Forget what you know about Korea. Forget what you know about teaching English. Forget the screaming five-year-olds and impossible bosses screaming Korean obscenities. This is one part sex, one part drugs, and one part a search for rock-and-roll in the land of K-pop. Did I mention it’s a book?
The Dog Farm starts as any possibly-auto-biographical-but-actually-a-novel tale does: arriving in a new place. It’s on page 3 where the line between fact and fiction begins getting blurry, and by page 10 you’ve probably given up at trying to decipher which is which. It’s clearly a fictional tale, however, as there’s nary a positive word spoken about Korea or her residents until page 60. Just don’t play the drinking game where you drink for every obscenity you read, or you’ll be out cold before you get there.
If you’re the sort that enjoys fiction for the plot, the basic premise starts with Alexander’s arrival in Korea – starting off at a crooked hagwon with co-workers who have adopted the lifestyle Korea offers. Between the frank dialogues incorporating alcohol and sex as major plot developments (weare adults, right?), Alexander eventually adapts to a life halfway across the world from his native Scotland. He dates a Korean woman, who turns out to be a prime sufferer of the Kimchi Rage. He meets up with a girl with bleached hair and giant breasts, only to later realize it was his friend’s girlfriend. The inevitable beating forces Alexander to consider Japan, which is where part two begins. In the span of a month, Alexander finds it harder to adapt to Japan, and eventually comes back to Korea and finds a job in the nick of time. Despite that job not working thanks to the previous employer, things begin looking up for our man Alexander. It’s in this context where the ending comes as a shock – naturally, you’ll have to pick up the book yourself to find out.
While the story seems to incorporate many horror stories expats have heard (or experienced) regarding Korea, the author’s real-life experience differed greatly. In the words of author David S. Wills, Alexander is “a fairly tragic character, always pushing towards his own doom.” He has little resemblance to the expats you’ll actually find in Korea, except perhaps for the few that manage to give the rest of us a bad name. The ups don’t quite balance out the downs in the story, though some are present – and make the story a bit more palatable.
The title comes courtesy of a boshintang (dog meat soup) restaurant, which Alexander steadfastly refuses to partake in. This scene reminds me somewhat of J.D. Salinger’s classic Catcher in the Rye, as if it were Holden Caulfield himself calling out the Korean belief on what dog meat does for men’s virility.
The Dog Farm is much like a gin and tonic – a bit too bitter for some and just what the doctor ordered for others. For better or worse, there’s no middle ground here; you’ll either love it or hate it. Pick it up on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or Waterstones, or learn more at the author’s website.
Recommended, if you read Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, anything by Allen Ginsberg or the Beat Generation.
© Chris Backe – 2011
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