“It is not enough to succeed,” said Gore Vidal. “Others must fail.” In his darkly funny new book, Artist, the Korean cartoonist Yeong-shin Ma puts this notion centre stage, his three male characters jostling for position in a world where the stakes can be so small that sometimes the only satisfaction is in seeing a pal go down in flames. And, yes, this does make it a somewhat toxic read; envy runs through it like poison. But it’s also rather bracing watching these hapless middle-aged men – a musician, a writer and a painter – behave so very badly. The creative life, Ma suggests, is no more noble than any other, and the artist no less prone to pettiness. In other words, be careful what you wish for.
Ma’s story revolves around three fortysomething friends: Shin Deuk Nyeong is a writer, once a great success but now fading fast; Chun Jongseop is a musician with an irrational loathing of pop trends such as sampling; and Kwak Kyeongsu is a painter who’s about to become crazed on the power he believes he’ll be able to wield as an arts administrator. This scratchy, rivalrous trio like to knock about together, drinking, clubbing and going for “hangover soup”, and when all three are struggling to make a living at the same time, they get on well enough, even if they are far too macho ever to talk properly about their real feelings. But then Chun Jongseop gets an unexpected break, in the form of a lucrative book deal for a memoir of his life as a musician, and things begin to change. While his success goes straight to his head, the other two feel even worse than they did before. When, if ever, will the world pay attention to them?
Artist, which runs to more than 600 pages, is twice as long as Moms, Yeong-shin Ma’s award-winning last book, and I found it much more difficult to read. While Moms put women centre stage, here they’re only marginal figures, the victims of his male characters’ horrible sexism. I was also confused by the way he has drawn Chun Jongseop – his head, for no reason that is ever explained, is shaped like a butternut squash. But still, this is a fascinating comic, and one that has been wonderfully translated by Janet Hong, the male banter flying like ping pong balls over a net. The characters’ inner monologues, at once desperate and hilariously trivial, are utterly convincing.
If Yeong-shin Ma knows how his fellow men work – he sees the melancholy beneath the bluster, the fear that trails them even as they harass and lech and explode into unwarranted rage – he also fixes a boldly satirical eye on Korean society. What lies beneath the neon capitalist exterior the country exports to the rest of the world? How do its rules and customs restrict its citizens, and what happens to those who dare to break them? We’re a thousand miles from K-pop here, and the experience is painfully instructive.