Nowhere to Be Found by Bae Suah (trans. Sora Kim-Russell). $14.95, 108 pp. AmazonCrossing.
The unnamed narrator of Bae Suah’s Nowhere to Be Found drifts through her days and the lives of people around her as if they are an out of focus background. The narrator observes her own actions, uncertain of her motivations, while she works as a temp at a university, “the kind of clerical work that anyone could have done without any special qualifications or expertise.” Her job is dreary, her education useless, her mother an alcoholic, her father absent, her older brother leaving for janitorial work in Japan; her little sister is the only hopeful member of her family. She resents all of this, dryly, wearily.
None of this is the cause for her utter detachment. That this state is hers, not forced on her by an author constructing a psychology, not a pointed reaction to experience, makes it more of an experience than a puzzle to study. In this way, Nowhere to Be Found is a psychological novella, but in the most engaging manner, emotionally and aesthetically. Bae presents a psyche, in living depth, without psychoanalyses, without the pretence that psyches are chartable.
Without this clear foundation for psychological or emotional identity, it is fitting that the narrator remains anonymous throughout—we as readers exist in her world, and the rest of reality becomes ephemeral. Conversations are an interruption of her fugue state. At work, a man calls. The conversation begins, “This week’s topic is murder.” It’s the perfect opening for a murder mystery: a strange phone call, an unknown voice speaking that sentence before anything else. For Bae’s narrator, it’s no more than the moment her attention breaks from interior moment to the exterior. As the conversation moves to its midway point, she discovers that the person speaking is not the professor she assumed him to be but a part-time worker. She passed the year satisfying his needs, as her job requires, without him ever existing as his actual self. This type of conversation is rampant. Even when the narrator is clear from the first who she is talking with, the exchanges fade in and out, are exited and re-entered by her at any point, and we are left to follow along, catch up, correct interpretations alongside her.
Her drift away from other people is not cruel lack of interest but an inability to find traction. Her sister is crying, so she asks what is wrong. The next paragraph starts, “Out of a desire to help my young sister, I told her it was nothing.” What follows is advice on how she’ll adjust to her periods, not in dialogue but summary of what she is saying in that moment. Next, now in quotations, her sister simply says, “I want to go on a class trip.” The previous passage, the caring advice, is revealed as the narrator’s inner chamber, her self-involvement while her sister’s actual reason for tears remains unclear. In the end, the narrator matter-of-factly decides to pay for the trip, leaving aside any emotions in the sacrifice of her own lunch money for a month. When she helps another, when her acts would be, from an outside perspective, compassionate, it is somehow hollow, though sincere—a gesture she makes, not wanting them to suffer, but feeling nothing herself.
Until the final pages, Nowhere to Be Found is set in 1988, though the narrator often shifts herself into memories of the years before. She places these recollections in a specific time and place, yet this intimate interruption is set up with the vague segue “Someone once said to me.” It’s in the past for the narrator, but a past an uncertain time after 1988. Perhaps the first truly intimate moment of the novella—coming after sex with a friend, an event that barely occurs—is with a truly anonymous person, and is out of the story’s timeline. An unidentified man tells her “You’re so cold that I shake with despair. The whole time we’re together your lips never once flush, and your body is like slippery ice.” He recognizes her. Even if it causes him despair, this man sees her as she is, and that is more than the others. He alone faces her without their same fear or resentment, without wanting her to be different.
It is a fine, balanced performance by Bae to bring us into a psyche of such remove but not flatten the reading experience. Bae lets the narrator expand into passages of beautiful prose, which become her brief breaths of connection. Sora Kim-Russel’s wonderful translation is plain, staccato, setting up the rhythm that makes the expansive, lush sections so affecting. In that same scene with the unidentified man, the narrator sees her other self, the one she is in search of, for the first time, sees the “me inside me” and her thoughts follow that passing self:
In truth, I was not me. The me that was born into an animal body and lived as a slave to poverty and insult was nothing but the emptiness that had been momentarily bewitched out of me by an evil spirit. That distant me is precious and beautiful. No matter how decadent and corrupt my body becomes, I will, like a desert orchid that blooms once every hundred years, come to you bearing this frigidness towards life.
The connection in this, and in other moments of similar strange beauty, is not to those around her, but an inward movement and an aesthetic tug on the reader.
She is doubled: the body that moves, fugue-like through the world, and that barely glimpsed, intangible, but true self, passing by. The narrator is not the only person with a mirrored self. When she travels to visit her friend Cheolsu while he is serving his military obligation—a journey that becomes endless, busses taking her further and further away from civilization, ending in an isolated walk in the snow—she is told he is out at an exercise, then is told there are two soldiers with the same name. There is the Kim Cheolsu waiting for her back at the base she was seemingly mistakenly sent away from, and “the Kim Cheolsu who was in an accident.” When she finally finds Cheolsu, he is irritated at waiting so long, denies there is another soldier with the same name, and is ungrateful of the effort she made to visit him, to bring him his mother’s food.
The world is not safe, not welcoming or appealing, instead something threatening lurks underneath the mundane. Those ghost selves are a chance for resistance, while at the same time they surrender the body left behind. Bae’s narrator’s account of the time after 1988 is full of abandonment to the anonymous. The unknown male returns and their relationship becomes more sadomasochistic, with the physicality and the pain an embodiment of her drive towards that anonymity. There is nowhere to escape to in Nowhere to Be Found, no bringing the ghost self to flesh, but somehow the narrator finds she isn’t alone. Lacking redemption, the narrator at least has control. Whether that is enough, even she doesn’t seem to know, but she knows that her bodily submission has become erasure, and is her resistance, and that she has reached its very end.
P.T. Smith is a reader and critic living in Vermont.
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