2016 Sejong Writing Competition

Winning Entries :: Essays :: Adult second place
Ordered Chaos: Postmodernism vs. Tradition in “The Glass Shield”

In “The Glass Shield,” author Kim Jung-hyuk uses a variety of different narrative approaches to contemplate the place of art in contemporary society. Through ironic humor and imagistic patterning, Kim rejects the “grand narratives” of a traditional storytelling mode in favor of postmodernism’s skepticism, disconnect, and playful subversion of conflict. At the same time, the story’s linear structure, the protagonists’ friendship, and the symbol of the glass shield create a sense of closure that recollects more customary writing techniques. The convergence of these traditional and unexpected approaches allows the story to unravel much like the narrator’s yarn: a seemingly random entanglement from which one may yet derive emotional significance.

From the first page of “The Glass Shield,” the characters’ ironic, tongue-in-cheek humor places us in a postmodern world where conflict is subservient to play. “‘Screwing everything up,’” states M. “‘Why didn’t you put that in our CVs? Under special skills, maybe?’” (208). Cutting against traditional storytelling techniques, we have here two protagonists who do not take their troubles seriously. As boldly stated in their interview with the art professional, everyday reality is nothing more or less than “having fun” (227). Even the emergence of the two men into the art business—arguably one of the plot points on which the whole story hinges—is understood as a playful farce, while interpersonal conflict between them is quickly diffused through more humor. “‘If you hadn’t sighed back there…’” M chides the narrator after a failed interview. “‘So it’s my fault?’” asks the narrator. “No, no,’” M counters. “‘If you hadn’t sighed, I’d have sighed first’” (212).

Moreover, in keeping with the postmodern notion of the self as unstable and unknowable, the narrator and his friend constantly waver in their desires. M goes out for ramyŏn and returns with a plastic sword; the two men plan for an interview, then skip it; the anticipated yarn photo shoot devolves into an impromptu battle. Imagery supports this wavering throughout the story. Wandering lines predominate, with the yarn as perhaps the best example. Though it drifts through the subway cars as aimlessly as the protagonists drift through life, commentators analyze it as a symbol of “unforgettable love” or “a trip around the country” (220). This pattern is echoed when the narrator imagines a “yarn-like liquid” inside him, with which he might “calculate the length of (his) body” (216). In both its literal and figurative manifestations, the yarn represents the flawed human desire to extract meaning from the meaningless. Circles don a similar significance in “The Glass Shield.” Whether it is the subway’s circle line, or “a ring of pain wrapped like Saturn’s rings” around the narrator’s head, circular imagery cements the protagonists’ self-imposed entrapment and stagnation (218). In this way, it rejects the traditional narrative approach where character motivation drives the plot.

Nevertheless, “The Glass Shield” falls far short of the chaotic universe evident in many other postmodern works. Though the characters may wander and trip, the story itself adheres to a straightforward structure. Events proceed chronologically. The narrative begins and ends with the characters riding public transportation, giving the impression of coherence and closure. There is even the sense that the narrator, for all his flailing, conceives of his life as a linear progression, capable of being broken down into quarters and halves. The final line, “I felt that a phase in my life was ending,” provides a satisfactory resolution and recasts the story as a more traditional coming-of-age narrative (231). In spite of the fact that the art business began as a charade, the narrator matures through the experience. He has reached “the stage of exhaustion,” a “fork in the road” (230-31). Such phrases defy the postmodern approach by suggesting there are neat psychological stopping points, so to speak, where one may gain genuine insight into one’s character and self-growth.

In addition, two plot points of “The Glass Shield” serve to undermine the skepticism of the postmodern story. The first of these is the relationship between the narrator and M. “‘(M and I) were inseparable, two sides of a coin…Without M, I was a page of paper so thin I couldn’t stand on my own. And I believe I meant the same to him” (209). Later, the narrator refrains from telling the man on the phone about the interview room, worried that M will be “demeaned” in the telling (220). All of this denotes a partnership bound by the traditional links of loyalty, affection, and mutual dependence—a partnership largely exempt from the ironic humor that colors the narrator’s professional failings. A second important challenge to postmodern cynicism is the titular glass shield. Cheap and transparent, the glass shield nonetheless becomes a symbol of hope and resilience, a metaphor for how the protagonists can pump joy into their coldly capitalist world: “Fail-aholics ourselves for a time,” comments the narrator near the story’s end, “we were now charged with giving encouragement to fail-acholics. We were delighted to be someone’s shield. Even if the shield was only plastic or glass” (230).

In “The Glass Shield,” Kim Jung-hyuk mixes postmodernism’s irony, skepticism, and playfulness with more traditional elements in order to enter a storytelling mode uniquely adapted for our modern world. Within this mode, meaninglessness is celebrated as a valued aspect of play, and the hallowed status of art is ironized again and again. Yet if Kim does not condone neat resolutions and universal truths, he does not entirely sidestep them, either. The story closes at a point of epiphany. One senses that the narrator has gained a meaningful takeaway in spite of his very best efforts to avoid it—a conclusion that may well apply to artistic creations and their stubborn refusal to leave us unchanged.