“The Law of Lines” by Hye-Young Pyun

The Law of Lines, Hye-young Pyun, Sora Kim-Russell (trans) (Arcade, May 2020) The Law of Lines, Hye-young Pyun, Sora Kim-Russell (trans) (Arcade, May 2020)

Se-oh Yun—a reclusive young woman in her twenties—comes home to a fire in her apartment in which her father is badly injured. He dies shortly after the incident and the police are eager to close the case as a simple suicide motivated by her father’s debts. But Se-oh suspects foul play when she learns that a debt collector, Su-ho, had visited her father earlier that day.

Separately, Ki-jeong Shin, a weary school teacher, receives the news that her younger half sister, Ha-jeong, has been found dead in a river. Feeling guilty that she had not shown much interest in her, Ki-Jeong begins to investigate what might have happened and discovers that Ha-jeong is not the bright, active and social student she pretended to be during their brief phone conversations.

These twin losses set the two characters on an investigation in which they collide with one another. Both Se-oh and Ha-jeong belonged to a hellish pyramid scheme in which Se-oh herself was collateral as she “sold off every personal relationship she could.”

Under the guise of a thriller, the novel gradually reveals the real crime—the way that capitalism has robbed people of their own humanity.

Hye-Young Pyun’s fourth novel, The Law of Lines, is a story of alienation and loss against the backdrop of a city intent on constant reinvention. Under the guise of a thriller, the novel gradually reveals the real crime—the way that capitalism has robbed people of their own humanity. Having been robbed of her friendships by the work she performed as part of the pyramid scheme, Se-oh is disconnected from her own sense of grief. Her father’s death drives her to stalk the debt collector, Su-ho, with the malicious intent of enacting revenge. It is only later, when she becomes aware that she has spent too long trapped in self-loathing, unable to care for others:


not paying any attention to anything around her because she was too busy wallowing in her own regret, and for ignoring her father’s loneliness and suffering.


This sense of affective disconnection is mirrored in Ki-jeong’s story. Despite their complicated relationship, when her mother laments how cold and lonely her sister must have been in her final moments, Ki-jeong is startled, aware of how she has not mourned her sister’s death, only seeking rational answers to the mysterious circumstances of her drowning.


The Law of Lines is narrated in an omniscient style which privileges narration over scene, lending it a slightly claustrophobic atmosphere, amplifying the characters’ own sense of entrapment in poverty. The thinness of relationships and disposability of friendships echo the thematic sense of alienation running throughout.

Though the narrative unfolds mostly from Se-oh and Ki-jeong’s point of view, there are momentary dips into other perspectives. Every character, even the debt collector, who, it turns out, is in debt himself, has a backstory. This seems to suggest that no character is inherently evil but is driven by their financial circumstances to participate in the brutal system. Poverty, it is suggested, only beckons misery:


The bad luck poverty ushered in was close to fate. That is, once you were under its evil spell, everything turned bad. Paying for surgery for a parent on the verge of death. Cosigning for an older brother who was starting a new business. Getting injured on the job when no one else in your family was bringing in any money. No matter how they started, the stories all ended the same way.


Another striking aspect of the novel is the repeated reference to the disappearance of residential neighborhoods as they are condemned for redevelopment. This not only forces residents from their homes, but is a source of financial woe for them as they are forced either into areas they can not afford, or are paid so little to move that they have mounting debts.

The effect of this repeating reference to the lack of residential spaces—the apartments condemned for redevelopment, the goshiwon studios no larger than a box—further heightens a sense of mounting desperation as the characters clamber on top of one another.

There are no satisfactory revelations and neat resolutions in The Law of Lines, but instead offers a meditation on the compounding punishments wrought by poverty.

Hannah Michell is the author of The Defections.