Grief-Wild in This Orphan World: On R. O. Kwon’s “Exhibit”

By Ryan LackeyMay 21, 2024

Grief-Wild in This Orphan World: On R. O. Kwon’s “Exhibit”

Exhibit by R. O. Kwon

SOMETHING ABOUT religious experience repels language, forces us into halting silences. The medieval mystics knew this: singing apophatically, they pointed out the negative space around God, the two orthogonal rings of light in artists’ renderings of black holes.

I have little patience for writers for whom religion is simple. As in Terry Eagleton’s critique of New Atheism, these writers “don’t believe there is anything there to be understood, or at least anything worth understanding.” This attitude isn’t the exclusive prerogative of debate-bro atheists; it’s all over contemporary fiction too, even (often!) in the work of writers who are religiously inclined. The effect is to drain religion of its Escherian impossibility and sanitize it as a consumable object: a mixture of individual ethics, liberal politics, and hip self-care. Sheila Heti’s Pure Colour (2022), for example, posits our world as God’s “rough draft” and human beings as its participatory critics, and we could find something like a revolutionary consciousness there. But elsewhere, Heti’s novel falters. “God is something that can do or be anything it wants to be,” she writes, “so it can be a million things, it can be different for everybody. That doesn’t make it not real; that might make it even more real, like a fingerprint is different on every human body”—the radical alterity of God reduced to mere difference, enveloped in personal authenticity, vague and undemanding.

R. O. Kwon, bless her, takes religion seriously. Brought up Catholic, Kwon converted—as she recently wrote in an essay for The Guardian—to Evangelicalism and became “so fervid that my life’s hope was to be a pastor—an ardent, single-minded servant of the Lord,” before what I assume was a long, complicated split. (Unlike Kwon’s, my religious childhood was evangelical from the start.) In her 2018 debut The Incendiaries and her new novel Exhibit, Kwon acknowledges the chasm between religious experience and language, which can be (in charmed circumstances) only temporarily, precariously bridged. For Kwon, religion names experience at the border of the speakable and unspeakable, the personal and the public. Her novels understand that we lean on what renders us unsteady, that desire inhabits a realm reason can only glimpse, and that the cliché about journey and destination gets it doubly wrong because neither term, being too solid and whole, captures the (ex)believer’s jittery sense of endless circling.

The Incendiaries adopts a nested, abyssal structure that evokes religion’s resistance to language. Narrated by three characters—Will, an ex-evangelical studying at Ivy-analogue Edwards University, Phoebe, the Korean American daughter of a pastor who joins the anti-abortion cult Jejah, and John Leal, a former missionary and Jejah’s founder—the novel unspools three narrative threads that are, it turns out, all held by Will. Desperate to understand Phoebe’s religious and political radicalization—after a Jejah clinic bombing accidentally kills several bystanders, Phoebe disappears, possibly commits suicide—Will, ventriloquizing Phoebe and John Leal, tries to generate knowledge by generating voice. If Will can speak as Phoebe, he might be able to swim backwards, up the current of language, and inhabit her thinking—an experience of perfect empathy. Of course, he cannot, and The Incendiaries links Will’s desire for total knowledge with his perpetration of sexual violence.

The best example of religion’s unspeakability is Phoebe’s visit to a colonial cemetery, where she sees children’s gravestones. “I’ve visited the old Hilcox Street graves,” Phoebe thinks. “People in those days died more often as infants, often within the first month of life. I’ve written down the inscriptions of children who barely lived. I’ll recite the names.” And she does, listing 75 names, in all caps, without any further comment. The fact that Phoebe leaves these names to speak for themselves acknowledges that she cannot render in language what they signify for her in a way that Will (or the reader) can comprehend. Either the names’ significance is self-evident, or they remain inscrutable. Considered differently, given that Phoebe’s perspective comes through Will, the names make the same point. Will’s ventriloquy has limits: he cannot, writing as Phoebe, explain to the reader what the names mean for her. Were he able to, he would already possess the knowledge that he pursues by narrating the novel. The graveyard names cannot be explained; they can only be exhibited.

¤


Exhibit, Kwon’s second novel (and third book—she edited the 2021 anthology Kink with Garth Greenwell), expands her set of interests, which includes queerness, racial identity, aesthetic vocation, domestic violence, childbearing, and parental aging. But its primary concern, the pattern that constellates these other interests, remains religion, its inexplicability. Kwon’s two novels are intimate; both the style and structure she established in The Incendiaries reappear in Exhibit. (The two books also share a world and several characters.) Stylistically, we see her precise and unusual metaphorical vehicles, her love of prenominal modifiers. At its best, this style is legitimately surprising, demanding a reconsideration of its objects; at times, like all sharp style, it becomes a little much. (Here’s the novel on professional success: “I didn’t covet fame, though. I knew it to be pyrite dross, a tinsel jinx.”)

Structurally, Exhibit is divided between two narrative situations. Half of its chapters are narrated by photographer Jin Han, an ex-evangelical who suffers from artist’s block, to her husband, movie producer Philip, whose sudden desire to have children endangers their marriage. Exhibit opens with Jin recounting a myth, the Han family curse: in love, a kisaeng (an unfree Korean woman trained as a courtesan and entertainer) and a firstborn Han son, their marriage prevented by disparity in social rank, hang themselves from a pine tree. Henceforth, Jin recounts later, “the kisaeng’s spirit, abiding, hostile to all Hans, kept us cursed,” a kind of “birthright evil” that manifests as restless desire, destroying existing relationships. The other chapters are titled “The Kisaeng’s Story, as Told to Jin Han,” a revision of the Han myth spoken by the kisaeng herself in a chatty, punky voice; she was in love, not with the Han firstborn but another kisaeng. Her first chapter—all are short, often single paragraphs—begins like this: “No, I won’t tell you what I’m fucking named. Oh, you thought, If I’m polite. Stuck-up, trifling Han bitch. But first of all, let’s get this straight. Pah, I’m howling. I’ll be dipped in shit. So, you Han jerks still think I died to be with him?”

The possibility that Jin, for better or worse, will live out the curse generates the novel’s tension. She forms an intense, blurrily erotic attachment to another Korean artist, a ballet dancer named Lidija Jung. As her time with Lidija begins to clear her photographic block and her relationship with Philip remains fraught, Jin fears (and hopes) that she, snared in Lidija’s ropes of desire, will thrash her settled life apart. The ropes are literal; besides the question of children, what stresses Jin and Philip’s marriage is her desire for kinkier sexual experiences, submission and impact play in particular. Philip cannot, in his words, be a “brute.” Lidija is an experienced dom and rigger, and she and Jin begin a series of power-play sessions without Philip’s knowledge.

Present everywhere is the religious childhood that inspired Jin’s first photography show, a series of triptychs featuring photographs of worshippers, self-portraits reenacting worship, and letters to God written as she left her faith:

I’d shot religious people in states of worship. Pilgrim sites. Baptist tent revivals. Isolated prophets. I shot while they’d whirl in fits. Dived prone in dirt. Singing, hands lifted, still Christ’s disciples. I had the subjects’ consent; I’d blown photos large. I paired, with each shot, a self-portrait. I staged photos, acting like the original. Praying, I’d felt as close as I’d get to Him. I devised short epistles, one-sided calls, to God.


Jin still thinks in trinities. She lists three examples: “Pilgrim sites. Baptist tent revivals. Isolated prophets.” And between the three forms of the triptych (documentary photograph, self-portrait, writing) there exists, Jin thinks, a trinitarian convergence of “line, hue, and light.” The triptych is an attempt not only at representation but also at invocation: as she says, prayer.

Critics read Jin’s triptychs as “piquant farce,” a “bold, high-concept joke,” but to her they are “built to be a shrine.” Specifically, a shrine to desire, which activates all the significant forces in Jin’s life: nostalgic desire for religious clarity, aesthetic desire for photography, erotic desire for Lidija. These desires spill into one another; it is to Kwon’s great credit that she limns the outlines of entanglement among religion and art and sex, submission and domination, without losing the specificity of each. A desire for (an absent) God is not the same as a desire for a light-soaked photograph or dom-sub play—different forms but perhaps the same substance, homoousios.

But Jin finds it impossible to summon language to describe her break with religion, her knotty relationship to God: “I’d plotted, as a child, to give my life to the Lord. In college, I’d lost this faith. Isolated, grief-wild, I’d picked through ruins He’d left behind. If I could still love this orphan world, deprived of His salvific light, which parts of it might even I, broken as I came, find worth prizing?”

At first, Jin is the subject who lost faith. Then, God is the subject who left behind the world. Finally, the world is the subject deprived, thereby orphaned, of God’s light. It is impossible to determine the active party. There’s an echo of Georg Lukács’s description of the novel as the “epic of a world that has been abandoned by God.” But if God has abandoned the world, then there was much left behind, and that holy detritus lies everywhere for Jin, who cannot keep things separate. As in a rushed photo, everything blurs together. God lingers over Jin’s photography, which mingles with her anxieties about Philip, anxieties generated by her conviction not to have children, which itself loops back to religious ideas about natal life (and thereby points back to The Incendiaries).

We could call Jin god-haunted. It’s a precarious term: at its clichéd worst, the language of haunting conjures something floating over your shoulder. But at its best, it scrambles presence and absence, credulity and skepticism. Thinking about what actually happens over the volta of conversion from belief to unbelief (or the other way around) requires understanding that neither belief nor unbelief is a stable, simple position. For Jin—as for (I suspect) Kwon and many people who spent formative years in churches of one kind or another, including myself—being god-haunted means living under a strange shadow, a twilight of experience. It means your perception of the world (the categories that arrive most readily to hand, the gears into which your interpretative engine most easily slips) is spattered with God. At the same time, it means being aware of all that, of the way your perception carries the hue of faith, religion’s watermark. Being god-haunted isn’t about occupying some golden mean of agnosticism. It is self-conscious and self-reflexive in a weird, vertical, looping way. Belief and unbelief are not opposites; their relationship is stranger than that.

¤


Kwon’s understanding of this strange relationship between belief and unbelief places her alongside, of all people, Ludwig Wittgenstein. Take, for example, the beginning of Wittgenstein’s “Lectures on Religious Belief”:

Suppose that someone believed in the Last Judgement, and I don’t, does this mean that I believe the opposite to him, just that there won’t be such a thing? I would say: “not at all, or not always.” […]


Suppose somebody made this guidance for his life: believing in the Last Judgement. Whenever he does anything, this is before his mind. In a way, how are we to know whether to say he believes this will happen or not?


At first Wittgenstein seems to have missed something obvious: if someone constructs his whole life around the Last Judgment, then of course he believes in it. In fact, we would say that someone who claimed not to believe in the Last Judgment, but whose life orbited it obsessively, does in fact believe in it—this is the plot of Flannery O’Connor’s novel Wise Blood (1952). But Wittgenstein is interested in what exactly we mean when we say “believe.” Someone who lived the reality of the Last Judgment at every moment doesn’t believe in it the way we believe it will rain tomorrow or believe witness testimony. For the believer, the Last Judgment is the absolute foundation of life, the sine qua non that makes everything else thinkable. This person no more believes in the Last Judgment than a painting believes in its canvas.

The believer and nonbeliever mean totally different things, play different language games. As Wittgenstein declares, because “these [are] entirely different ways of thinking […] I can’t contradict” the believer because he “never believes what I describe.” For either person to bring the other around to what Wittgenstein calls their “way of living” would require not a convincing argument but a shattering and reconstitution—a conversion. Moving from one way of living to another always requires conversion, Wittgenstein says in On Certainty (1969). If, he imagines, a king were “brought up in the belief that the world began with him,” correcting him would require “a conversion of a special kind; the king would be brought to look at the world in a different way.”

This is Will’s problem in The Incendiaries: he cannot use language to bridge the gap between his understanding and Phoebe’s religious conversion. This is something religion and art share.

Conversion is required to leap between ways of living, Wittgenstein says, and to leap between different experiences of art. Jin’s attempt to say something about her own religious (un)conversion takes the form of the triptych because neither writing nor image alone can relate that experience. In fact, they fail even in combination. The triptych becomes an attempt at conversion, to move the viewer, temporarily and imperfectly, into Jin’s old way of living, but it inevitably fails, misread by critics.

No wonder Jin cannot explain her break with religion to Lidija. Jin makes religion an epistemological question, a problem of interpretive exclusivity and statistical unlikelihood:

“Why’d you quit the old faith?”


“Oh, the usual logic. It’s not unique.”


“Such as?”


“Of all the faiths, it can’t be the single true gospel. I, it’s hard to explain.”


But to accept this kind of evidence at all signals that Jin’s way of living has already changed. The truth lies in Jin’s stutter: “I, it’s hard to explain.” It is hard to explain, and that difficulty is wrapped up with the I, with how Jin understands herself and the world, in complex ways the jolted comma suggests. Language begins to fail, as it does in Jin’s “kletic epistles to God” from the triptychs, which she scatters throughout the novel: “Dear Lord, I’m still not saying it right. […] I perch at the gap.”

Likewise, Jin cannot explain the appeal of her sex-play with Lidija. After one session, Jin is hauled before a wall of ballet mirrors: “Legs shaking, I did look wild. Not fit, as I’d fretted, for public living. But I’d leapt past shame to a fresh, unruled place. I didn’t care, at last, if I’d belong. Instead, I got to be this.” When language fails, the novel falls back on a Wittgensteinian favorite: pointing—to a “place” beyond “shame” Jin momentarily accesses. This, she says, I got to be this. We can only see the outlines; it has something to do with privacy (“not fit for public living”), with space and geometry (“a fresh, unruly place”), and with image (mediated by the mirror’s reflection). Language leaves gaps; sometimes it can merely point. In On Certainty, Wittgenstein ends a paragraph about the communicability of color by pointing, substituting dashes for Jin’s this: “But — — —” (As Marjorie Perloff notes in her introduction to Wittgenstein’s notebooks, critics such as Martin Pilch see in Wittgenstein’s silent dashes “forms of prayer.”)

¤


Towards its end, Exhibit accelerates: at dinner, Jin watches Philip and Lidija fight, in part about ballet (Philip praises a performance Lidija dismisses, a ballerina dancing atop a piano with knives strapped to her feet, a video Kwon discussed for Bookforum in 2020). When Lidija storms out, Jin follows her, and they have sex. Afterward, Jin learns her mother is dying in Seoul, and she imagines that it’s the kisaeng’s curse, that she has traded both Philip and her mother for Lidija.

Tending to her mother in the hospital, Jin undergoes a kind of reckoning with her childhood, and the novel’s otherwise complex treatment of religion simplifies. To help her mother sleep, Jin reads psalms:

I’d tried, in the past, to quiet His word. His dirge, updraft of spent love, rising as if with spite from depths His going left open. It often felt as though, calling down the pit to God, asking for Him, I’d just rustled up a loud, willful echo. One I hated, this pulse of futile song, its wraith’s lilt outliving Him. But at last, it might be useful. If it helped, I didn’t regret a thing.


On one hand, Jin enacts a transformation of genre: the psalm becomes a lullaby. This is not the “loud, willful echo” of Jin’s shouting down the well towards God’s absence but instead a quiet echo, the wave of care that runs through the reversal of roles: dependent parent, attendant child. The significance of the situation is legitimated not by a belief in God but by death, its generalized possibility arising as awful specificity.

But on the other hand, frustratingly, this scene launders religion, its roughness and difficulty, into the idiom of care, prized for being useful. Faced with the haunting absence of God and the nascent absence of her mother, Jin adopts a prefabricated, consolatory structure of meaning: being useful. But legitimating either faith or care as useful risks losing the significance of each. Usefulness is a primary mode by which popular culture redeploys religion—see spiritualized self-help commodities, promising that “mindfulness” and a (probably fabricated) line from the Bhagavad Gita can make you more productive. Likewise, the care work done by medical professionals, counselors, teachers, or mothers is praised, often with a religious inflection, for its indispensable usefulness (heroes, we say, with the patience of saints), even as we refuse to pay them well, or at all. The point isn’t that care is suspicious—nor is Jin’s reaching for psalms as care’s vehicle—but we should look critically at religion’s frictionless translation into something less harrowing. Usefulness fits so easily into the value system of late capitalism.

After her mother dies, Jin wanders into a church, and we receive one last triptych epistle:

Dear Lord, I thought that, if I lost You, I’d have to stop living. I kept going, in part, to still have the hope of finding You again. It’s absurd, Lord; it makes me laugh. But if, in the house of logic, my dead will not exist, I’m obliged to step outside. O Lord, each photo is for You. I spill light. I leak worship, and Lord, if I get it right, will You come back?


Jin must live on after things: after God, after her mother. But after carries a double sense. Living after means living in the wake of, oriented by something (people, gods) no longer present; living after means living towards, in the sense of going after something. The thing, whether your mother or God or anything else, sits behind and before you at once (to say nothing of inside you). Jin doesn’t think the dead live on in some literal, rapturous way. Instead, she understands that the dead do exist—hauntingly, blurrily, in narrative and language, beyond “the house of logic,” a very Wittgensteinian idea.

And this is how Exhibit ends: blurrily. (Spoiler alert: Discussing this blurriness requires clarifying the novel’s concluding events.) When Jin confesses to Philip her fling with Lidija, he leaves. Lidija asks Jin to live with her in Milan; Jin cannot accept a closeted life, shadowed by Lidija’s creepy sponsor and the ballet public. Instead, Jin—maybe!—returns to Philip: “I sat on the front porch, its top step. Singed air burned again, but I’d watch for Philip. I’d explain, if I could.” Waiting, she calls up old college photos: “I’ll love him,” she thinks, throwing herself into the past, “it isn’t going to be enough. ‘Philip,’ I call. It’s him, palm lifting. Philip, almost home.”

How should we read this—does Philip’s homecoming in Jin’s memory correspond to his homecoming in the present? When she thinks that “it isn’t going to be enough” to love Philip, because her past love will lead them here, apart, Jin waiting on the porch, is this also Jin anticipating that, even upon Philip’s return, his desire for a child will obliterate her love for him? After all, earlier in the novel, Philip describes his film producer work as extinguishment: “Putting out fires.” But Jin describes photography as a Promethean conflagration: “Photos burned up all striving. […] I stop time. I’ve stolen fire, and I paint with light.” Is Philip, then, something worse than a wet blanket or bucket of sand—could he be the eagle, pecking away at Jin’s liver? Is he not so different from the famous photographer who suggests to Jin that women, “[f]ated to begin families,” will “lose a fire vital to art”?

The final two, short chapters deepen the ambiguity. First, Jin in New York, possibly alone, preparing for her next show: “In the afterlife I won’t find, I’ll sit with all the people I’ve lost, and we’ll laugh at the prodigals we used to be. Once, long ago, we split apart. No such thing will happen again. I idled at the light, until I kept going.” Then, lastly, an image of the two kisaeng together in death as grasses and vines: “She and I, we’ll get tall. Limbs joined, burst into the light.”

Does Jin’s decision to “keep going” after idling at the light suggest a moving on from the light or a further walking into the light? What exactly is the light, which throughout the novel mediates religion, art, and desire? And do the kisaeng, “bursting into the light” together, run parallel or skew to Jin? Is their story (whether bittersweet or triumphant) like hers?

Some readers might sour at the inconclusive ending. But in my mind, nothing is more appropriate for a novel about religion’s hauntings, about religion and art and desire overrunning language and all its forms, including the novel. Kwon understands that these stories cannot have clean endings because something always escapes the telling. We end up silent, tense, gesturing, pointing—

LARB Contributor

Ryan Lackey is a writer, critic, and PhD candidate in English at the University of California, Berkeley. His criticism and fiction have appeared in Post45, Los Angeles Review of Books, Commonweal, Kenyon Review, Cream City Review, and elsewhere.

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