The Hole

A Novel

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Winner of the 2017 Shirley Jackson Award
Named One of the Top 10 Thrillers to Read This Summer by Time Magazine.

In this tense, gripping novel by a rising star of Korean literature, Oghi has woken from a coma after causing a devastating car accident that took his wife’s life and left him paralyzed and badly disfigured. His caretaker is his mother-in-law, a widow grieving the loss of her only child. Oghi is neglected and left alone in his bed. His world shrinks to the room he lies in and his memories of his troubled relationship with his wife, a sensitive, intelligent woman who found all of her life goals thwarted except for one: cultivating the garden in front of their house. But soon Oghi notices his mother-in-law in the abandoned garden, uprooting what his wife had worked so hard to plant and obsessively digging larger and larger holes. When asked, she answers only that she is finishing what her daughter started.

A bestseller in Korea, award-winning author Hye-young Pyun’s The Hole is a superbly crafted and deeply unnerving novel about the horrors of isolation and neglect in all of its banal and brutal forms. As Oghi desperately searches for a way to escape, he discovers the difficult truth about his wife and the toll their life together took on her.



OGHI SLOWLY OPENED HIS EYES. The light was blinding. Something flashed at the center of a grayish haze. He closed his eyes, opened them again. The difficulty of this reassured him. This meant he was alive. The physical burden of struggling to open his eyes, of squinting against the light, was proof.

A ceiling tiled with plasterboard and lined with fluorescent bulbs appeared. Every single light was on, which meant it had to be a hospital. Only a hospital would require so much illumination.

He tried turning his head but it was difficult. The best he could do was move his eyes from side to side.


He heard a voice. A woman's. At first he couldn't make out anyone, then gradually a white tunic came into view. The woman, he assumed she was a nurse, walked right up to him. He could smell her. It wasn't a nice smell. Sharp. Like she'd just finished eating. What time was it?

Oghi wanted to say something. He didn't have to ask where he was, he already knew. Where else could he be but a hospital? He clearly wasn't on the verge of death. Not if he could smell her.

"Are you awake?"

The nurse leaned in close to examine Oghi's face and pressed the pager button on the wall.

"The doctor will be with you shortly. Do you know where you are?"

She looked at the clock and noted the time on Oghi's chart.

Oghi struggled to part his dry lips. No sound came out, only a little air.

"You're in a hospital. You've been asleep a long time." The nurse's voice was loud. "I'll check your blood pressure while we wait for the doctor. He'll have to examine you when he gets here."

The nurse took out a gray blood pressure cuff. Oghi stared at his arm held aloft in the nurse's grip as the cuff encircled his bicep. Strange. He couldn't feel the cuff fill with air and tighten. Nor could he feel it deflate. It was the same when the nurse unwrapped the cuff and set his arm back down on the bed.

The nurse jotted something on the chart and smiled at Oghi to show that she was done.

What about my wife? Oghi asked.

No sound came out. His jaw did not move, his vocal cords did not vibrate. Flustered, Oghi rolled his tongue inside his mouth and carefully swallowed his saliva.

The nurse said she would be back and left the room. Oghi struggled to move his jaw. It wouldn't budge. If he strained, his dry lips parted slightly. This time he tried saying ah. He heard a faint whisper as the air that had languished deep inside his lungs escaped from between his lips. That was it. No matter how hard he tried to form a sound, what reached his ears was not his voice. All he heard was a steady mechanical beat coming from the equipment connected to his body, and from outside in the hallway, courteously hushed sounds, the gentle squeaking of nurses' shoes.

After a while the nurse entered with the doctor. Though he'd never seen him, the doctor seemed to know Oghi. The doctor beamed and spread his arms exaggeratedly wide.

"Oghi, so good to see you! How long has it been?" he asked.

Oghi was wondering the same thing. How long had it been? How long had he been gone?

"Do you know where you are?"

Oghi stared at the doctor.

"You're in a hospital, aren't you?"

Oghi tried to nod. A pointless effort.

"Now then, blink once for yes."

Oghi did as he was told. He closed his eyes once and opened them.

"Good, that was very good."

The doctor's voice sounded strained. Like he was talking with his fists clenched. Oghi had never received such a rousing cheer before just for blinking.

My wife?

Oghi tried again to speak. The doctor lifted his right eyelid, then his left. Then he seemed to be pressing and touching different parts of Oghi's body. Oghi couldn't feel any of it. The doctor checked the numbers on the machines behind the bed, wrote things down on his chart, and whispered instructions to the nurse.

"Good job, Oghi! You've done splendidly, and now you'll have to be strong again. Understand? The real fight starts now. Your willpower is the most important thing from here on in. That's what you need: willpower, not medical power. I'm going to have my hands full trying to help you get better. I'll do my absolute best. But my task is nothing compared to yours. Understand? It's not me, the doctor, who has to fight now, it's you. But first, we need to run a few tests, so we're moving you to another room. Okay? Blink once to show you understand."

Oghi again did as he was told.

"Excellent! Good job. Very, very good. I'll see you again in a moment."

With that last bit of exaggerated praise, the doctor left with the nurse.

The doctor had praised Oghi for regaining consciousness. A good job. Oghi chewed over the doctor's words. Was his waking up really a good thing? The phrase the doctor had used—willpower, not medical power—nagged at him. Those words said a lot.

After a while, the nurse came back. She unplugged a number of cords that connected Oghi to the machines, then double-checked the bed and slowly wheeled him out into the hallway.

Oghi lay there and watched as the hospital ceiling and fluorescent lights rushed past. He had a feeling he would be in that bed for a while. Not just a few hours but for days to come. All this talk about the importance of willpower must have meant that, unless he wanted it badly enough, he would have a tough time getting better. It meant there was absolutely no chance his body would mend on its own, that even repeated treatment would not guarantee recovery. The doctor's and nurse's reactions told Oghi that he'd taken a long time to wake up. He'd probably received all sorts of medical care already. The cables, the respirator, the tubes snaking in and out of him told him that his had not been an easy fight.

The bed rattled and glided along and then came to a stop. They were in front of an elevator. It looked like it was meant for transporting patients only, but perfectly healthy people kept crowding in after them. As each new person squeezed in, the nurse nudged Oghi's bed further to the side. The people on their feet stole glances at Oghi on his back.

It was only after he was on the elevator that Oghi realized he was back in the real world. Not the hospital room with its excessive illumination, the nurse gently examining him, the doctor patting him on the back and telling him "great job" when all he did was blink his eyes. What he'd really returned to was this noisy, crowded, queuing, waiting, leering world. The world where, as his doctor explained, the only way to survive was through sheer force of will.

Oghi had nothing to do during the examination. There was no need for him to lie down in the MRI scanner, no need to stick out his arm so they could collect his blood, no need to remove any medical sensors himself. Unable to feel a thing, Oghi was shuffled from one bed to another, had sensors attached to him and removed from him, blinked as the doctor instructed, but mostly he lay there with his eyes closed. When the examination was nearing its end, he drifted to sleep.

As his vision went dark, Oghi saw over and over the car carrying him and his wife crash into a tall concrete barricade. He was clearly imagining it. He knew this because he could see himself inside the crumpled vehicle. And yet his head ached badly. As if he had slammed his head against a wall or been struck with something dangerous and sharp.

Inside that hazy white light that he knew was there even with his eyes closed, Oghi thought about whether he was going to survive, and, if this was the shape he had to live in now, what he should do, and whether he wanted to live anyway.

He brooded over what the doctor had said. He floundered back and forth between the pessimism of "exercise willpower" and the optimism of "a little more." But he couldn't help seeing more meaning in the adverbial phrase than in the imperative. Didn't it mean he would be okay if he just put in a little more effort? If he tried harder, wouldn't he be able to move his jaw to speak and walk on his own two feet into the examination room? There was no doubt. Oghi was counting on the world of "a little more." He wanted so badly to live.

How much time had passed since the checkup? Several days? A few hours? He couldn't be sure. The inside of his head was fuzzy, as if he were still dreaming, but his eyes smarted from the light. He felt like they'd just been tested for glaucoma, the light squeezing his pupils was excruciating. Oghi blinked slowly to check that he could still will his eyelids to move. He was relieved to find that part of his brain still responded to his command.

The door made a soft sound as it opened. Someone crept into the room. Oghi watched. The person, who'd come over to the side of his bed now, was dressed in white, and as he watched, its body stretched out long and thin and went up to the ceiling. Oghi stared in fear at the person crouched on the ceiling tiles above him.

It descended slowly toward Oghi. He closed his eyes. He shut them tight. He was determined not to open them. That was the only way he could fight his fear. It couldn't be a hallucination. He'd definitely heard the door open. More than that, the person sticking its face close to Oghi's now gave off a familiar smell.

His wife's smell.


WOMEN HAD OFTEN SERVED AS turning points in Oghi's life.

That was certainly true of his mother. She'd died when Oghi was ten. Oghi thought at first that her death was caused by illness. She was frequently bedridden and took prescribed pills with every meal.

Oghi didn't realize he was mistaken until after he overheard his relatives whispering in the hospital corridor. His mother had swallowed too many pills at once, causing her organs irreparable damage.

He only got to see his mother one time in the hospital. He couldn't remember whether that was because his father didn't allow him to visit or because her stay was so short. Cables snaked between his mother's prone body and machines attached to the walls. Sustaining a life seemed to require a tremendous amount of assistance.

Oghi's mother gestured for him to come closer. He couldn't bear to take her hand. A hole had been cut beneath her larynx; a breathing tube inserted there led down into her lungs. He had never seen anything like it before. Instead of taking her hand, he probably burst into tears or froze in fright. He may not have understood exactly what it meant to take your own life, but ten years was still old enough to have a rough idea of it. Seeing his mother in such a terrible state filled him with pity and fear.

His mother's death was Oghi's exit out of childhood. His obtuse, indifferent father either didn't notice the change in him or pretended not to. Oghi stopped caring about anything. He no longer complained about having to eat foods he didn't like or whined about needing to buy a gift to take to a friend's birthday party. He did not stamp his feet at the grocery store because he wanted something. He did not stubbornly insist on reading comic books for hours on end or playing computer games all night. Every now and then his father tried to talk to him. Each time he did, Oghi was reminded of his mother. He saw the hole drilled beneath her larynx, he saw the breathing tube. He couldn't help but clam up.

Problems arose at school that Oghi had no control over. News spread that his mother had killed herself, and his classmates began bullying him viciously. At the time, he couldn't wrap his brain around why his mother's death should make him a target. Only after much time had passed did Oghi understand that the other children were probably just afraid.

Initially, they simply avoided him without making it obvious. But by turning reticent and failing to join the chattering, giggling crowd, Oghi made it easy for them to bully him.

One day, as Oghi was being shoved around and hit by each of the other kids in turn, he bit one of the boys hard on the leg in defense. Oghi lost a tooth, and the boy lost a chunk of flesh. Oghi's tooth was just a baby tooth, but the boy's leg was left with a permanent dent.

After that no one teased or messed with him anymore. They all whispered that Oghi was as crazy as his mother. To show them just how crazy he was, Oghi would smile mischievously at them and then switch to a cold glare.

If Oghi's mother escorted him out of childhood, then his wife led him into the world of adults.

As college graduation loomed, Oghi prepared to enter the job market. This was before the IMF financial crisis, when the schools were still flooded with help wanted ads from businesses. Oghi was eager to get married quickly. His wife said it was too soon. She wanted to go to grad school, and she wanted Oghi to do the same. Though he knew he would have to live hand-to-mouth doing part-time work while barely covering his tuition and living expenses, he applied to grad school anyway without much in the way of a plan. He, too, was looking for any excuse to postpone taking a dead-end office job. He'd sent job applications everywhere, but he wasn't hung up on actually getting hired, and if the grad school plan didn't pan out, he could just send his resume out again.

His wife had told him she wanted to be a journalist. She wanted to be a reporter like Oriana Fallachi and do amazing, groundbreaking interviews with famous people. She carried a photo of Fallachi around in her wallet. Not one of her as a war correspondent on a battlefield, nor one of her interviewing Kennedy or Deng Xiaoping. It was a photo of her sitting in front of a typewriter, staring blankly into space, dressed in a stiff Chanel suit and wearing a pearl necklace—a vanity shot, taken for Vogue or Elle magazine. Oghi had no idea if that ridiculous photo actually depicted the "journalistic spirit" his wife was always going on about, but he did know that it showed what kind of person his wife really wanted to become.

Back then Oghi looked lovingly on his wife's shallow vanity. She knew exactly what her goals were, and though she believed in them, she failed at nearly everything she set out to do. Yet she brushed off each failure, hardly any worse for the wear. Then quickly found herself a new role model and extoled their virtues ad nauseam. By doing so, she seemed to come to an understanding of the difference between longing and ambition. While poised to withdraw her opinions, her preferences, and her own will at a moment's notice, she drew a line between what she could let go of and what she would hold on to. Though this tendency made her appear fickle and directionless to others, Oghi found it attractive.

Oghi had a fear of people who prided themselves on following a single path through life, who pursued their goals relentlessly, turning a blind eye to everything but that goal until they achieved it. People like that were so replete with willpower that they readily scoffed at the weak-spined. They criticized those who relied on luck, and they refused to acknowledge even the most trivial of coincidences. They were excessively stubborn and self-righteous, oblivious to how pride could turn into violence, and constantly spoke down to others. They did not hide the fact that they thought they were better than everyone else, and they mocked the sense of loss—of having lost out, been passed over, fallen behind—felt by those who didn't agree with them. Every now and then, they would make a show of being open-minded and magnanimous, their attitude one of grand dispensation, but this came less from a love of humanity than from the fact that they didn't have to worry about money. Oghi knew the type well. His father was one.

His father was a self-made man who had worked his whole life at the shipyards, and he mocked Oghi for going to graduate school to study cartography. A real man wouldn't be caught dead teaching, he'd said. Oghi suppressed the urge to argue with him, to tell him he'd get his degree on his own without any help from his tightwad father. His father was convinced—afraid, in fact—that Oghi was constantly trying to fleece him of his money.

Whereas most men seemed to be looking for some kind of idealized mother figure in the women they courted, Oghi had no such interest. He had a lingering impression of his own mother as someone who could stand up to his father and talk back to him even while in the grip of dark, pessimistic thoughts. She was at her most magnificent then. When she mouthed off at him. When his father lost his temper and lashed out at her only to be left more frustrated and foolish-looking as she glibly replied, "Why so serious? I'm only playing." When she laughed right in his face as he fumed and huffed and puffed with anger.

No, his wife did not remind him of his mother. Nor was she her complete opposite. In some ways, she encompassed both of his parents' personalities. She looked insecure but was full of confidence. She was self-righteous but easygoing. He marveled at her contradictions. It seemed an impossible combination. Whenever he thought about his parents, he pictured them sitting alone and sad in their own separate frames. They existed independently, cut off from each other, and yet they coexisted naturally in his wife.

His wife was the reason he went to grad school, but she dropped out halfway through her master's program. She claimed that she preferred to acquire real-world work experience and got a job at one of the online newspapers that had recently been launched. But she quit after just six months. After that, she sent her resume everywhere she could, trying to find other work as a journalist, but no one would hire her. She had no choice but to take a job at a magazine that no one had heard of where she lasted barely a year, churning out twelve articles a month until quitting that, too. Over and over, she went through the motions, sending out her resume again, or using the money she'd saved from her last job to do a little traveling first, before eventually finding another job at an even smaller magazine than the last, where she churned out the same number of articles with nearly the same content. In the meantime, Oghi completed his master's and finished his PhD.

Three years before they married, Oghi's father passed away. He suffered for six months before dying. The night the pain began, Oghi's father had met with some business connections. They were men who had worked under him before he retired. Even after his retirement, Oghi's father had kept busy as a supplier for the parts production company he'd started. He had followed their advice to increase production, but the international financial crisis led to a series of market slumps, and his father ended up taking a big hit.

His former employees had met him over sushi to tell him the bad news. The stomach pain started late that night. Oghi's father said that when he tried to stand up straight, it felt like a metal wire threaded through his intestines was being pulled taut. He blamed it on the sushi. It had been absurdly expensive, and when he'd gone to pay the bill, his guts had tightened into a knot.

The housekeeper arrived in the morning to find Oghi's father collapsed on the floor. She called an ambulance. At the hospital they told him it was kidney stones and that they had to operate immediately. The doctor scheduled an emergency surgery, but they didn't figure out until after they'd cut him open that kidney stones were not the problem.

Oghi finished his lecture at a university in Pyeongtaek and rushed to the hospital in Ulsan. It was the middle of the night, but his father stubbornly insisted on going to a hospital in Seoul immediately. They bounced from hospital to hospital, being told by first one doctor that it was irritable bowel syndrome, then by another that it was just constipation, and on down through a laundry list of commonsense diagnoses.

After a while the pain returned, but this time his father went immediately to a big university hospital in Seoul. It was diagnosed as an intestinal obstruction and he was sent into the operating room. Oghi was teaching at his alma mater when his father texted him the name of the condition. At the thought that his father's intestinal walls were in danger of rupturing because he had a piece of shit stuck up his ass, Oghi couldn't help breaking into random laughter in the middle of his lecture.

What emerged from his father's large intestine was not a hardened lump of feces. It was a tumor the size of a golf ball. His father was relieved to know that it had been removed, and he even joked about it. He said with a chuckle that at his age it was either going to be cancer or Alzheimer's, and since he now had cancer he didn't have to worry about Alzheimer's.

On Sale
Aug 1, 2017
Page Count
208 pages