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Han Yujoo's The Impossible Fairy Tale: Unmistakably Unique

Aaron Bady By Aaron Bady Published on June 27, 2017

Why write a novel like The Impossible Fairy Tale? It’s easy (and accurate) to use words like “experimental” or “avant-garde” to describe the book, but words like these are really just placeholders; they don’t explain so much as they defer the necessity of explanation or more precise description. It’s accurate to say that Han Yujoo’s first novel translated into English by Janet Hong is metafiction, that it’s hyper-literary and self-referential, that it’s a snake swallowing its own tail, or that it’s obsessed with the possibilities and pitfalls of writing—but that just as accurately describes any number of other novels as well. In fact, it describes such a large number of novels, now, that it won’t really help us understand why this novel was written the way it was. To name a category of writing doesn’t say much about this novel’s particularity. And as you wade deeper and deeper into the thick, rich narrative soup of this strange and deeply estranging novel—a book I will freely admit I’ve started and stopped and started again, several times—you may, as I did, wonder where it’s all going, what it’s all leading up to. What is the point of all this?

A better question than why Han Yujoo would write a novel like this might be why would you read it. 

A better question than why Han Yujoo would write a novel like this might be why would you read it. Before the second part of the novel becomes self-referential metafiction—in which the author becomes a character, describing her writing of the novel, her influences (Maurice Blanchot’s Death Sentence and Virginia Woolf) and even conversing with her characters—the novel’s ample first section chillingly explores the uncanny violence of children. We might begin to read this novel because it’s a kind of gothic bildungsroman that we might set next to unheimlich fairy tales like Carmen Boullosa’s Before or Andrés Barba’s Such Small Hands. Like those (also recently translated novels), The Impossible Fairy Tale focuses on violence done to and by an innocent female child too young, and too lacking in agency, to be burdened with the responsibility for what is done to her or by her. This is not because the children in this novel are incapable of doing violence, or of having it done to them; they are achingly realistic children, in fact, both in their ability to hurt and in the reality of the hurt that they feel. Their innocence is a consequence of the impossibility of narration. They cannot tell their own stories—as a result of being children—nor can the novel tell theirs, as a result of their stories being the stories of children.

We discover this impossibility, as readers, over the course of the failure of the first part of the novel. Written like an optimistic treatise of surreal, uncanny mathematics, the novel begins from the great null-point of childhood: because children aren’t anything, yet—indeed, because what they are, in so many ways, is a function of what they are not yet—a child can be a repository for possibilities and potential and for the exploration of all the different ways in which a thing, being one thing, is not anything else. And so, the first part of the novel is a catalog of alternatives, a garden of forking paths. Living in a world of potentiality, the world’s knowability, to a child, is less what it is than as one set of possibilities among many. This is alienating. Each thing is a thing because it is not each other thing; each child is what it is by reference to the other child it isn’t. And this is the alienating world of the child, as Han Yujoo struggles to comprehend it: if everything is what it is by reference to the range of things that it is not—and children are all the same in that they are all different—then the universe of childhood becomes a blurring, endless, sequence of unbridgeable singularities.

My first reaction to this novel, at least to the first part of it, was to be arrested and struck mute.

My first reaction to this novel, at least to the first part of it, was to be arrested and struck mute. If you are wandering through a gallery of realistic landscape paintings, and you come across a work of Modernist art, you will be provoked and exercised, because having come to expect a particular mode of representation, the experience of a different kind of mirror held up to reality—one whose conventions are not the ones you were expecting—can be energizing. This is the experience of The Impossible Fairy Tale, a book whose narrative logic is so specific that—while it will pass as a normal novel until you look closely at it, until you read past the first few chapters and try to make sense of it all—gradually becomes impossible to make into a single story. Instead of confirming and reinforcing your expectations of what art is, you will find your frame of reference altered and expanded. Indeed, the novel’s lovely, self-referential cover art is a good reference point for understanding why I find the comparison to Modernist art appropriate: other than the tip of a fountain pen hanging down, what we see is a saturation of splotched, liquid inkblots; we see, in other words, the attention that Modernist art brought to the texture of art-making itself.

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The US (left) and UK editions
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And yet this is not why we read this novel. There is nothing surprising about the second part of the novel, in which the writer herself makes an appearance; it comes as almost a relief, in fact. Just as the title tells us that we are not reading a fairy tale—since fairy tales do not call themselves “Fairy Tale”—a book about the impossibility of fairy tales is exactly the sort of book in which the writer is likely to make an appearance. Indeed, the novel’s back cover literally tells you that this will happen: before you read the first page of the novel, you have most likely read the phrase “Han Yujoo’s debut novel takes an eerie, unexpected turn when a teacher, who is also the book’s author, wakes from an intense dream.”

What kind of “unexpected turn” is this if it’s literally written on the back cover of the novel? But I’m not complaining that this “spoils” the reader; it’s hard to imagine a reader who would actually be surprised by this turn. Once upon a time, the shock of Modernist art was that your expectation of unmediated representation was being ruptured: if you expected to see a painting of a pipe, and what you saw was a painting of how a painting was not a pipe, then your surprise and shock was crucial to the effect.

We, however, are already spoiled; we cannot be shocked twice. The problem for us, as postmodern readers, is that René Magritte’s The Treachery of Images has been a cliché for a very long time now; we know that representation is not real. Which means that, these days, the analogous move might be to nail an actual pipe on the gallery wall, above a sign that says, “This is really a pipe.” And for all the sound and fury of the novel’s first part—which for all its virtuosic play might strike readers, after a hundred pages, as more than enough—the real heart of the book turns out to be the writer’s own struggle to write it, and to figure out why. It isn’t enough just to shock us with the impossibility of narration; a novel becomes worth reading when it moves beyond that deeply conventional narrative shock—that now almost clichéd postmodern move—and becomes something unmistakably itself, unique.

And so, The Impossible Fairy Tale becomes itself: a personal story, a personal dream, a novel abruptly written in the author’s first person, about the novel she began to write and then, about the way it became impossible to write as a novel. In this way, as it becomes a novel about what it means to write a novel, what it means to make art—in a moment when the avant-garde is almost a century behind the times—the tragedy of art and childhood become one and the same, the cruel loss of pluripotentiality. Once, we were nothing and potentially everything; then, life happened, and we became only ourselves. 

A recovering academic, Aaron Bady is a writer in Oakland, California, and a bookseller at Diesel Bookstore.