Thoughts on Books: The Vegetarian

April 6th, 2017

The Vegetarian

I just read The Vegetarian. Reading is one of my big luxuries in life and that’s why I take great care to mainly read novels and not self-help books or other types of nonfiction with dogmatic POVs. I really like to just lose myself in a book and learn fascinating things about the world. In my opinion, novels are the best way to learn about things. I’ve learned more about other people and cultures reading Salman Rushdie, Arundhati Roy and Michael Ondaatje than I ever have watching a documentary or reading the New York Times. It’s all in the beautiful details. 

I struggled with The Vegetarian, though. It is indeed about another culture. It was written in Korean by Han Kang and later translated to English. It’s also about a vegetarian. I myself was once a vegetarian, so this is not entirely unfamiliar culture for me, but I was a pretty lousy vegetarian compared to the insanely rigid protagonist in this intense novel. She takes vegetarianism even beyond veganism to a place of gruesome insanity. 

The other night, after reading a chapter or two of The Vegetarian, I had a nightmare—much like the heroine of book itself. Mine wasn’t about the grisly horrors of meat, though. It was about the eye-rolling piousness of a certain type of vegan we’ve all met. In my dream, I was eavesdropping on a conversation between a yoga teacher friend and a saucer-eyed student, who was berating my friend about eating fresh carrots. “You’re murdering the germinating part of the carrot,” this fictional dream-person chastised. “It’s barbaric.”

I am pretty sure my brain knows nothing about the germinating parts of a carrot or if that’s even a thing. (Is it? Anyone?) This dream, like most, was utter nonsense, but still, I woke up feeling disturbed. 

Anyway, as much as it initially seemed like a dogmatic lesson primer about the nobility of veganism, it turns out that The Vegetarian is not that. I’m actually not really sure what The Vegetarian is actually about, but as it came to a close, I felt a spooky sense of familiarity. 

Like the protagonist of The Vegetarian, I went through a long spell of not eating meat. And like the protagonist, this was born not from a grounded ethical decision or even a health-conscious or environmental one, but because something inside me became direly afraid of being a carnivore. I was very young; this started when I was 8. I largely avoided meat until I got out of college. Once, I drove cross-country in 72 hours and ate nothing but fast food French fries. I didn’t really know about quinoa then, or how to combine vegetable proteins. I hadn’t yet lived with a fussy vegan for 2 years; that came later.

I grew out of this—the standoff with meat, the reliance on beige foods, the attraction to difficult personalities. The protagonist of The Vegetarian did not. There but for the grace go I. 

The Vegetarian is a thinker, and it’s incredibly well written. It’s also short, so it has that going for it. In fact, I’ve heard it referred to as a novella, which is cute, since it won the Booker International last year. But I am definitely looking for something, er, lighter to read next. Which is why I just ordered Judas by Amos Oz?




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