There is a tendency for journalists to write in the passive voice. This is most obvious when journalists are writing about atrocities and crimes perpetrated by those allied to or acting on behalf of the status quo: The police never kill an unarmed Black man just as the Israeli military never shoot peaceful protestors. Instead, the unarmed Black men are always killed after someone calls the police. Similarly, Palestinian protesters wind up dead after a tense encounter with the Israeli defence forces.
The problem is that active voice implies not only cause-and-effect but also guilt and responsibility. To say that the police killed an unarmed man implies that the police took out their guns and murdered a man who posed little to no danger. Similarly, to say that the Israeli military killed hundreds of peaceful protesters implies deliberate cold-blooded murder. It’s not that these things do not happen (because they manifestly do)… it’s just that saying that they did can be both legally and politically embarrassing.
This critique is not new, people are well aware of the tendency to report the actions of institutions in the passive voice, but what of using the passive voice to describe the actions of a single person? What about a life described entirely in the passive voice? Are we responsible for our actions or do things just happen to us? This is a question raised by the winner of the 2017 Shirley Jackson Award. Written by the South Korean author PYUN Hye-Young and translated by Sora Kim-Russell.
The Hole has been described as a Korean take on Stephen King’s Misery and it is easy to see why in that the book opens with a car accident and tells the story of a man who is paralysed by his injuries and left at the mercy of someone who starts out nice only to grow more and more deranged as the book progresses. However, while The Hole is definitely travelling through a similar neighbourhood to Misery, this book’s destination is somewhat different.
The book’s viewpoint character is Oghi, a successful academic who has just survived a terrible car accident that killed his wife and left him almost completely paralysed. The question of what caused the accident is left deliberately vague: The accident is something that happened to Oghi and now he is forced to deal with the consequences. At first, these consequences appear to be primarily physical and psychological as Oghi spends months in hospital undergoing painful surgery and punishing physical therapy whilst also grieving the loss of his wife. Oghi has no say in any of the treatment he receives… he just lies in bed and people turn up and tell him how it’s going to be.
This physical passivity is echoed in Oghi’s psychological passivity as he talks about how he drifted into academia and happened to be in just the right place at just the right time to drift into a position of authority in an emerging field. This professional success brings him considerable wealth and prestige but Oghi seems weirdly detached from his professional life. The closest we get to him making a decision is the fact that he’ll often work late or attend conferences rather than staying home to be with his wife.
Oghi portrays his wife as a listless mess; a person who craves success and adulation but who is incapable of actually finishing anything she starts, forcing her to drift from field to field before devoting herself entirely to the task of renovating the couple’s garden. As the book progresses, Pyun scatters more and more clues as to the reality of the wife’s mental state and motivations. At first, we see the Oghi is dismissive and hyper-critical of her work, then we learn that his wife was the victim of sexual harassment first at the hand of professional writers and then at the hands of her doctor when she tried to get pregnant. Despite the revelation that terrible, morale-sucking things have happened to Oghi’s wife, Oghi remains completely unsupportive and continues to present her as nothing more than a listless mess.
This raises an interesting question in an age where online spaces are full of people sharing the series of unfortunate events that made them and trying to leverage those events into social clout and reasons why they should be listened to: To what extent are we responsible for the repercussions of unfortunate things that happen to us? Obviously, nobody is responsible for being sexually harassed or assaulted but is does that lack of responsibility extend to a lack of culpability when we allow the rest of our lives to turn into pureed shit? Are we not ultimately responsible for our own happiness and mental health? Do we not have a responsibility to try and overcome our problems? I’m not sure I have an answer and while Pyun does suggest that Oghi’s wife made bad decisions, she also makes it clear that Oghi played a part in ensuring that those bad decisions came to pass.
Just as Pyun introduces the idea of the wife’s passivity only to gently undermine that perception, a similar process is at work in her depiction of Oghi. The first third of the novel is devoted to establishing Oghi’s extreme lack of physical agency and this sense of passivity is echoed in the stories that Oghi tells about his life leading up to the accident, but how impassive was Oghi really?
Halfway through the novel, Oghi starts to regain some mobility in his limbs and the first thing he does is to call someone with whom he was obviously having some sort of affair. Up to that point, the dissolution of Oghi’s relationship with his wife is presented as largely her fault but the fact that Oghi was having an affair raises questions not only about his trustworthiness as a narrator, but also his perception of himself. Indeed, there’s a lovely scene late in the novel where Oghi is visited by his colleagues and he is trying to tell them that something isn’t right and the academics all completely fail to pick up on the cues leading Oghi to mutter darkly about their intelligence and motivations. He then goes on to mention that he saw one of his colleagues as a rival and was effectively hamstringing him by writing anonymous letters about his conduct.
This small, frustrated comment calls into question all of Oghi’s self-narration as it makes us realise that while one might drift into academia and even drift into an academic job, one does not drift into becoming a respected figure in one’s chosen field. One does not drift aimlessly into a tenured position and, clearly, Oghi’s passive drifting was nothing more than a fiction used to obscure the fact that his position had been secured by ruthless skulduggery and relentless abuse of power. As with those stories of police brutality, Oghi’s use of the passive voice is a deliberate attempt to muddy the waters of responsibility.
All of this would arguably be enough for The Hole to be a pretty decent novel but rather than stopping at the revelation that Oghi might be a bit of a monster, Pyun expands the critique. There’s a scene about two thirds through the novel where Oghi makes reference to the oldest map in existence and how it appears to have had a hole deliberately drilled through its middle. Oghi mentions that he believes the hole represents an existential hollowness at the core of humanity. This sense of hollowness is evident in the way that Oghi views himself as entirely without agency even when he is manifestly making decisions and taking actions: He is not responsible for his academic career, he is not responsible for the collapse of his marriage, he is not responsible for the accident that put him in a hospital bed, and he is not responsible for the way he is treated by his mother-in-law.
The Hole is one of those stories that really merit the term ‘psychological thriller’ as Pyun’s masterful character portraits are filtered through an array of dark themes and some truly masterful use of tension. The primary vehicle for the book’s tension is Oghi’s relationship with his mother-in-law.
The mother-in-law first enters the novel in a scene where Oghi is reminiscing about the early days of his relationship with his wife. Oghi remembers his then future father-in-law as a deeply unpleasant man but his mother-in-law’s weirdness is always explained away in terms of first her Japanese heritage, then her grief over the death of her daughter, and then as a response to her discovery of her daughter’s writings and the carefully catalogued collection of terrible things that Oghi said and did to her over the years.
Once Oghi is released from hospital, he is effectively placed in the care of his mother-in-law as she is the closest thing he has to surviving family. At first, the mother-in-law comes across as old, addled, and mired in grief. At first, the mother-in-law’s mismanagement of Oghi’s affairs drives him mad as she keeps doing things like giving huge amounts of money to transparently fraudulent faith healers and refusing to pay for Oghi’s rehabilitation and so Oghi starts trying to get other people to step in and help him.
This causes the relationship to sour and the sourness soon blossoms into outright enmity when the mother-in-law becomes aware of quite how badly Oghi had been treating her daughter. With absolutely masterful control of tone and tension, Pyun has the mother-in-law make Oghi’s life progressively worse, using every opportunity to humiliate him and make him uncomfortable while also deliberately sabotaging his recovery and so increasing his absolute dependence upon her. Before long, she’s having bars fitted over Oghi’s window and growing vines up the bars in an effort to plunge him into perpetual darkness all the while digging a huge hole in the garden and making oblique references to the fact that Oghi is a tree.
While the Hole of the title refers to both the hole being dug in the garden and the hole at the centre of the Babylonian world, it is also a reference to the hollowness that lurks at the heart of humanity. According to one interpretation of the novel, we are all hollow because we are shaped by the forces that surround us and the void at the heart of our being marks the spot where there should in fact be both agency and responsibility. However, another way of reading this novel is to view that hollow as the product of a choice: Oghi saw himself as an impassive drifter because it was easier that recognising his complete lack of moral compass and the cruelties he inflicted upon those surrounding him. Oghi’s wife saw herself as a voiceless prisoner because it was easier than facing up to the fact that she made a terrible choice in deciding to marry Oghi. Oghi’s mother-in-law saw herself as a vessel for family obligation because it was easier than dealing with her trauma and the psychological ugliness that was resulted from it. Looking at the map of the Babylonian world, it seems more likely that the drilled hole is there not as a statement about existential hollowness but as a convenient way of attaching a clay tablet to another surface. That hole, like the hole at the heart of every character in the book, is there because it is useful, an easier option than some of the alternatives.