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Review: “Korean Straight Lines” (NB Armstrong)

December 4, 2012 - Chris Backe

NB Armstrong has called Korea home since 2000, and during that time has enjoyed some interesting characters that make your average expat tale look lame. To be clear, NB does seem to have gone out of his comfort zone quite a bit more in “Korean Straight Lines”, and it’s unclear from most of the stories when they actually happened. The where is a bit clearer – the story starts out on “the south end of Masan city” down in Gyeongsangnam-do – though it definitely moves around somewhat (he enrolled in a ten-week Korean language course in Busan during one chapter).

A few stories center around a surprise ending or a disappointment – the story about an audiotape and what happens when he has a chance to play it, traveling to the Book Fair in Seoul, and trying out the ice room in a jimjilbang are all good examples. Another common theme is the unexpected loop a situation takes despite starting off so normal – a friend that invites him for lunch suddenly turns into his opportunity to be a trained monkey for the camera is one poignant example, as is a group of doctors that suddenly become his English pupils over dinner.

While the stories are timeless, the narratives are up to date. There is no sense of chronological continuity, however – much like a syndicated TV show you’re unfamiliar with, these stories could have happened in almost any order.

It’s a bit unclear who the expected audience is – the stories require above-average concentration to follow some long sentences, and the writer mixes reality, wit, sarcasm, and satire almost too well. It remains an entertaining read, to be clear, but it’s too easy to create a distorted picture of the country if you can’t discern fact from satire. The Korean vocabulary and sayings, while occasionally lacking clear examples and explanations, offer vivid insights into the country.

The writer does well to avoid the usual topics and themes found in plenty of other expat memoirs – the first week, getting wasted on soju, and complaining about the tiny apartment are all blissfully missing. Although we learn plenty about what the author does (including the selection of a piano piece far above his actual level, surviving the summer heat with an icebox), we seem to learn very little about the author himself. Does he have a girlfriend? A wife? Did he move around Korea much? I feel as though I’ve read an entire book about a person and am coming away knowing little more about the person than I did when I started. Perhaps this is by intention – some people are better writers when they’re able to stay out of the spotlight and record the story. The bio proclaims him a writer and translator who has lived in Korea since 2000, and that’s about all you’ll learn about NB himself. Going to his (very basic) website reveals a number of articles written from 2010-2012 for plenty of local newspapers and magazines.

The appendix really ought to be mentioned for anyone that picks this book up from outside Korea. The book uses the Korean script for a number of words and phrases, with very little Romanization happening. The appendix approaches the Korean alphabet in the same tone as the rest of the book – helpful, if occasionally roundabout in its descriptions. It’s educational and interesting, but isn’t intended as a complete guide to the language.

If you’re coming to Korea or have just arrived, know that many of the stories offer a proactive view of your life outside of the day job. There’s some information about cultural expectations, but you’d do well to have a basic understanding before diving into this one. More experienced expats might enjoy the look back at how Korea was over a decade ago, while people that look back at their time in Korean fondly may appreciate the nostalgia.

Recommended, with reservations.

Buy Korean Straight Lines on Amazon.

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