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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

     

When Adam Opens his Eyes

by
Jang Jung-il


general information | our review | links | about the author

To purchase When Adam Opens his Eyes



Title: When Adam Opens his Eyes
Author: Jang Jung-il
Genre: Novel
Written: 1992 (Eng. 2013)
Length: 132 pages
Original in: Korean
Availability: When Adam Opens his Eyes - US
When Adam Opens his Eyes - UK
When Adam Opens his Eyes - Canada
When Adam Opens his Eyes - India
  • Korean title: 아담이 눈뜰 때
  • Translated by Hwang Sun-Ae and Horace Jeffery Hodges
  • 아담이 눈뜰 때 was made into a film in 1993, directed by Kim Ho-sun
  • A volume in Dalkey Archive Press' Library of Korean Literature

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Our Assessment:

B : fine, quick Korean Bildungsroman

See our review for fuller assessment.




The complete review's Review:

       When Adam Opens his Eyes is a year-in-the-life novel, a South Korean high school graduate figuring out what to make of his life. A girlfriend nicknames him 'Adam', and it is an appropriate designation for the (relative) innocent who tentatively sets out into the real world. Set in the late 1980s, there is a backdrop of significant events, too: the 1987 presidential election -- a important step in the democratization of the political process in Korea -- and then the 1988 Olympics, held in Seoul.
       The book begins with the nineteen-year-old 'Adam' having failed the all-important university entrance examinations he had spent the past years cramming for. Failure is relative: his results were good enough to get him a scholarship to many universities, but just short of what he would have needed to get into Seoul National University -- his mother's dream for him (and also what he had set his sights on). Rather than immediately go to another university he decides to spend the next year cramming some more, in order to take the test again, and gain admission to SNU. His mother, who toils in the lowliest of jobs, is supportive; his older, even more studious brother has already escaped to pursue his graduate studies in the United States.
       Adam was a promising talent in school: "I was a literary guy, specializing in literary competitions" -- and doing quite well in them, winning prizes for his school. He stopped, however, deciding to concentrate on academics in order to get into a (or the) top school, but, for example, his sometime girlfriend Eun-sun still comes to him for literary advice. Willing to settle for not quite the best university, Eun-sun also begins to work to making her literary debut -- taking both these steps ahead of Adam. Yet even when her debut is a success, she doesn't find it to be all she expected it to be. Giving a good sense of the times, she also eventually gets arrested for writing a political poem -- another stepping-stone and badge of honor of sorts, but something that also remains quite foreign to the much more isolated Adam, who shows very little interest in politics (or, indeed, in doing anything with other people, other than having sex).
       Adam's obsessions include music, reading, and sex, as he finds himself the usual sort of teenage misfit out of tune with his times. For a long stretch he skips out on cram school and does his own thing -- mainly reading. He hooks up with another girl, Hyun-jae, who has her own issues, and they enjoy a relationship -- maintained at a careful distance, as they avoid getting too close or attached.
       Adam has some other formative experiences: he gets picked up by an artist who wants to use him as a model -- and as her sex-toy for the night -- and he also lets himself be used in exchange for some shiny technology -- a turntable he couldn't afford otherwise.
       The artist he hooks up with complains about contemporary society -- as he sums it up:

One could call such a world an 'accelerated world' in which speed is the most important value and only going forward is accepted as development and success.
       In this year, however, Adam for the most part allows the world to slip by, largely unwilling to move forward and certainly not willing to pick up any speed. He's not sure he wants to or can free himself entirely from it, but this year is one of exploration of the possibilities.
       Not surprisingly, a painting he repeatedly turns to is Munch's Puberty:
A naked prepubescent girl is sitting blankly on a bed. She is insecure, with breasts not yet fully developed and hiding her pubic region shyly with both hands. The girl, who stares at the viewer so directly, always made my heart beat faster.
       He sees in it: "the mixture of desire and anxiety for a pure world". It's not any kind of lust that draws him to the picture -- it is because he sees himself and his own condition reflected there. As the nickname Adam (and the idea of opening his eyes, as in the title) suggest, the narrator is on the cusp of a certain maturity and adulthood, but, like the girl, still in that uncertain transition-phase.
       The novel concludes with Adam taking the university entrance exam again, after which he can finally move ahead, taking a first real step to adulthood and deciding on his future, his story quite nicely coming full circle.
       There's quite a bit of sex in When Adam Opens his Eyes, but the narrator never manages to break out of his introspective isolation. The women he sleeps with remain at a distance -- indeed, almost everyone does: he has practically no discussion partners, and his mother is a figure kept firmly in the background, toiling away but otherwise not much of a presence. There are some dialogues with the women he engages with, but he's at that age and stage where he needs to work it all out by himself. He can show some empathy -- as in the case of self-destructive Hyun-jae -- but can't really help her, for example.
       Books are important to Adam, but he rarely discusses what he reads. Still, there's more than surface-depth here, as suggested in some discussion of Korean poets, or casual asides like mentioning what (Geist and Zeitgeist etc. author)-Hermann Broch had to say about kitsch.
       Though somewhat dated, and too true-to-form for the genre in some of the cultural references (specifically, the music he listens to and quotes from extensively), When Adam Opens his Eyes is a solid coming-of-age (and becoming-a-writer) novel that's also an interesting document of its times (without bogging down too much in the Korean details of that period).
       A young man's novel, youthfully exuberant and unpolished, and with a mix of the predictable and the experimental (not all of which works -- "If I cried, neon would flow from my eyes" -- but points for trying), it offers enough that it is certainly of interest and worth the quick read.

- M.A.Orthofer, 24 August 2013

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Links:

When Adam Opens his Eyes: 아담이 눈뜰 때 - the film: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       South Korean author Jang Jung-il (장정일) was born in 1962.

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© 2013 the complete review

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