A lot of people, artists especially, tend to idealize the rejuvenating simplicity of the outdoors. Driven to madness by the pace of the city, we dream of one day moving to a cabin in Massachusetts like Henry David Thoreau, because then we’ll finally be able to focus on our work. In the largely autobiographical graphic novel Uncomfortably Happily, Yeon-sik Hong lives out this dream. But instead of a cabin in Massachusetts, he moves with his wife and three cats to a house on a mountain outside Seoul, South Korea.
Uncomfortably Happily came out in South Korea in 2012, but it just came out in English from Drawn Quarterly in June 2017 with a fantastic translation by Hellen Jo, a Los Angeles-based comics artist. The book starts in 2005, when Hong is living in Seoul as a cartoonist who’s freelancing for a company. He is happy to be making a living off of creating comics, because that in itself is a victory, but he dreams of the day that he’ll be able to work on his own artistic pursuits. For the time being, however, he is working on a project he hates with an overbearing editor, and he and his wife are in the process of moving. They plan on finding a new apartment in a more affordable part of South Korea, but struggle to find a place that isn’t terrible. When given the chance to live in a house on a mountain, and seeing how beautiful the surrounding area is, they jump at the opportunity.
If you’ve spent any time living in the wilderness, or if you’ve read Walden, you can probably guess that their move to a house in the middle of nowhere doesn’t go as smoothly as hoped. The commute into the city without a car is horrendous, and caring for a whole house, as well as the surrounding area, is time-consuming. The money Hong makes is barely enough to get by on, and for some reason, he doesn’t want his wife, also a comics artist, to start working. He also declares himself a defender of the mountain, yelling at hikers who litter or park near his house. You get the feeling a lot of his problems stem from his attempts to be the “man of the house,” which can be frustrating for the reader. When winter sets in, Hong’s workload continues to mount, he seems to be constantly ill and his situation becomes more dire.
The external factors in Hong’s life are undoubtedly difficult, but the more central struggle of the book is internal. Hong faces strong self-doubt and anxiety, which turns this often silly book into a much darker, more reflective tome. Over the course of the two years covered in the book, he works through bouts of depression and fits of rage. Throughout, as the grammatically strange title suggests, he toils to discover a more workable definition of happiness. The book puts the words in the mouth of Hong’s wife Sohmi: “Even though we don’t have a penny to our names and we worry about the rent every month, maybe we’re happy. We get to live in this wonderful place and do whatever we want. And we’re both healthy.”
While Uncomfortably Happily is ostensibly about a relationship, it focuses almost entirely on Hong. Sohmi comes off as somewhat incidental and seems barely fleshed out as a person, which is unfortunate. She is the stabilizing force in Hong’s life, pulling him back from the brink of emotional meltdowns when he feels he’ll never finish his work. She is necessary to keep him from becoming a completely antisocial mountain man, but her life and eventual career successes are treated as minor plot points.
The art is perhaps the greatest appeal in this book. The author infuses the book with beautiful mountain scenery, as well as comical elements of magical realism. Hong’s editor manifests as a small version of herself who comes out of the phone to yell at Hong for missing deadlines. One of the best pages is the one that manifests the inside of Hong’s head as a thousand versions of himself shouting thoughts, illustrating inner conflict in a way traditional novels can’t. Drawing from manga, there is an interesting mix of the cartoonish and the very real.
Perhaps the most surprising parts of the book are the occasional musical numbers. Yes, musical numbers. Everything is happening as usual, and then all of a sudden, the characters are singing and dancing. Even the cats! Yes, it’s silly, but it’s also very fun. It’s a shame that the translation did not keep the Korean rhymes, because it makes it impossible to sing along.
If this were a regular novel, the fact that the events take place in South Korea would be negligible. Besides the location names and the regular eating of bibimbap, the story is universally applicable. The book is good for anyone, but perhaps best for those who are also navigating a tough time in their careers — one in which fear of failure is plentiful and money is not. Hong’s journey toward greater self-knowledge is a hard one, but his example can help those of us who are just starting our own journeys up a mountain.