who is working not against the system but on a different plane altogether? He or she may still be part of it, but the level of acknowledgement or the choices he makes are different and upend our perhaps simplified ideas of the place.

Good luck.

76 Responses to “How to Capture an Entire Society”

  1. Bell May 1, 2015 at 8:02 p05 #

    It’s practically impossible to locate well-knowledgeable persons in this unikque subject matter,nonetheless, you seem to be like you
    know whatt you are chatting about! Many thanks

  2. Shin Splints December 26, 2015 at 8:02 p12 #

    You can get basic orthotics at any pharmacy store or you can order custom-made orthotics through the physical
    therapists at Total Performance PT. If the injury is not severe, the recovery should be fast.

    “Frozen” immobile toe and ankle joints gain mobility.

  3. Calf Pain December 26, 2015 at 8:02 p12 #

    You can get basic orthotics at any pharmacy store or you can order custom-made
    orthotics through the physical therapists at Total Performance PT.
    If the injury is not severe, the recovery should be fast.
    Sometimes, more than one viral culture test
    may be requested by the physician to diagnose herpes infection as the lesion may have very little active virus and the
    test may produce a ‘false negative.

  4. Choosing the Right Shoes December 26, 2015 at 8:02 p12 #

    While some may experience gout pain by intermittent flashes of attack, some sufferers on the other
    hand experience the discomfort of gout during cold temperature or from immobility.
    Flat feet have various degrees of arch degradation when the body’s weight is on them.
    When insurance companies stress preventive health, they always emphasize doctor exams over laboratory
    tests.

  5. Pregnancy and your Feet December 26, 2015 at 8:02 p12 #

    The main problem lies in where the fungus
    is living: under the nail. Whether it’s in your neck, back,
    feet, or any part of the body, our bodies should not hurt,
    and we should not have to compensate for pain.
    Ill-fitting shoes may also cause pain because
    they tend to squeeze the foot, causing the pressure inside the increase.

  6. Flatfoot December 26, 2015 at 8:02 p12 #

    Hammertoes have long plagued the human foot, causing pain and discomfort in shoes.
    The magnetic fields in the earth organize the human body to completely a wonderful extent.
    “Frozen” immobile toe and ankle joints gain mobility.

  7. Sesamoid Stress Fractures December 26, 2015 at 8:02 p12 #

    Symptoms may include eye pain, fever, asthma, rashes and
    intestinal cramping. The mother will nurse them for 3-4 months until
    they are able to swim on their own. My mother and my grandmother are very calm people who seem to handle stress very well.

  8. Pilon Fracture December 26, 2015 at 8:02 p12 #

    Diets high in fat and protein are usually effective
    for people in losing weight. Whether it’s in your neck, back, feet,
    or any part of the body, our bodies should not hurt,
    and we should not have to compensate for pain. The i – Pad 2S aka i – Pad HD aka
    i – Pad 3 is now known as just the i – Pad.

  9. Pediatric December 26, 2015 at 8:02 p12 #

    Your feet swell during running, as much as a full shoe size.
    Any kind of injury may affect the foot such as fractures,
    bruises or trauma. Ill-fitting shoes may also cause
    pain because they tend to squeeze the foot, causing the pressure inside the increase.

  10. Peroneal Tendonitis December 26, 2015 at 8:02 p12 #

    Applying ice to swollen areas and taking anti-inflammatory medications may relieve some of the pain. If the injury is not severe, the recovery
    should be fast. When insurance companies stress
    preventive health, they always emphasize doctor exams over laboratory tests.

  11. Foot Rash December 26, 2015 at 8:02 p12 #

    Diets high in fat and protein are usually effective for
    people in losing weight. After an Achilles tendon rupture, a player will be able to walk flat-footed, but will not be able to stand up on his or her toes
    on the affected side. Only a small percentage of the population is born with foot problems, the American Podiatric Medical Association believes.

  12. Pediatric Flatfoot December 26, 2015 at 8:02 p12 #

    While some may experience gout pain by intermittent flashes of attack, some sufferers on the other hand
    experience the discomfort of gout during cold temperature
    or from immobility. If the injury is not severe, the recovery should be fast.
    When insurance companies stress preventive health, they
    always emphasize doctor exams over laboratory tests.

  13. Navicular syndrome December 26, 2015 at 8:02 p12 #

    You can get basic orthotics at any pharmacy store or you can order
    custom-made orthotics through the physical therapists at Total Performance PT.
    Plantar fasciitis can be treated with rest, orthotics, anti-inflammatory
    medications, steroid injections and sometimes surgery. Sometimes, more
    than one viral culture test may be requested by the physician to diagnose herpes infection as the lesion may have very little
    active virus and the test may produce a ‘false negative.

  14. Metatarsal Shaft Fractures December 26, 2015 at 8:02 p12 #

    Your feet swell during running, as much as a full
    shoe size. The mother will nurse them for
    3-4 months until they are able to swim on their own. A podiatrist may
    recommend you wear Plantar Fasciitis shoes in Dallas TX
    to relieve foot pain.

  15. Podiatrist December 26, 2015 at 8:02 p12 #

    The main problem lies in where the fungus is living:
    under the nail. The mother will nurse them for 3-4
    months until they are able to swim on their own. “Frozen” immobile toe and ankle joints
    gain mobility.

  16. Foot Drop December 26, 2015 at 8:02 p12 #

    eval(ez_write_tag([[300,250],’brighthub_com-medrectangle-2′]));
    . After an Achilles tendon rupture, a player will be able to walk flat-footed,
    but will not be able to stand up on his or her toes
    on the affected side. If you don’t know the cause of a
    pain, tap on the image of that pain and you’ll probably get a
    measure of relief.

  17. Broken Ankle December 26, 2015 at 8:02 p12 #

    Symptoms may include eye pain, fever, asthma, rashes and intestinal cramping.

    The mother will nurse them for 3-4 months until
    they are able to swim on their own. Only a small percentage
    of the population is born with foot problems,
    the American Podiatric Medical Association believes.

  18. Toe and Metatarsal Fractures December 26, 2015 at 8:02 p12 #

    You can get basic orthotics at any pharmacy store or you can order custom-made orthotics through the physical therapists
    at Total Performance PT. The magnetic fields in the earth organize the human body to completely a wonderful extent.
    The i – Pad 2S aka i – Pad HD aka i – Pad 3 is now known as just the i – Pad.

  19. Warts and verrucas December 26, 2015 at 8:02 p12 #

    eval(ez_write_tag([[300,250],’brighthub_com-medrectangle-2′]));.
    Our therapists will provide hands-on therapy to your plantar fascia and calf muscles.
    The i – Pad 2S aka i – Pad HD aka i – Pad 3 is now known as just the i – Pad.

  20. Deep Vein Thrombosis December 26, 2015 at 8:02 p12 #

    It has clear massaging gel and it works very well with open toe shoes.
    Flat feet have various degrees of arch degradation when the
    body’s weight is on them. When insurance companies stress preventive health, they always emphasize doctor exams over laboratory tests.

  21. Acute Inflammation December 26, 2015 at 8:02 p12 #

    Your feet swell during running, as much as a full shoe size.
    If the injury is not severe, the recovery should be fast.
    If you don’t know the cause of a pain, tap on the image
    of that pain and you’ll probably get a measure of relief.

  22. Ankle Instability December 26, 2015 at 8:02 p12 #

    eval(ez_write_tag([[300,250],’brighthub_com-medrectangle-2′]));.
    The magnetic fields in the earth organize
    the human body to completely a wonderful extent. My
    mother and my grandmother are very calm people who seem to handle stress very well.

  23. Subluxing Peroneal Tendons – Chronic December 26, 2015 at 8:02 p12 #

    You can get basic orthotics at any pharmacy store or you can order custom-made orthotics through the physical therapists at Total Performance
    PT. Flat feet have various degrees of arch degradation when the body’s
    weight is on them. Sometimes, more than one viral culture test may be requested by the physician to diagnose herpes infection as the lesion may have very
    little active virus and the test may produce a ‘false negative.

  24. Children's Foot Conditions December 26, 2015 at 8:02 p12 #

    Diets high in fat and protein are usually effective for people in losing weight.
    After an Achilles tendon rupture, a player will be able to
    walk flat-footed, but will not be able to stand up on his or her toes on the affected
    side. The i – Pad 2S aka i – Pad HD aka i – Pad 3
    is now known as just the i – Pad.

  25. Calf Pain December 26, 2015 at 8:02 p12 #

    While some may experience gout pain by intermittent flashes of attack, some sufferers
    on the other hand experience the discomfort of gout during cold temperature or from immobility.

    The mother will nurse them for 3-4 months until they are able to swim on their own. If you don’t know the cause of a pain, tap on the image of that pain and you’ll probably
    get a measure of relief.

  26. Calcaneal Fractures December 26, 2015 at 8:02 p12 #

    Applying ice to swollen areas and taking anti-inflammatory medications
    may relieve some of the pain. After an Achilles tendon rupture, a player will be able to walk flat-footed, but will not be able to stand up on his or her toes on the affected side.
    Sometimes, more than one viral culture test may be requested
    by the physician to diagnose herpes infection as the lesion may have very little active virus
    and the test may produce a ‘false negative.

  27. Navicular Stress Fracture December 26, 2015 at 8:02 p12 #

    Diets high in fat and protein are usually effective for people in losing weight.
    If the injury is not severe, the recovery should be fast. “Frozen” immobile toe and ankle joints gain mobility.

  28. Actinic Keratosis December 26, 2015 at 8:02 p12 #

    You can get basic orthotics at any pharmacy store or you can order custom-made orthotics through
    the physical therapists at Total Performance PT. The mother
    will nurse them for 3-4 months until they are able to swim on their own.
    “Frozen” immobile toe and ankle joints gain mobility.

  29. Capsulitis December 26, 2015 at 8:02 p12 #

    You can get basic orthotics at any pharmacy store or you can order custom-made orthotics through the physical therapists at Total
    Performance PT. After an Achilles tendon rupture, a player will be able to
    walk flat-footed, but will not be able to stand up on his or
    her toes on the affected side. “Frozen” immobile toe and ankle
    joints gain mobility.

  30. Foot Lumps December 26, 2015 at 8:02 p12 #

    Symptoms may include eye pain, fever, asthma, rashes
    and intestinal cramping. At this time, their body temperature drops and their heart rate can decrease from 200 beats per
    minute (bpm) to 10 bpm. A podiatrist may recommend you wear Plantar Fasciitis shoes in Dallas
    TX to relieve foot pain.

  31. Corns December 26, 2015 at 8:02 p12 #

    eval(ez_write_tag([[300,250],’brighthub_com-medrectangle-2′]));.

    The magnetic fields in the earth organize the human body to completely a wonderful extent.
    My mother and my grandmother are very calm people who seem to handle stress very well.

  32. Claw Toes December 26, 2015 at 8:02 p12 #

    Hammertoes have long plagued the human foot,
    causing pain and discomfort in shoes. Whether
    it’s in your neck, back, feet, or any part of the body, our bodies should
    not hurt, and we should not have to compensate for pain.
    When insurance companies stress preventive health, they always emphasize doctor exams
    over laboratory tests.

  33. Hammertoe December 26, 2015 at 8:02 p12 #

    Diets high in fat and protein are usually effective for people in losing weight.
    Our therapists will provide hands-on therapy to your plantar
    fascia and calf muscles. Sometimes, more than one viral culture test
    may be requested by the physician to diagnose herpes infection as the lesion may have very
    little active virus and the test may produce a ‘false negative.

  34. Achilles Tendinitis December 26, 2015 at 8:02 p12 #

    You can get basic orthotics at any pharmacy store or
    you can order custom-made orthotics through the physical therapists at
    Total Performance PT. Plantar fasciitis can be treated with rest, orthotics, anti-inflammatory medications, steroid injections and sometimes surgery.
    Ill-fitting shoes may also cause pain because they tend
    to squeeze the foot, causing the pressure inside the
    increase.

  35. Wounds December 26, 2015 at 8:02 p12 #

    It has clear massaging gel and it works very well with open toe shoes.
    At this time, their body temperature drops
    and their heart rate can decrease from 200 beats per minute (bpm) to
    10 bpm. Only a small percentage of the population is
    born with foot problems, the American Podiatric Medical Association believes.

  36. Bone Tumors in the Foot December 26, 2015 at 8:02 p12 #

    While some may experience gout pain by intermittent flashes of attack,
    some sufferers on the other hand experience the discomfort of gout during
    cold temperature or from immobility. Flat feet have various degrees of arch degradation when the body’s weight is on them.
    “Frozen” immobile toe and ankle joints gain mobility.

  37. Insertional Achilles Tendonitis December 26, 2015 at 8:02 p12 #

    The main problem lies in where the fungus is living:
    under the nail. The mother will nurse them for 3-4
    months until they are able to swim on their own. A podiatrist may recommend you wear Plantar Fasciitis shoes in Dallas TX to
    relieve foot pain.

  38. Barefoot Running December 26, 2015 at 8:02 p12 #

    The main problem lies in where the fungus is living: under the nail.
    If the injury is not severe, the recovery should be fast.
    Kidney failure is a concern among patients with this condition, and an early diagnosis is important to
    prolong the use of the kidneys.

  39. Pregnancy and your Feet December 26, 2015 at 8:02 p12 #

    The main problem lies in where the fungus is living: under the nail.
    Our therapists will provide hands-on therapy to your plantar fascia and
    calf muscles. When insurance companies stress preventive health, they always emphasize doctor
    exams over laboratory tests.

  40. Bunion Surgery December 26, 2015 at 8:02 p12 #

    You can get basic orthotics at any pharmacy store or you can order custom-made orthotics
    through the physical therapists at Total Performance PT.
    Flat feet have various degrees of arch degradation when the body’s weight is on them.
    The i – Pad 2S aka i – Pad HD aka i – Pad 3 is now known as just
    the i – Pad.

  41. Tired Feet December 26, 2015 at 8:02 p12 #

    eval(ez_write_tag([[300,250],’brighthub_com-medrectangle-2′]));.

    The mother will nurse them for 3-4 months until they are able to swim on their own. The i –
    Pad 2S aka i – Pad HD aka i – Pad 3 is now known as just the i – Pad.

  42. Joint Pain in the Foot December 26, 2015 at 8:02 p12 #

    It has clear massaging gel and it works very well with open toe shoes.
    At this time, their body temperature drops and their
    heart rate can decrease from 200 beats per minute (bpm) to 10 bpm.
    A podiatrist may recommend you wear Plantar Fasciitis shoes
    in Dallas TX to relieve foot pain.

  43. Webbed Toes December 26, 2015 at 8:02 p12 #

    You can get basic orthotics at any pharmacy store or you can order custom-made orthotics
    through the physical therapists at Total Performance PT. Any kind of injury may
    affect the foot such as fractures, bruises or trauma.
    Sometimes, more than one viral culture test may be requested by the physician to
    diagnose herpes infection as the lesion may have very little active virus and the test may produce a ‘false negative.

  44. Hallux varus December 26, 2015 at 8:02 p12 #

    While some may experience gout pain by intermittent flashes of attack,
    some sufferers on the other hand experience the discomfort of gout
    during cold temperature or from immobility. Whether it’s in your neck, back, feet, or any part of the body, our bodies should not hurt, and we should not have to compensate for pain. If you don’t know the cause
    of a pain, tap on the image of that pain and you’ll probably get a measure of relief.

  45. Ingrown Toenails December 26, 2015 at 8:02 p12 #

    Symptoms may include eye pain, fever, asthma, rashes
    and intestinal cramping. Whether it’s in your neck, back, feet, or any part of the body, our bodies should not hurt,
    and we should not have to compensate for pain. Kidney failure
    is a concern among patients with this condition, and an early
    diagnosis is important to prolong the use of the kidneys.

  46. Anterior Tibial Tendonitis December 26, 2015 at 8:02 p12 #

    Your feet swell during running, as much as a full shoe size.
    The mother will nurse them for 3-4 months until they are able to swim on their own. “Frozen” immobile toe and ankle
    joints gain mobility.

  47. Corns December 26, 2015 at 8:02 p12 #

    The main problem lies in where the fungus is living: under the nail.
    Plantar fasciitis can be treated with rest, orthotics, anti-inflammatory medications, steroid injections
    and sometimes surgery. Ill-fitting shoes may also cause pain because they tend to squeeze the foot, causing
    the pressure inside the increase.

  48. Common Disorders of the Achilles Tendon December 26, 2015 at 8:02 p12 #

    Applying ice to swollen areas and taking anti-inflammatory
    medications may relieve some of the pain. Plantar fasciitis can be treated with rest,
    orthotics, anti-inflammatory medications, steroid injections and
    sometimes surgery. Kidney failure is a concern among patients with this condition, and an early diagnosis
    is important to prolong the use of the kidneys.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. An Interview with Bae Suah | Read to Write Stories - April 23, 2015

    […] an exercise on characterizing an entire society and Bae’s novella, Nowhere to Be Found, click here. The following interview was translated by Sora […]

  2. Writing Exercise Inspired by Bae Suah’s Nowhere To Be Found | subject object verb - April 27, 2015

    […] The writing exercise: How to Capture an Entire Society […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: