‘The White Book’ is beautiful, if unfocused

Tuesday, February 5, 2019 - 3:57pm

NOSELL

Han Kang

Han Kang opens “The White Book” with a list that could have been a collection of chapter headings:

Swaddling bands

Newborn gown

Salt

Snow

Ice

Moon

Rice

The book is about the color white and the objects that embody it, but from the beginning we are to understand that white is a way into an oblique or repressed feeling — she writes of “sifting” the white words through herself, drawing sentences out “like the strange, sad shriek the bow draws from a metal string.” For the purposes of this book, the color white is somewhere between a tool and a door. Her narrative and thematic goals are clear from the start — the book is, in part, an extended rumination on a miscarriage her mother had two years before she was born, the child’s face “as white as a crescent-moon rice cake.”

The book resists classification: it’s told in third person, but for the most part it seems as though the events in the book mirror Kang’s life. Kang’s mother had the miscarriage described in the book, and large parts of it are set in snowed-in Warsaw, where Kang went after finishing her second novel, “Human Acts.” This heavily autobiographical work thus assumes some of the characteristics of a novel (third person, assumption that anything can be fictional) for the distance fiction offers, but it doesn’t really commit to a narrative arc or any of the novelistic infrastructure.  The work is instead structured into fragments resembling prose poems, with varying levels of narrative involvement — a sort of an incomplete photo album. By the time Kang gets going with her elliptical task, she’s already juggling themes and motifs. The brutal history of Warsaw is placed next to her mother’s miscarriage and her own second-hand trauma from the event. White seems like it could be a sinew between these disparate concerns, or as Kang writes, white could be “something like white ointment applied to a swelling, like gauze laid over a wound.”

It’s unclear what Kang sees in the color white that makes her want to combine it with trauma and death. White appears in the book fairly invariably as a symbol of cleanliness, order, blankness. Fog “scrubs” the boundary between the sky and the ground, a white bird alights on her head and continues flying, people killed in the Warsaw uprising are reincarnated as white butterflies. A few entries in the book point to a white-hot zenith of pain, but for the most part, white is a one-dimensional other for suffering and ugliness. At one point she writes of a slushy snow quickly disappearing, a “whiteness that seemed too perfect to be real, showing up the shabby figures that moved against its canvas.”

A typical entry will be a brief burst of anecdote, or else a scene set and interwoven with rumination. “On cold mornings, that first white cloud of escaping breath is proof that we are living. Proof of our bodies warmth.” For Kang, the natural world and the human body are co-expressive, and she rarely finds any contrivance at all to link them. “There is none of us whom life regards with any partiality. Sleet falls as she walks these streets, holding this knowledge inside her. Sleet that leaves cheeks and eyebrows heavy with moisture. Everything passes.” Sleet is right next to fate, clouds are right next to bodies. It has a pleasingly disjunct haiku-esque effect at times, but more often than not the adjacencies don’t quite stick.

“Where the thin sheet of ice meets still water, the ducks float side by side on its grayish-blue surface, necks bowed to drink. Before turning back from them, she asks herself: Do you want to go on? To push forward? Is it worth it?” There isn’t a clear association between what Kang is describing and her emotional state — something there that is hidden just below the language, that isn’t quite being conveyed, the gap widening into one that can’t be effectively bridged by free association.

This discontinuous style is baked into the form of the work itself. It’s hard to say whether there’s any real linearity to the book at all, any sense of progression. Kang’s third-person persona simply wanders around in the same white space for the duration of the book. This might be honest to the experience of emotional pain, but it also means that Kang’s book combines non-progression with non-specificity — the book frequently feels like it’s not really communicating anything in particular about the color white, or about grief. I expected Kang to treat her topic with the same fire that she brought to the psychosexual tangles of “The Vegetarian,” but for all its beauty the book feels weirdly contentless, a boundary drawn around air.

If the book feels a little bit like an empty frame, it might be because Kang was working backwards from a specific effect. It’s difficult to think about “The White Book” without bringing to mind Maggie Nelson’s 2009 book “Bluets,” which similarly chronicles a female protagonist’s relationship with a color as a way into emotional life, and is similarly structured in short, aphoristic fragments. Without engaging in speculation about Kang’s methods, some differences between Nelson and Kang’s approaches make themselves felt from the beginning of “The White Book.” Nelson’s concision stands out over all: None of the fragments in “Bluets” are longer than two hundred words, and she is able to accomplish a lot in a short space via a direct mode of address and a certain hardness to her inquiry. Nelson certainly doesn’t resort to platitudes like “There is none of us whom life regards with any partiality” — her conclusions are hard-earned in a way that Kang’s simply aren’t. Nelson’s book feels more propulsive because she is unwilling to make definitive statements, instead letting the form of the book-in-fragments articulate her thesis through accumulation. Kang seems motivated to make each entry stand on its own, isolated from all the others structurally if not thematically.

Perhaps the most obvious difference, though, is the motivations of the two authors. Nelson writes at the beginning of “Bluets” of “finding” that she had “fallen in love” with the color blue and recounts her personal thrill at special blue moments; Kang almost approaches the color white as a task, with more than a little resignation. She makes a list, abandons it for a while and then comes back to it with what could be a feeling of trepidation. Moreover, it’s possible that Nelson was able to access the form more convincingly because of her willingness to approach blue and “blueness” as almost a metaphysical category, separate from the world it lives in. Kang is uninterested in “whiteness” separate from the objects that can contain it, stopping short of seeing a pure white essence. As I was reading “The White Book,” I felt a desire for Kang to approach white as a category separate from the fog, birds and handkerchiefs that fill the book like so many articles of clothing piled on a bed. White as a category has the potential to be terrifying — the emptiness of the page, the abstract Light that recently departed souls move toward, the existence-predicating sun. Kang’s undeniably sharp insight would have perhaps been better served by looking at this other, more blinding whiteness straight on — it’s there that narrative (or at least theme) can find an anchor point rather than just a through-line.