How might the novelist, working with a form traditionally obsessed with humans, represent the nonhuman? Or, perhaps a better question: how might a fiction writer animate the two — figure and ground — to express and confront our present ecological crisis? Is it sustainable to work, as we do, in an intensely virtual and phenomenally heated time? The Disaster Tourist by Yun Ko-eun, translated from Korean by Lizzie Buehler, offers one possible, tantalisingly zany answer to the future of work and fiction (storytelling) in our age of mass extinction. For Yona Ko, the office-worker protagonist, ‘Disaster lay dormant in every corner, like depression.’ This South Korean dark comedy underlines the absurdity of our complicity and collective contribution to the present crisis.
Reading the first chapter, I couldn’t help but imagine it narrated like a cheesy film trailer from the 90s, a male voiceover on top of shots of office cubicles. Yona Ko is a top programming coordinator at Jungle, a Seoul-based tourism company that specialises in holidays to disaster sites. Jungle offers 152 travel packages, including trips to sites of nuclear meltdowns, floods, earthquakes, volcanos, desertification, hurricanes, war, tsunamis, and much more. ‘As a child she hadn’t imagined doing work like this, but she was skilled at quantifying the unquantifiable,’ the narrator notes, drily. When a tsunami strikes Jinhae, a coastal city, during cherry blossom season, Yona takes the train down to survey the site, distributes donations and condolences, and plans an itinerary that combines volunteering with viewing the aftermath of the tsunami. Rumours of an enormous trash island formed from wreckage and ‘destined to swirl about the sea for decades’ float onto the TV, but quickly vanish. Back at the office, Yona waits by the copy machine, feeling so catatonically bored that she starts to browse websites that estimate the user’s date of death. After ten years at the company, her conscience is more of a whisper than a shout: a customer calls to cancel a trip because his child is in hospital, and she explains for the thousandth time, like ‘an android on autopilot’, that ‘Refunds are only possible in the case of death of the purchaser’. Seoul, to Yona, is ‘the obese metropolis’, ‘the urban swarm’, a city ‘satiating its ravenous hunger by pulling more and more people into its belly’. Inside its depths, it is hard to simply care.
When her manager Kim Jo-Gwang sexually assaults her in the elevator, Yona — who is ordinarily conflict-averse — files a report to Human Resources (‘Oh, Jo-schlong!’) and is told to keep silent. She eventually submits a letter of resignation, expecting to be fired. Instead, Manager Kim offers her an all-expenses-paid business trip to any of their destinations as ‘a break’ from work. There’s a catch: she’s on assignment and must evaluate whether to keep the destination on Jungle’s portfolio. She chooses ‘The Desert Sinkhole’, a six-day trip to Mui, a small (fictional) island-nation off Vietnam. Yona’s choice to continue working with the manager reflects a horrifyingly common aspect of South Korean office culture, gapjil, or workplace abuse. From here, the office plot – the story of a diligent, competent employee in a predatory workplace with a predatory ethos – derails into a full-on, operatic conspiracy.
Yona’s tour group is herded from beach-side resort to volcano to sinkhole and pampered with a traditional performance, massage, nail art and fishing. Unimpressed and unamused, the group watches the locals reenact a massacre between the native Kanu and Unda tribes, ‘the 1963 Head-Hunting Tragedy’, next to a sinkhole (now a peaceful lake). Once she loses the group while searching for a toilet, Yona joins forces with the hotel management in a last-ditch attempt to save her job at Jungle and keep the island on the company’s roster. Which, naturally, means orchestrating an epic disaster. The script grows wilder and wilder (villagers assigned paid roles are referred to as ‘Crocodiles’, corpses are ‘mannequins’; they are all tasked with memorising lines for the grand event, for the benefit of tourists). A romance softens her feelings of antipathy towards Mui’s landscapes: ‘the desert wasn’t a desert, it was an enormous, gentle animal at rest.’ Yet when calamity sweeps the stage, the narrator’s tone is of unhinged glee, like a child stomping and kicking a little block town playset she’s created.
Yun’s cool, clinical prose is devoid of sentimentality; her deadpan delivery both advances the morbidly hilarious plot and amplifies the drama of ecological disaster made for tourist profit. Yun was born in 1980 and grew up in Seoul, a city famous for its grind. The author of three novels and three short story collections, she often writes about single, young women who decide to leave their soul-deadening, bureaucratic office jobs with mixed consequences. It’s well-documented that South Koreans face intense societal pressures to conform and perform; only in 2018 did a new law limit the work week to fifty hours. Death by overwork (gwarosa 과로사 (過勞死) ) is not uncommon. Riffing on this, Yun blends satire with metafictional play: her characters meld into the pages of their books; sentences and screenplays bleed out into reality. Kafka, Kharms, Kaufman (Charlie) and Calvino all seem likely influences. In her short story ‘The Chef’s Nail’, published in English by Words Without Borders in 2012, the female protagonist steps out of a seafood restaurant after a night out with her colleagues and drunkenly studies a school of mackerels circling a fish tank, whipping up a whirlpool that they can’t leave. The choice is clear: the tank or the pavement. Similarly, in The Disaster Tourist, Yun’s characters are swept away and swallowed by the torrential, unruly forces of the story within the story.
In his book The Great Derangement, Amitav Ghosh argues that the challenges the climate crisis poses for the contemporary novelist derive ultimately from ‘the grid of literary forms and conventions that came to shape the narrative imagination in precisely the period that the accumulation of carbon in the atmosphere was “rewriting the destiny of the earth’’’. The novel (specifically of the European tradition) is meant to mimic the orderly expectations of bourgeois life. A freak, sudden weather phenomenon would present a serious rupture from conventions. Or, as Ghosh puts it, such a work risks banishment from ‘the manor house’ of serious literary fiction to the ‘generic outhouses’ that go by ‘fantasy’, ‘horror’ and ‘science fiction’ — categories that fall under the labels of ‘genre fiction’ or ‘speculative fiction’ today. The Disaster Tourist, which has been described as both a ‘thriller’ and ‘satire’, stretches this form to explicitly connect the ‘improbable’, climate catastrophe, with urban, professional daily life.
What might not be as apparent to the English-language reader, perhaps, is how Yun’s novel also covertly tackles neocolonialism, with its wildly short-sighted cruelty: a main driver of the climate catastrophe. South Korea’s fraught relationship with Vietnam dates back to the country’s vociferous, allied support of the Americans in the Vietnam War. Today, Taiwan’s Formosa Plastics Corp dumps toxic waste into Vietnam’s rivers, not to mention the fact that the UK and the US continue to ship tonnes of recyclable plastics to Malaysian landfills. This novel succeeds in its dry-eyed recognition of the complicity of both its urban travellers and local villagers in this status quo, asking what economic possibilities under disaster capitalism might look like, and what happens to storytelling in such circumstances. Without spoiling much, Yun seems to suggest that only the lucky, with a random bit of mangrove knowledge, survive.
This is an extravagant, clever, unpredictable story that walks the razor edge of horror-comedy. Like Boots Riley’s loopy film on telemarketing, Sorry to Bother You, or Ed Park’s paranoic novel on mass layoffs, Personal Days, The Disaster Tourist lays out contemporary life as a theatre of absurdity: all begin as dark, dark comedies about office anhedonia and veer into colourful chaos. Buehler has told me that she was drawn to Yun Ko-eun’s whimsy and humour, which separates her writing from the more ‘serious, sad stories’ generally translated from South Korea into English today. Certainly she is neither. Her hilarious, merciless narrator corroborates Ghosh’s point: catastrophic weather events, such as a tsunami, are not surreal, freakish, uncanny, but overwhelmingly, urgently, astoundingly banal. When we are indifferent to it, focused solely on our assigned roles, our blue planet remains alive, seething, and vast; anything but indifferent towards us.