Nowhere Man

In this extraordinary Korean comic, a cartoonist and his wife escape to the country, and everything goes wrong.

Yeon-sik Hong/Drawn and Quarterly

You cannot count yourself a real urbanite city dweller until you regularly entertain fantasies of chucking it all for some remote idyll. For most of us, this fantasy remains just that. I know I couldn’t hack it in the great outdoors. Since in another hundred years or so we won’t have beatific natural vistas in which to discover ourselves, we should be grateful for records of the experience like the extraordinary comic-book memoir Uncomfortably Happily, by the South Korean writer and artist Yeon-sik Hong.

Uncomfortably Happily—yes, yes, the title is awful—documents a year in the life of Hong and his new wife, Sohmi Lee, who, sick of grinding it out as freelance artists in Seoul, move to a small cottage on the side of a mountain. Remote doesn’t even begin to describe their new home. It’s on the edge of a cluster of hiking trails and a forest, and in order to get to Seoul for meetings, Hong must walk down the mountain to a rest area where he can catch a bus to take him on a two-hour ride.

The plot unfolds less as a narrative and more as a series of little moments and routines, timed to and separated by the seasons. Reading it, you gradually come to feel totally immersed in the very mundane processes of their lives. Hong and Lee draw comics, create a garden from a patch of rocky nothing, hike in the woods, clear out the trash left by tourists, adopt a dog to join their three cats, raise chickens, nearly freeze to death, learn how to heat their home with charcoal briquettes, grill meat and fish, and stretch every last won and grain of rice. Much of the book is given to tallying their bills, or detailing Hong’s walks home from the rest area in total darkness. Yet it’s never less than captivating.

In part this is because their life on the mountain isn’t all sunshine and lettuce planting. There’s some Walden in Uncomfortably Happily’s vision of rural isolation, but there’s also some The Shining. No retreat is idyllic enough to escape your problems, Hong suggests, when your chief problem is you. As they drive to their new home for the first time, Hong wonders “if the choice to shed this city I’ve lived in for thirty years… is entirely what I want… or if I’m running away because I can’t handle city life.” It’s the first moment where Hong questions his own inadequacies as an artist, a man, and a husband, but it won’t be the last. Much of the first half of the memoir is dedicated to Hong’s gradual mental and physical breakdown over his inability to be a traditional male head of his household.

Hong is stuck in the freelancer’s rut. The commercial comics he draws in order to pay the bills sap him of the time, energy, and focus he needs to do his own passion projects. His rage at his inability to break this cycle leads to ever more elaborate procrastination techniques, abetted by the new house and the agrarian lifestyle that comes with it. Soon, the household tasks he devises to escape his nagging editor become an additional burden.

Yeon-sik Hong/Drawn and Quarterly

The little rituals and routines with which Hong and Lee structure their daily lives thus interconnect and expand into a moving dramatization of how patriarchal expectations grind both men and women down. Hong and Lee are constantly broke, yet he won’t let her take work for money. He wants to support his wife as she finishes several comics in preparation for a major contest, and he also wants to be the one who does most of the manual labor to make their life in the country possible. Hong—the character, not the author—infantilizes Lee, who is, not coincidentally, his former student. “I wish my wife weren’t so naïve,” Hong muses while chopping down trees to make firewood, “but she is. She became naïve when she became my wife. I wasn’t able to give her the space to make another choice.”

One of the profound pleasures of reading Uncomfortably Happily is watching Hong learn his limitations and, after a fever/madness sequence straight out of Dostoevsky, attempt to transcend them. Yeon-sik Hong’s view of his younger self is unsparing and complex, neither self-loathing nor aggrandizing. He never comments on himself from the perspective of today, never tells us what lessons he’s learning. Instead, he dramatizes them through changes in behavior both big and small. The incremental pace of the book matches the hard work it actually takes to change for the better. There are no shortcuts for Yeon-sik Hong and Sohmi Lee’s life in the wild, and this memoir of their experiences doesn’t take any shortcuts either.

Lest this all seem too serious, I’d like to add that Uncomfortably Happily bursts with irrational exuberance from every panel. Much like Bryan Lee O’Malley in his Scott Pilgrim books, Yeon-sik Hong uses manga-influenced line work to bring the youthful enthusiasm of his characters to life. He anatomizes the quotidian details of marriage but also finds time for comedic flights of fancy, including frequent musical numbers:

Drawn and Quarterly

Yeon-sik Hong/Drawn and Quarterly

Hong’s struggle may be rooted in one particular mountain and the South Korean comics industry, but it attains a kind of universality. Of course, as a freelancer who doesn’t make nearly enough money for my family to live on, perhaps I find Uncomfortably Happily to hit particularly close to home. But even if you aren’t in a city, or in the arts—even if you make plenty of money and don’t like grilled minnows you’ve caught in a glassy mountain stream—you’ve probably struggled to find a sustainable way to live with your environment, your family, your career, and yourself.

Even when we find that equilibrium, it doesn’t seem to last. Hong and Lee’s little utopia of two on the mountain can’t last forever, and its crumbling in a final-act twist is heartbreaking without being too tragic or maudlin. Still, even in the midst of it, their love for each other endures, just as the mountain endures, just as our natural world endures, at least for now.

Uncomfortably Happily by Yeon-sik Hong. Drawn and Quarterly.

Read all the pieces in the Slate Book Review.