Reviews of Funereal by Giacomo Lee. Read more at Goodreads
His upcoming novel Funereal [is] a dark and sometimes surreal exploration of the country’s drive for perfection, its unceasing competitiveness, and its conformist beauty culture — especially as they all exist, in lethally concentrated form, in the enormous, shapeshifting capital of Seoul.
Lee…accomplishes a literary act of which I know no precedent: convincingly rendering Korean characters through Western eyes. His countryman David Mitchell essayed a dystopian Korea in one layer of Cloud Atlas, but he set it in the unrecognizably distant future. Lee writes of the dystopian Korea of today, one that, in his conception, has driven itself nearly to the asylum with its own increasingly impossible standards and hopelessly unrealistic expectations… Out of that grim material he has crafted the first Western novel of Korea’s dark side.
To me, one of Seoul’s most defining features is its lack of definition — it really is like the story of the six blind men and the elephant. All of us who come here touch a different part of the city and take away such different impressions. In Funereal, Giacomo Lee touches a totally different part of Seoul than I normally do, geographically, mentally and professionally, which is what I found most interesting.
The rare Western writer to look at Korea has usually written about Westerners in Korea or about the Korean War or some distant past. With a touch of Murakami (Ryu or Haruki, take your pick) and dash of Bruce Sterling, Lee evokes a modern Korea, deeply ambivalent about the new society that is rapidly taking shape. At once a realistic look at modern Korea and all too unreal.
Funereal takes us on a bracing journey through the physical and psychological landscape of modern Seoul, entertaining us while never shying away from the big questions. The prose is taut and electric, buzzing like the hi-tech world that its characters inhabit. Funereal is both a thriller and a meditation on life in the 21st century, illuminating a world where media, technology, and the thirst for fame can turn the idea of living and dying on its head. Funereal is an impressive and imaginative achievement from an exciting new writer.
Like Murakami’s work, Funereal uses deep noir themes to drive its plot… [It] is an intriguing, fictional look at a subculture that surprisingly does exist in the country the novel is set. [This] debut novel is an interesting read, and one I highly recommend.
We live in a world that is increasingly hi-tech and plastic, where anything less than perfect is seen negatively. Peer pressure increases and that could definitely lead to a situation as described in Funereal where suicide rates have gone through the roof. The prose Giacomo Lee used to describe his story helps to create the hi-tech and surreal world of Seoul where people pay to attend their own funeral.
Soobin Shin is a realistically drawn character that splits from the common disempowered tropes around passive Asian females that live more as observers than as active agents. Lee writes Koreans as people, and this is not an easy thing for any cultural interloper (I believe he’s lived in Seoul in the past). His prose has a straightforward cleanliness to it that, for me, was strangely reminiscent of Murakami’s minimalist style. There is a queerness to the plot that’s almost a form of magical realism, but not quite there. Sufficed to say, it’s difficult to pigeonhole genre-wise.There’s a haunting melancholy vein that courses through the novel as people seek psychological release from the strictures of their lives with mock funerals. Funereal can be read as a critique of modernity – or at least, a critique of the speed with which modernity has been wrought upon South Korea, a hyperconnected society where, much like ours, people feel a growing sense of isolation. The heart of of the novel is a commentary on the costs of Korea’s full-speed-ahead clash with modernization, and projects forward to the future, extrapolating current trends into the realm of the absurd. Lee seems to be saying that there is a heavy price to be paid for Korea’s ruthless advance to the future – it comes at a human cost. As with any culture that strongly prioritizes some things over others, tradeoffs have to be made.
A caveat, though: this commentary does not descend into bland Orientalism or the well worn tropes about the rigid collectivization of East Asian societies, rather, there is the sense that social trends are the terminal endpoint of numerous untold factors converging together to produce something wily and unpredictable in its consequences. Against such forces, the individual is rendered powerless. Hence the need for an escape, for catharsis: the central service offered by Soobin Shin’s OneLife service.
Funereal may initially read as satire, but at its heart, it’s a sincere piece of work. It asks important questions, and affirms the value of grief, real grief, as an undeniable testament to the value of loving other people.
Things start to heat up with Soobin finding the shocking truth behind Geonwon Kang and other customers who have also been through depression, isolation and being used as ‘puppets’ in society… One of the chapters which … gave me the chills is the abandoned shopping mall [and] the shocking scenes that Soobin sees on each floor.
I was very invested in the story and was glued to the book the entire time. It touched on a very real subject that I’m aware of and read many articles about it in my time – the suicide rate in Asia. The thought of being buried alive is terrifying though and I can completely see why it would make you realize how important life is… This was a very interesting read and I think a lot of people would enjoy this. Just ignore the title, I know seeing funereal doesn’t make you think it’s going to be a pleasant read but it’s not that morbid.