The Hole and a Late Revelation
The Hole by Hye-Young Pyun (translated by Sora Kim-Russell) is a terrifying novel told from the perspective of a person (Oghi) at the complete mercy of his caregivers. Some are careless. Some are cruel for the sport of it. Some fail to understand him. But the most frightening is his mother-in-law, who may or may not be seeking revenge for her daughter, who was killed in the accident that paralyzed Oghi.
The mother-in-law is politely malicious throughout the novel. The book's carefully orchestrated psychological terror increases as she isolates Oghi from his last remaining connections, one by one. She cancels doctor appointments, fires his nurse and therapist, chases off his friends, puts bars on his windows, and even blocks his view of the street with a strange arrangement of re-planted trees.
It's clear Oghi's mother-in-law is not his friend. It's also clear she has read her daughter's diary. But Oghi doesn't know what is in that diary. Even more remarkable, Oghi doesn't tell us what he thinks might be in it.
Instead, the novel concerns itself mostly with the present. We learn a little bit about the accident and a little bit about Oghi's wife and her shifting ambitions. But more narrative time is devoted to watching Oghi's present situation. We learn how he communicates with eye blinks, the slow recovery of movement in one hand, the liquid meals he sips through a straw. And we see, again and again, how he is abused or neglected by pretty much everyone he comes into contact with. The book's focus is his terror and the reader's.
Then, very near the end of the novel, we learn what the diary might contain. Before the accident, Oghi repeatedly cheated on his wife. Not only that, she knew about it and wanted a divorce that Oghi was refusing her.
Withholding this revelation until the penultimate chapter does something really magnificent, I believe. If the information about the troubled marriage had come early, it might have been read as the cause of Oghi's suffering. The reader would certainly think the mother-in-law was punishing Oghi for betraying her daughter. I'm not saying she isn't—she probably is!—but we don't identify purposeful revenge for a specific deed as the originating source of Oghi's suffering.
Not only that, if we were first made to understand Oghi as a bad person, the reader might even believe the greater world has punished him by making the car accident happen.
Cause and effect as a method to "prove" personal responsibility is a concept wired into many readers' brains, especially readers used to the Western canon of literature. Individualism triumphs in the majority of American novels. A character makes seemingly free and unencumbered choices, and the world responds to those choices with either punishment or reward.
Of course, The Hole is not an American novel—gloriously not. I'm interested in how its placement of backstory challenges me as a reader to reconsider individualism as a way of interpreting the world.
Putting the revelation late means I can understand Oghi's troubles as something that comes from the world and the world only. He is not the cause. Later on, when I finally learn he's also a bad husband, I suppose I might reconsider that, but I don't, because I've lived so long in these other ideas and with the sense of injustice that comes with the piling up of suffering and fear.
When Oghi finally reflects on his failings as a husband, it doesn't rationalize what has happened to him or make his misery seem like a punishment. Instead, it is simply a way to intensify his suffering. Remembering the hard times with his wife, as he is crawling through the dirt to unsuccessfully escape his mother-in-law, only makes his plight worse. He's not just powerless and bleeding, he's in mental anguish. And it's still the world that is unfair. It doesn't matter if he's a bad person; no one deserves this.