- Published on Amazon.com
Jang Eun-jin's novel No One Writes Back is a smart, tight, elegant, beautiful book that I will not soon forget.
The story - not the backstory, which is revealed bit by bit, but the story itself, what happens in the "now" of the book - begins like this, after a bit of set-up. A young man and his dog get on a subway posing as a blind man (with dark glasses) and a guide dog (with special harness). They do this to avoid the difficulties that can arise when a person tries to bring a dog on the train. The man is offered a seat by someone, and he has no choice but to take it.
At some point a woman gets on the train dragging a cart full of books. She tells the passengers, "I want to tell you about a book." She says something about the book, hands out the books to the passengers, including the man. Why would she give a book to a blind man, he wonders. (He is the narrator of the story and tells us his thoughts.) She returns to her cart, addresses the passengers once more, making it clear that the book is for sale and can be bought at a discount "if you say the right thing," and begins to play her harmonica as if to provide a musical interlude. The man pretends to fumble with the book but actually, under the cover of his dark glasses, really looks at it. The first sentence is, "Today, I ate toothpaste. Tomorrow, I will eat soap." The woman finishes her interlude and takes back the books, having made no sales. (Though the man confesses to us that he would have bought it if he didn't have to keep up the blind act.) When she comes to the man she takes back his book with a smile, and, a moment later, pulls out a camera and takes his picture.
Feeling increasingly uncomfortable with her attention, he and his dog get off at the next stop. She follows them off and, a few minutes later, joins them again. He finds he has lost his wallet and cannot pay for the food he has just ordered for himself and his dog. She pays for their food and gets some for herself. After they eat she leads them to a motel she knows, and gets two rooms. (The motel is called Moon and Sixpence, after a famous novel which happens to be the one book that the man has with him.) On the way to the motel he had asked her bluntly, what do you want from me? Sex? No not that, she answers, I just want to observe you. Her response seems to remove the discomfort he was feeling, and the way is cleared for their relationship to develop.
If you read other reviews of this book you will learn that the man is 32 years old (the same age as the author of the book when she wrote it), that he left home - that is, his family home - three years before due to a "phobia" (seeming, persistent anxiety attacks) and embarked on a journey, accompanied by the family dog - actually his blind grandfather's guide dog, who (now blind himself after an accident) was bequeathed to him. The two of them travel from place to place and stay in a different motel every night (most often what the Japanese call a love motel). Once settled in the room he writes a letter to someone he has previously met telling them something about his day and, very often, something about someone else he has met, whether on that day or another. His letter writing is highly ritualized: he writes a letter on paper with a pencil, puts it in an envelope, writes the person's address and his own home return address, and carefully attaches a stamp. The next day he finds a post box and mails it, and also calls a friend who lives nearby his home to check the mail outside the house and tell him if he's received any letters. The answer is always no.
You will also learn that he does not want to know people's names, but only their addresses, and refers to them by number, which he assigns sequentially in the order met. (He has a very good memory.) The first person is 1, the last is 751, which is the woman. When she asks his name he says 0. At some point he says his journey has gone on for 1000 days. Which means 1000 letters.
But not all his letters are to his numbered acquaintances. He also writes to the members of his family, his father, his mother, his older brother and his younger sister. As it happens he writes a letter to each of them while he is with the woman. While the other letters are only summarized, those to his family are given in full, as written. You learn a lot about the man and his family from these letters.
Reviewers tend to say less about the woman, but I can tell you that she is a novelist who has published four books counting Toothpaste and Soap which is the latest, that she also once tried to write a screenplay with a partner but it didn't work out ("creative differences", expressed via hair-pulling), that she seems to be somewhat older than the man, that she wears glasses, and that she writes on a laptop that she takes everywhere. If the man is an open book (as he has a right to be as the narrator), the woman is largely a closed one.
A lot of things happen at the end of the story. They happen fast, one after another. You may feel that too much happens but I think it's best to just accept it all and go with the flow. This is a Korean book after all.
So what is the book about? It's fair enough to say it is about life and death, despair and hope, aloneness and belonging. But for me it is most of all about writing. Both the man and the woman are writers. In fact, they are both driven to write. The man writes to connect and share thoughts and feelings with others. The woman writes to explore and create and be free. These are really the two sides of writing, and they come together in their relationship.
In the end the man is just a character in a novel, but I'd like to think that there is at least a little of the real life author in the woman. In any case she has given the world a beautiful book, and like the woman said on the subway, if you want to find out all that happens in it you should buy it and read it for yourself.