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A Pretty Penny

Two new novels set in contemporary East Asia look unsparingly at wealth and beauty

If I Had Your Face by Frances Cha. Ballantine Books, 288 pages.

Breasts and Eggs by Mieko Kawakami, translated by Sam Bett and David Boyd. Europa Editions, 448 pages.

When I was twelve or thirteen, on my third round of intensive orthodontics, I went to see a surgeon about my jaw. Citing the risks and expense, my steady-handed orthodontist had done his best to avoid the need for surgery, opting instead for years of excruciating combinations of rubber bands and metal braces and plastic retainers that left my whole face thrumming with pain each morning when I woke up. Largely, these interventions worked—the wide gap between my two front teeth was chastened, my crooked childhood underbite was restrained—but the orthodontist thought I should meet with a surgeon anyway, to “get a sense for my options.”

The surgeon was like a photo negative of the tall, tanned orthodontist: short, bald, and pasty, with a Wallace Shawn smirk. He took x-rays of my face; pointing at the spot where my jaw met my skull, he hovered his finger across an image of my bones in profile. “See,” he said, gesturing emphatically at the images, “if we went ahead with surgery, it would bring your whole face forward. You’ve got great features—your nose, your cheekbones—but with surgery, they’d be able to really come out.” He lowered his voice to a whisper, as though sharing a secret, “You’d be prettier.”

My parents were opposed to the surgery, and fair enough. In the best case, I’d have been bedridden for weeks, my jaw wired shut; in the worst case, there was a minor but not completely negligible possibility of death. Still, I spent that summer staring at my face in the mirror, running my fingers over my jawline, trying to will it into submission. I hated its angles, its insistence, its jut. I’d squint in the glass as I attempted to picture my features being “brought forward,” my prettiness “coming out,” like it was tucked away in some part of my head, maybe sitting just beneath my brain. In was the usual kind of adolescent self-torment, but there was something else to it. I was tantalized by the idea that there were shortcuts I could take into a new kind of existence.

Instead, I stayed the course of orthodontics: years more of wires and bands, train tracks of metal laid permanently across the back of my smile. My jaw remained defiant but sufficiently subdued. I made peace with my face, learning to accept it for what it was, what it is: imperfect, sure, but strong; a face that has always played its part in getting what I want.

Is liberation found in knowing what you need and finding a way to get it, or in disposing of the need altogether?

Every woman has a story like this, the story of how she sees herself, how she’s evaluated her beauty and its influence on her options. We don’t talk about it much in the West. Like discussing who is born rich, the question of who is born beautiful—and what that means for their life—makes us squeamish and defensive. We prefer the myth that everyone can have everything if they just try hard enough, or the marketing copy that assures us everyone is beautiful. To be clear, contemporary feminism’s desire to make all women to feel confident and comfortable in their bodies is, in its most distilled form, a worthy aim. Dignity always is. But there is a certain counterproductive prudishness in our failure to reckon openly with the obvious, entangled hierarchies of beauty and wealth and power, and the role those hierarchies play in every aspect of our lives.  

Thankfully, candor and self-scrutiny can be found elsewhere. Two new novels set in contemporary East Asia—Breasts and Eggs by Mieko Kawakami and If I Had Your Face by Frances Cha, two perfect titles if I’ve ever seen them—explore questions of beauty, money, power, and self-possession with an electrifyingly brutal calculus. Both are debut novels of a kind: it is Cha’s first book, and Kawakami’s first full-length work translated into English. Bucking the exhausting trend of novels centered on characters void of desire, these are novels about hunger and want, approached with a bluntness rarely attempted in contemporary fiction set in Western cities. (There are, of course, exceptions; it makes sense that Nell Zink, whose novels teem with ugly emotions, heterosexual manipulation, and vivid bodily imagery, loved If I Had Your Face.)

Against the backdrop of modern-day Tokyo and Seoul, Kawakami and Cha’s narratives interrogate which is more empowering: pretending beauty and wealth don’t determine our opportunities in life, or accepting that they do and proceeding from there. Both novels deal with the popularity of plastic surgery in East Asia and ask whether paying to alter one’s appearance—especially when money is exceedingly tight—is an act of desperation or empowerment. Is liberation found in knowing what you need and finding a way to get it, or in disposing of the need altogether?

If I Had Your Face follows the lives of four young women in Seoul, living in a subpar “office-tel” apartment block in trendy, monied Gangnam, the epicenter of high-end plastic surgery in a country where one in five women have had work done. Cha lays out her novel episodically: each chapter, richly detailed and compulsively consumed, is narrated by one of four protagonists. There is mute, K-pop-obsessed hair stylist Ara, whose parents are residential servants for a wealthy family in the countryside; room salon hostess Kyuri, whose work consists of entertaining and appeasing drunken businessmen; orphaned artist Miho, who has recently returned from a few years abroad in New York City, where she befriended ultra-rich Korean ex-pats; and pregnant office worker Wonna, whose husband has lost his job at the worst possible moment. All four young women live in extreme yet normalized economic precariousness; with the exception of Ara, all find themselves reliant on men for financial support.

Kyuri is dating one of the wealthy young men who frequent the salon where she works, blurring the line between romance and commerce. When he’s affectionate, their relationship appears somewhat romantic; when he’s angry or stressed, its transactional nature is exposed. Miho, too, is dating a “chaebol” scion, whom she met in New York; he fawns over her, but his family refuses to meet her, and there is an unspoken understanding between them that eventually he will marry someone of his own socioeconomic class. Wonna’s husband is not wealthy, and the two work tirelessly in their thankless office jobs, with scant worker protections. (Her boss revokes her right to maternity leave in an act of petty punishment, and there is little she can do to protest.) Even with two incomes and a very modest standard of living, they struggle to get by. When Wonna’s husband loses his job, he hides it from her for months, an act of dishonesty she takes as seriously as infidelity. Infidelity, after all, would have less of an impact on their quality of life.

Even dramatic attempts to improve their prospects—like changing their entire face through plastic surgery—become dead ends for Cha’s characters.

In Cha’s novel, men are unilaterally framed as holding more economic power, which is to say more power, period. It is as though she has selected her protagonists’ jobs to illustrate the options at hand for women in their position: low-paid client-facing labor (hair stylist), better-paid client-facing labor with a sexual component (room salon hostess), low-paid office work, or reliance on wealthy benefactors (artist). Each has its own rewards, humiliations, and risks; none offer any semblance of meaningful stability.

Cha’s characters’ professions are of a piece with her portrayal of Seoul as a difficult, restless city dominated by a near-impenetrable class structure: upward mobility requires beauty, inherited or bought at a high cost. As Wonna—pregnant and fearful for her family’s financial future—reflects,

Unless you are born into a chaebol family or your parents were the fantastically lucky few who purchased land in Gangnam decades ago, you have to work and work for a salary that isn’t even enough to buy a house or pay for childcare, and you sit at a desk until your spine twists, and your boss is somehow incompetent and a workaholic at the same time and at the end of the day you have to drink to bear it all. But I grew up not knowing the difference between a bearable life and an unbearable life, and by the time I discovered there was such a thing, it was too late.

Even dramatic attempts to improve their prospects—like changing their entire face through plastic surgery—become dead ends for Cha’s characters. Considering it her “only chance,” Kyuri underwent extensive plastic surgery early in life, resulting in the unreal, hyper-feminized beauty that allowed her to obtain a job at a high-end room salon. Her experience is emblematic. The well-documented plastic surgery boom in South Korea grew in part out of a fortune-telling tradition based on the shape and features of a person’s face called gwansang. Attempting to change one’s face is literally an attempt to change one’s fate, both in a supernatural sense and in the more familiar way that beauty grants an individual access to opportunities and resources that would otherwise be out of reach.

Researcher So-Rim Lee links the rise of plastic surgery to South Korea’s shift to a free market mindset: the individual is seen as in control of her economic life, and there is an eagerness to blame her for any failures or difficulties she may face. As beauty is openly acknowledged as a desired quality on the job market, plastic surgery has gone from being an “elective operation” to an almost necessary step towards advancement. In an economy where social capital outranks ability, is paying for a more symmetrical face that different from paying for a business school degree? (In any case, surgery is usually less expensive.)

Still, Cha argues, even the most successful plastic surgeries don’t necessarily change an individual’s luck. From Kyuri’s perspective, Cha writes, “One minute, you are accepting loans from madams and pimps and bloodsucking moneylenders for a quick surgery to fix your face, and the next minute the debt has ballooned to a staggering, unpayable sum. You work, work, work until your body is ruined and there is no way out but to keep working.” Work, work, work. If I Had Your Face effectively conveys the exhaustion and tedium of each character’s form of labor without allowing these women to slip into ennui or numbness: survival won’t allow for passivity. To succeed as a room salon girl, Kyuri must become ever prettier. To succeed as an office worker, Wonna must be ever more willing to relinquish her personal time.  

Cha’s depiction of Seoul seems to again acknowledge something contemporary Western literature rarely explicitly acknowledges: the underlying, if unconscious, economic calculus to who we love, who we trust, and in whom we invest our time and care. In the same way that Cha’s characters’ comfort with plastic surgery may force readers to acknowledge the way in which we, too, understand beauty as a commodity that can be bought and sold, their acknowledgment of the role money plays in their personal relationships pushes us to acknowledge the transactional nature of our own social worlds. When time is money, nepotism a given, and marriage first and foremost an economic pact, love becomes a commodity: an investment on which we expect returns.

Breasts and Eggs centers on the life of Natsuko Natsume, a writer in her thirties living on her own in Tokyo. The first section of the book—originally published as a novella in Kawakami’s native Japan—takes place over the course of just a few days, as Natsuko’s sister Makiko and teenaged niece Midoriko come to visit her at her small studio apartment. Natsuko and Makiko grew up in poverty with a single mother who worked late night shifts and died prematurely, leaving Natsuko and Makiko to raise themselves.

Natsuko is an aspiring writer, while Makiko’s job is not dissimilar from Kyuri’s in If I Had Your Face: she spends her nights working at a gentlemen’s bar named Chanel, where her role is to provide companionship and unobtrusive entertainment while after-work crowds of men drink through the night. Makiko feels increasingly conscious of her aging appearance and the role it plays in her and her daughter’s economic survival. Considering her breasts too small and too brown, she dabbles in nipple bleaching and becomes obsessed with the idea of getting a high-end breast augmentation.

Natsuko is, in this first half, passive and reflective. She thinks back on past relationships, her childhood poverty, her deceased family, and on her work as a writer. As with the characters in Cha’s novel, Kawakami’s protagonist is preoccupied with maintaining her modest costs of living; questions of survival throw her artistic aspirations into relief. “I recognize that luck, effort, and ability are often indistinguishable,” Natsuko says, “and I know that, in the end, I’m just another human being, who’s born only to die.” Mostly, Natsuko spends her time observing her sister and her niece with a mix of concern, affection, and frustration. At the end of Makiko and Midoriko’s visit, they reconcile in a climactic if heavy-handed scene involving the smashing of several cartons of eggs.

Natsuko’s will to become a single mother—a state she views as desirable, though the sperm banks to which she applies disagree—is set alongside her drive to finish her next book.

This first, self-contained part of Breasts and Eggs sets up the messy and delightful second half, which takes place nearly a decade later. We hear no more of Makiko’s boob job—one assumes she got it in the end—and are instead thrown into Natsuko’s contemplations of motherhood. Though Natsuko does not see herself as a particularly (or even remotely) sexual person—early romance led only to frustration and pain in the bedroom—she longs to be a mother, out of a sense of deep curiosity for who her child will be. This section of Kawakami’s novel feels reminiscent of Sheila Heti’s Motherhood and Rachel Cusk’s A Life’s Work: blunt appraisals of the physical, emotional, and practical aspects of maternity are met with an understanding of motherhood not only as a personal choice or a biological fact but an existential question about the act of creation. Hearing of Natsuko’s desire to become a mother without a romantic partner, a friend reflects: “There’s no need to get wrapped up in a man’s desire. There’s no need to involve women’s desire, either. There’s no need to get physical. All you need is the will, the will of a woman.”

Natsuko’s will to become a single mother—a state she views as desirable, though the sperm banks to which she applies disagree—is set alongside her drive to finish her next book. Having published a well-received short story collection about the afterlife and achieved a modest amount of stability and name recognition, Natsuko is now at work on a novel. She spends much of her time speaking with her editor Sengawa and one of Sengawa’s other writers, Rika. Kawakami writes frankly about the mix of envy, admiration, scorn, and devotion that women feel towards each other: Natsuko is alternatingly (and sometimes simultaneously) enamored with and deeply frustrated by Sengawa and Rika’s personalities and life choices. Sengawa’s childlessness and Rika’s daughter are never far from Natsuko’s thoughts as she considers her own reproductive possibilities.

Her eventual path to motherhood is uniquely modern. She becomes involved with a doctor who himself had a sperm donor father, and the two develop a deep, romantically tinged friendship. In due course, he gives her his sperm, and at the end of the novel, Natsuko gives birth. “Where were you?” she asks her daughter. “You’re here now.” If there’s something a little too neat in ending a novel about womanhood with the birth of a daughter, it’s offset by the unwieldy existentialism of the novel as a whole, like a beautiful pink bow wrapped around a cellophane bag full of doll heads.

In fact, both Breasts and Eggs and If I Had Your Face end on notes of single motherhood: at the end of If I Had Your Face, Wonna faces the task of raising her unborn child without a husband, though she finds herself cared for by her neighbors, Kyuri, Miho, and Ara.

Kawakami and Cha’s choice to end their novels with scenes of pregnancy and childbirth feels more pointed when taken in the context of Japan and South Korea’s birth rates, among the lowest in the world (though birth rates are also plummeting across Europe and the United States). Both Japan and South Korea have a birth rate of 7.3 per one thousand. The cause of this decline is complex, and birth control and women’s rights form part of the picture. But economists and historians believe that among the chief reasons for declining birth rates in developed nations are mounting economic instability, the attendant decline in opportunities for young people, and the increasingly unstructured and overwhelmingly individualistic way in which we approach our adult lives.

Our agency is often narrower than it appears in the fun house mirror of limitless choice.

As Natsuko is deciding whether, and how, she will have a child, she speaks with Yuriko, a friend of a friend who was born to a mother who used a sperm donor to conceive. Yuriko was repeatedly abused as a child by the man she understood to be her biological father; it was only later in life that she was told her father was unknowable, a donor. Yuriko urges Natsuko to consider the potential harm she is opting another human being into if she decides to conceive. “You’re betting that the child that you bring into this will be at least as happy as you’ve been, at least as fortunate as you’ve been, or, at a minimum, that they’ll be able to say they’re happy they were born,” Yuriko says. “But that’s just people believing what they want to believe. For their own benefit. The really horrible part is that this bet isn’t yours to make. You’re betting on another person’s life. Not yours.” Kawakami gives a great deal of space to this argument, to this idea of chosen motherhood as an act of willful endangerment, of placing another human being into a game of Russian roulette while you simply watch.

The flip side, of course, is that someone’s already gambled on us. And while free-market individualism perpetuates the illusion that we are in full control of our economic fate, our agency is often narrower than it appears in the fun house mirror of limitless choice. Breasts and Eggs and If I Had Your Face are preoccupied with acts of creation and self-possession in the face of punishing and uncertain economic circumstances—acts that can end in pits of debt, that come with high risks and no guarantees. To exercise our agency at all requires self-respect: a comfort with risk, a willingness to accept that the work of art may fail, the baby may live a life of pain, the change you seek may come at too high a cost. No wonder the shortcuts are so alluring. Courage may be foolish, love may be calculated, beauty may be bought or squandered. None of it will necessarily make your life more bearable, and none of it is free. Who knows why some of us are still playing anyway.