After almost ten years of vegetarianism I’ve started eating meat again. I’m doing it slowly: two small lamb chops, a bite of pork floating in ramen, a few slices of cured salami or ham. Although my body seems to crave it I often find the taste terrible, sour and gamey. It turns heavy in my stomach. But I’m eating meat again because if I don’t make drastic changes to my diet and begin to regularly eat protein and carbohydrates, my doctor says that my body will continue to feed on my own lean muscle for nutrition. It will soon eat away at cardiovascular muscle for nourishment, and the irreversible damage I’ve done to my own body will worsen.
I write down everything I eat in a notebook. 11.52am banana. 4.44pm half a pot of non-fat yoghurt. I mark food items that I think are unhealthy with a little asterisk, and I can put a tick next to days I feel I’ve fed myself as I would if I were caring for someone else. I filled the title page – “JAMES BUTLER FOOD DIARY” – with stickers to make the exercise less depressing, small farm animals from a sticker pad. But now when I hand the notebook to my psychologist or dietician I press the title page down, hoping they miss the smiling cows and ducks, and turn straight to the pages littered with little stars. The idea of them seeing the stickers makes me feel childish. Not just because of what they are, but because I am an adult paying professionals to teach me to eat.
In Han Kang’s The Vegetarian, Yeong-hye, a young woman “completely unremarkable in every way,” becomes vegetarian after a violent dream. Yeong-hye throws away all the meat in the fridge, enraging her husband and extended family. She becomes erratic and gaunt, consumed by visceral dreams of murder and physical torture. “Why am I changing like this?” she thinks, in a rare disclosure of her interiority. “Why are my edges all sharpening—what am I going to gouge?”
Between November 19, 1944 and December 20, 1945, the University of Minnesota performed a clinical study known as the Minnesota Starvation Experiment. Thirty-six men were starved over a period of six months, losing roughly a quarter of their body mass, then were rehabilitated back to a healthy weight. The study aimed to detail the psychological effects of starvation, and emulated the diets of people in famine. It found that prolonged starvation induces hysteria and depression, social withdrawal, reduced sexual interest, and an obsession with food. One man cut off three of his fingers with an axe. While unethical by today’s standards, the study has become a useful way to treat sufferers of eating disorders. It shows that the psychological effects of eating disorders, specifically anorexia and bulimia, result in part from undernutrition.
My psychologist told me about this study during our first session, and suggested I research it. She listed these symptoms to me and I found myself in them. I get anxious in social situations, have a tenuous interest in sex, am victim to violent mood swings, methodically plan meals I never cook, and keep myself awake watching cooking videos online. She says that my brain is overactive, because it thinks I am in a famine and need extra energy to find food. My mind whirs, keeps me awake and stressed, because it thinks that food is so scarce that each time I rest I may die.
Kang’s novel is told in three parts, each tracing the violations done to Yeong-hye’s body by herself and others. Her vegetarianism disgraces her husband and family and her behaviour becomes so erratic that she is institutionalised. She is coerced into sex with her brother-in-law, which becomes the centre of a Kusama-esque video art piece in which her slight body is painted with flowers. Secluded in a private hospital and only visited by her sister, she becomes hallucinatory, believing she is a tree. Each event toward the novel’s violent close precipitates her descent into hysteria. Yeong-hye’s characterisation is strange; she is the centre of the novel but rarely the voice of it. Mostly, she is rendered only in other characters’ limited impressions of her: the first section her husband’s, the second her brother-in-law’s, the third her sister’s. Similarly, the reason for her vegetarianism is elusive. When questioned she replies with the same line, “I had a dream.” There’s an interesting remove: Yeong-hye’s body is the true focus of The Vegetarian, and yet all we know of it is second-hand. On her body in this text, Yeong-hye has no authority. Some reviewers have remarked that this passivity is emblematic of the societal pressures on Korean women. But perhaps this lack of agency is about the fraught relationship between autonomy and the body, an unpicking of the control we supposedly exert over what our bodies do and eat and are.
While Yeong-hye’s vegetarianism is the catalyst for each tragic turn of events, I don’t believe the novel is a treatise against it. In The Vegetarian meaning is obtuse and slippery. Each time I write that I’ve eaten meat in my food diary I feel a pang of guilt. There are many reasons to not eat meat, all valid, and I don’t like to think about the fact my vegetarianism has lapsed. I think that one can sustain a healthy, un-disordered, diet without eating animal products. But recovering from an eating disorder involves a constant re-assessment of the healthiness of my behaviours. I have to arm myself against previously everyday activities – eating sporadically, always choosing to take the stairs, watching and goading myself in mirrors and reflective shop windows. The more I think of my vegetarianism the more I realise that I fell into it for unhealthy reasons, a guise to restrict my diet. Like so many others I’m putting my own welfare before those of animals, and it feels bad and good mixed together. It’s a complicated issue.
In the novel’s final part, Yeong-hye’s sister, distraught at the deteriorating health of her sister and bereft at the failure of her marriage, begins to laugh. “Even after certain things have happened to them, no matter how awful the experience, people still go on eating and drinking, going to the toilet and washing themselves – living, in other words. And sometimes they even laugh out loud.” I make quips about my recovery, how banal it is, how my psychologist says my brain is like a shoebox full of slips of paper that I can declutter, make light of the fact I once fainted and vomited at a friend’s birthday party because I hadn’t eaten in days. Finding meaning in it all is obtuse and slippery, but I go on eating and drinking, shitting and pissing and washing myself, eating meat, heavy sour and gamey – living, in other words.
James Butler is a writer, bookseller, and co-founder and culture editor of Scum Magazine.