I Have the Right to Destroy Myself

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By Young-Ha Kim, translated by Chi-Young Kim. Harcourt, 119 pp, $15.95, softcover

It doesn't get much more provocative than South Korean Young-Ha Kim's first translated work into English. In this brief, chilly novel, written in 1996, an unnamed narrator recounts a few of his more aesthetic encounters with clients who want to design their perfect suicide. Though the book's title reminds us that self-destruction can be seen as choice, the suggestion remains that until the narrator came along they hadn't perhaps realized they were seeking an exit strategy.

Preoccupations with death, explicit sex, and fast cars sometimes make Destroy Myself feel juvenile–and the characters are mostly young, though we don't know their exact ages; they're young enough, anyway, to lack responsibility and meaningful social contexts. Where Kim adds complexity is in the notion that worse than depression or loneliness is the fear of a lack of meaning. It's better to have died with style, he seems to be saying, than to have gone on living.

The plot centres on two brothers, C. and K., a woman they share, and another whom C., a video artist, obsesses over. Discussing painting with C., this latter woman notes: "White canvas. Someone once theorized that primitive man started to create art because of a fear hidden deeply within the human soul. The mere existence of a white blank wall is terrifying. That's why children scribble on walls and scratch the surface of new, shiny cars with knives."

The characters here–some of whom get their final wish–seem to fear most the white canvas of an unplanned death. Preoccupied with this inner turmoil, they let friendships and relationships slide. They ignore those around them. C. and K. barely speak. K. can't be bothered to attend their mother's funeral. Such is the real horror of the novel: that planning a tidy death could trump living a messy life.