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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


The Disaster Tourist

Yun Ko-eun

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To purchase The Disaster Tourist

Title: The Disaster Tourist
Author: Yun Ko-eun
Genre: Novel
Written: 2013 (Eng. 2020)
Length: 200 pages
Original in: Korean
Availability: The Disaster Tourist - US
The Disaster Tourist - UK
The Disaster Tourist - Canada
  • Korean title: 밤의 여행자들
  • Translated by Lizzie Buehler

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Our Assessment:

B : effectively creepy and dark

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Guardian . 9/7/2020 Saba Ahmed
The Spectator A 4/7/2020 C.H.Hazelton

  From the Reviews:
  • "Translator Lizzie Buehler deftly coveys the subtle tonalities of the prose, variously graceful and light (...), witty and absurd, then suspenseful, even terror-filled. (...) Ultimately, the plot details aren't always precise enough to convey the complexity of exactly what is at stake, or with whom moral responsibility sits, while a tenuous love story adds another layer of narrative complication. But this is an entertaining eco-thriller that sets out to illuminate the way climate change is inextricably bound up with the pressures of global capitalism." - Saba Ahmed, The Guardian

  • "Throughout Disaster Tourist, there is a sense of impending catastrophe, of something huge and uncontrollable swallowing up those who spend their lives packaging, controlling and creating these macabre tours. (...) In this phenomenal book, Yun demonstrates how disaster tourism is a kind of theatre: people are ‘merchandise’, the reality tourists just ‘a shadow of reality’." - Claire Kohda Hazelton, The Spectator

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The main character in The Disaster Tourist is Yona Ko, a thirty-three-year-old who has been working at travel company Jungle for the past ten years, now as a programming coordinator. Jungle specializes in disaster-tourism -- offering 152 different packages in thirty-three distinct categories of disaster, both natural and man-made. Yona's job involves: "surveying disaster zones and moulding them into travel destinations"; the novel opens with her having just checked out the after-effects of a tsunami, conveniently in South Korea itself.
       Back at the home office Yona has some concern about her status, suspecting that she has fallen into some disfavor for some reason, threatening her career. It's not like she's had any official sort of warning, but she senses something is off. Much more tangible is another workplace issue that crops up, as she starts getting sexually harassed by one of her co-workers, Kim, in blatant and obnoxious form. She decides the best way to deal with it is to basically try to ignore it and doesn't really take any action -- even as both the harassment becomes common knowledge in the firm and other workers reveal they have had similar issues with Kim. She recognizes the gravity of her situation but maybe doesn't take the best approach to it:

     Yona's current situation was a disaster, and she was going to have to treat it like one of the disasters she researched for Jungle.
       She is unable to resolve her issues on-site, but is offered a sort of time-out, though still combined with work. Jungle will send her on one of their disaster packages, having her travel: "Not as an employee, but as a customer" -- though then reporting back to Jungle on her experiences. There are several poor-performing packages that they're thinking of ditching, and she can assess whether the one she is sent on should be kept on or not.
       They give her five disasters to choose from, and she lets herself be talked into going to the most expensive one, 'Desert Sinkhole', set in Mui, an island off the coast of Vietnam. She goes with low expectations, and even these are hardly met; Mui is a dud and it's clear why Jungle wants to ditch it as a destination:
Headhunting and a sinkhole opening up in the ground are appealing premises, but the problem is that they happened fifty years ago. Also, it's hard to call the desert here a desert. It's really more of a dune. And the homestay at the houses on stilts, well ... that kind of attraction could be recreated at any old museum or theme park, so it just felt like fluff.
       It's a small group that heads for Mui -- just four other guests and a tour-guide. The tourists include a wannabe screenwriter, and an elementary school teacher with her five-year-old daughter, whom she rather over-enthusiastically wants to expose to as much of the world and experience as possible.
       If Mui proves to be a disappointment -- some nasty civil strife, way back when, and what are by now pretty harmless sinkholes, and a very unimpressive volcano -- Yona's (attempted) departure comes with more adventure than anticipated. She manages to get separated from her tour group on the way to the airport, and winds up back in Mui on her own. She's now off-programme, and immediately gets a different impression of the place. She's also stuck there, having difficulty establishing contact with Jungle, and finding that another company, Paul, has heavily invested in all things Mui and dominates the local scene. And she lets herself be roped into trying to save Mui as a disaster-destination. As is explained to her:
Since signing a contract with jungle and building the resort, Mui has been tailoring life to fit its role as a disaster zone. That's led young workers who left for other regions to come back. Now, if disaster disappears from Mui, life disappears, too.
       There's been a project covertly in the works for the past six months, and now Yona is recruited to shape the tour-experience around it. Also part of the plan: the screenwriter who was along for the ride: he has been hired to write the script for the disaster.
       The plan is basically to fake a disaster, and they've thought it through fairly well, complete with explanation (alibi) for its occurrence, as well as victims (in a particularly creepy scheme). Not surprisingly, things do not work out exactly as planned -- "The story was racing ahead of the writer, moving of its own accord". As disasters will .....
       With its anonymous and ominous large corporations -- Jungle and Paul -- as well as the forces of nature, there is a pervasive feeling of powerlessness in The Disaster Tourist: larger forces will have their way, regardless of best-laid plans. Yet even on the smaller, personal level the characters -- especially but hardly only Yona -- are, more often than not, impotent, with Yona for example finding herslef unable to counter-act the truly outrageous behavior of co-worker Kim.
       The artificiality of so much of the world Yona deals with -- from the programmes she puts together for the tours to the role-playing of the inhabitants on Mui to the script the would-be screenwriter puts together -- also makes for a world in which the separation between reality and the fictional is no longer clearly delineated, but rather all a blur. So also the surviving script, which could pass for documentation or fantasy:
People couldn't tell if the script was fiction or truth. A surprising record of survival and death, or a goosebump-inducing horror story.
       Disaster-tourism is one manifestation of the confusion of the contemporary world, where people are after the shock of the real -- but only as show. Mui's history is horrific, both as regards the civic conflict that occurred there as well as the natural disasters that have been visited upon it -- and, as Yun shows, these don't allow themselves to be easily (re-)packaged for voyeur-consumption. For all the control man and corporations wield, much remains beyond it. But the true horror Yun lays out is in how incidental victims are along the way; even when the unplanned for happens in Mui, for most of the world it is merely show, the reports of it no doubt registering barely any differently than that night's movie and TV shows.
       It's a quite effective story, quite well -- if a bit choppily -- presented. Yun does creepy very well, from at the modern contemporary workplace to in the would-be exotic (which often turns out to be disturbingly familiar, with only a veneer of the strange). Deeply uncomfortable, from the sexual harassment scenes (and Yona's reactions) to the annoying young child inappropriately dragged on the trip to the behind-the-scenes reality of Mui and then of the faked-disaster plan, The Disaster Tourist is meant to be discomfiting, and succeeds very well at that.

- M.A.Orthofer, 23 September 2020

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The Disaster Tourist: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Korean literature
  • See Index of Travel-related books

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About the Author:

       South Korean author Yun Ko-eun (윤고은) was born in 1980.

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© 2020 the complete review

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