A funny, transporting, surprising, and poignant novel that was one of the highest selling debuts of recent years in Korea, Love in the Big City tells the story of a young gay man searching for happiness in the lonely city of Seoul
Love in the Big City is the English-language debut of Sang Young Park, one of Korea’s most exciting young writers. A runaway bestseller, the novel hit the top five lists of all the major bookstores and went into nine printings. Both award-winning for its unique literary voice and perspective, and particularly resonant with young readers, it has been a phenomenon in Korea and is poised to capture a worldwide readership.
Love in the Big City is an energetic, joyful, and moving novel that depicts both the glittering nighttime world of Seoul and the bleary-eyed morning-after. Young is a cynical yet fun-loving Korean student who pinballs from home to class to the beds of recent Tinder matches. He and Jaehee, his female best friend and roommate, frequent nearby bars where they push away their anxieties about their love lives, families, and money with rounds of soju and ice-cold Marlboro Reds that they keep in their freezer. Yet over time, even Jaehee leaves Young to settle down, leaving him alone to care for his ailing mother and to find companionship in his relationships with a series of men, including one whose handsomeness is matched by his coldness, and another who might end up being the great love of his life.
A brilliantly written novel filled with powerful sensory descriptions and both humor and emotion, Love in the Big City is an exploration of millennial loneliness as well as the joys of queer life, that should appeal to readers of Sayaka Murata, Han Kang, and Cho Nam-Joo.
Longlisted for the International Booker Prize
A New York Times Book Review Paperback Row Selection
Named a Best LGBTQ+ Book of the Year by BuzzFeed
“Intoxicating . . . In Park’s hands, Young is loud and obnoxious, insufferable and magnetic, messy and wise. The prose, translated by Anton Hur, reads like an iPhone screen, vibrant and addictive. What a joy it is to see such a profound exploration of contemporary queer life — its traumas and its ecstasies throbbing in harmony. It’s a shimmering addition to the recent genre of novels chronicling queer millennial malaise . . . Dazzling.”—Bobby Finger, New York Times Book Review
“It’s a mark of the generous spirit of the South Korean author’s English-language debut that it made me laugh on the first page. The novel’s loosely autobiographical account of a young gay man losing and finding his way in a conservative society isn’t always so funny, but even bad news is delivered with a spark . . . The modulation of tone casts out any initial fear that the novel might just skate across the surface.”—Guardian
“An exuberant hunger drives the characters of Love in the Big City, people who are young, broke and eager to indulge in the many pleasures of Seoul, be they carnal or culinary . . . There’s a generosity and biting humor that imbues his stories, with glittering descriptions that render our food-and-drink-obsessed culture in liquid-crystal high definition . . . Hur, the book’s translator, manages to preserve that rhythm in English through a flawless, breezy millennial vernacular that veers artfully between slang like ‘dickmatized’ and poetic ruminations on ‘the taste of the universe’ within the span of a single chapter. The delicious, unbridled joy in Park’s depiction of queer Korean life is revolutionary and fun as hell to read.”—Hannah Bae, Eater
“Translated by Anton Hur with startling immediacy, Park’s English language debut—as framed by this unforgettable scene—captures the ambiguous landscape inhabited by South Korean gays, of being both visible and unacknowledged . . . While reading Love in the Big City, I would use Google Maps to follow Young and Gyu-ho’s meandering walks through Seoul—their favorite city—where the names of various neighborhoods take on the quality of hypnotic prayer . . . By invoking these specific locations, Park—who calls himself a ‘citizen-writer’—has poetically mapped out a normalizing zone for his gay protagonists so they can overcome the dichotomy between safety and exposure, public and private.”—Thúy Đinh, NPR
“A vibrant and emotional breath of fresh air that tackles queer relationships, living with HIV, and coming of age in Seoul across four sections that follow the narrator through different stages of early adulthood. It’s hard to think of a more beautiful and earnest reflection on identity, growth, and pain through a queer lens than this book.”—Queerty
“A novel, told through relationships, about navigating life as a young gay man in Korea . . . The novel skips freely around in time, lending it a sense of propulsion and instability that feels entirely intentional. It’s anchored, however, by the narrator’s irresistible voice, which alternates between earnest, heartfelt emotion, and likable wryness . . . This book will sweep readers up in its sheer longing. An addictive, profound novel.”—Kirkus Reviews (starred reviews)
“Park’s stunning English-language debut takes readers through the wild highs and lows of young adulthood . . . The strength of the narrator, notably his flexibility of voice and expansiveness, caries the narrative to great heights, making this a standout among queer literature. Brilliant, glowing, and fun, Hur’s translation succeeds in bringing Park’s effervescent voice to English-reading audiences.”—Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“A lightly comical and insightful tale . . . Offers readers honest characterizations of flawed individuals from different walks of life who are all looking to find contentment regardless of their circumstances. Park’s writing is introspective and relatable, and the broad-ranging themes make this a good candidate for book group discussions.”—Library Journal
“A bestseller in Korea for being a significant (and rare!) gay novel, Park’s lost-love(s) narrative is also a universal literary beacon for readers of all backgrounds.”—Terry Hong, Booklist
“As Young grows, yearns, and makes messy mistakes, readers will find themselves rooting for him all the way until the brilliant end.”—The Millions (“Most Anticipated: The Great Second-Half 2021 Book Preview”)
“A surprise bestseller in Korea, Sang Young Park’s electric English-language debut perfectly captures the neon-lit potential of youthful nights.”—Michelle Hart, Oprah Daily
“Sang Young Park is my new favorite writer, as in his work we see life in modern Korea in what I think of as a fuller way, due to the inclusion of queer lives there. This novel is bawdy, hilarious, heartbreaking, fearless.”—Alexander Chee, author of How to Write an Autobiographical Novel
“Love in the Big City is a light-streaked and dazzling novel about all the messy riots of young life. This novel made me want to dance all night and fall in love. Sang Young Park writes honestly, tenderly, and with irresistible humor and charm. I miss his characters already.”—Brandon Taylor, Booker Prize-shortlisted author of Real Life
“I am completely smitten with Young, the brutally honest protagonist of Sang Young Park’s exciting new novel, Love in the Big City. This is a book that reveals its depths slowly, carefully offering details which resonate throughout the entire work. I loved growing older with Young, and I was continually surprised by his capacity for love and disappointment. This is rich, brilliant territory that will move queer literature forward.”—Garrard Conley, New York Times-bestselling author of Boy Erased
“I love this book. I couldn’t stop talking about it with my friends while I was reading it. My friends are smart, queer, long suffering, badly loved even when they are in relationships, economically oppressed, urban, have straight best friends, get fat, are overly attached to their mothers, nursed their dying mother, have lots of sex, have no sex. Got a job and hated it, got more education, met someone in class, are obsessed with that person even though they are not interested in my friend at all. This writer, Sang Young Park, is one of my friends and everyone wants to read this book. We’re happy, we’re suffering, the condition is global.”—Eileen Myles, author of Afterglow
“A wickedly funny and unforgettable meditation on love and loss and the struggle to feel and ultimately find ourselves, Love in the Big City is a delicious exploration of both the bitchiness and banalities of surviving modern life. Park has crafted one of the most fervent and entertaining novels I’ve read in a long time. I couldn’t put this book down.”—Nancy Jooyoun Kim, author of The Last Story of Mina Lee
“Sang Young Park’s sharp, funny picaresque follows Young, our charming hero, through his rakish college days and into his still-insouciant thirties, as he drifts through boyfriends, jobs, friends, and most of all, through Seoul. Among the many pleasures of this wonderful novel are Young’s running commentaries about work, class, sex, queer domestic life, contemporary Korean family dynamics, and the literary world he finds himself in. I’m obsessed with this book.”—Andrea Lawlor, author of Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl
“How could a story be as intense as this, as fresh as this? Page after page, we discover contradictory emotions that are both surprising and beautiful. I was so eager to read on that my fingers turned each new page before I’d finished the last. I hope he writes another novel that inspires such hard and fast intimacy.”—Kyung-Sook Shin, author of Please Look After Mom
“Sang Young Park’s English-language debut about a young gay man in Seoul is devastating, but in the warmest way possible. Throughout the four sections of the book, you can’t help but wish for happiness for Young as he’s growing and yearning. He’s messy, intelligent, and relatable, and Love in the Big City feels like a story being shared with a close confidant. Although Park’s been likened to Han Kang and Nam-Joo Cho, he’s really his own voice, and we can only hope to have more writers compared to him in the future.”—Elaine Cho, Elliott Bay Book Company (Seattle, WA)
“A leading author of Korean queer literature and the hottest name of the moment.”—The Hankyoreh
“I cried when I got to the end. As cliched as it sounds, reading this book made me feel that ‘this summer night, this big city, because of you’ I could believe in love again.”—Brunch.co.kr
“Love in the Big City is a compelling novel that deserves to be widely read. It expands our expectations and assumptions about what contemporary Korean literature is and can be.”—Yoo Jun, Professor of Korean Literature at Yonsei University
Excerpted from Love in the Big City (c) 2019 by Sang Young Park. English translation (c) 2021 by Anton Hur. Reprinted with the permission of the publisher, Grove Press, an imprint of Grove Atlantic, Inc. All rights reserved.
The summer we turned twenty, Jaehee and I became best friends.
I had a funny drinking rule back then—I would do anything I was told by whoever bought me a drink—and so on that fateful day, there I was again with a man of an uncertain age in the Hamilton Hotel parking lot, sucking face. He had bought me about six shots of tequila at some basement club. The moon and streetlamps and neon signs of the whole world seemed to be shining their lights just for me, and I could still hear the strains of a Kylie Minogue remix in my ear. It wasn’t important who the guy was. The only thing that mattered was that I existed with someone, there in those dark streets of the city, and that was why I was wrestling tongues with a stranger. Just when I thought the heat of the whole world was about to overflow, just for me, I felt a hard slap on my back. In the midst of my complete drunkenness I thought, A hate crime! And in full drama-queen mode, I detached my lips from his and turned around, ready for a fistfight—but there stood Jaehee. As always, she was holding a lipstick-smudged Marlboro Red in one hand, and the sight of her instantly sobered me up. Jaehee could barely catch her breath as she laughed at how shocked I was to see her. Then she said, in her typically brash voice:
—Just eat him, why don’t you?
Before I knew what was happening, I’d burst out laughing at her joke, and at some point I realized the man I was kissing had disappeared, and I can’t even recall his face now. But I do remember more or less what Jaehee and I talked about in the parking lot.
—You’ll keep it a secret around campus, right?
—Of course. I’m a broke bitch, but I’m loyal.
—Weren’t you surprised? Me with a man.
—Not at all.
—Since when did you know?
—Since the moment I laid eyes on you.
The usual cliché.
Up until then I didn’t know Jaehee very well; she was just a girl who wore short-shorts and was always first to run out of class, desperate for a cigarette. Actually, she was pretty close to having the worst reputation in the department.
Even if I did end up an outsider among the French majors at our college, I hadn’t been like that from the beginning, when I was still invited to parties by our male upperclassmen sunbaes just because I happened to be a taller-than-average male. These gatherings always took the same course, all the guys going to the pool hall or PC rooms first, then to a restaurant specializing in MSG cuisine to make the soju flow, then picking one of the less messy sunbaes’ rooms to drink more and talk about girls until we collapsed, snoring. Standard-issue nineteen- and twenty-year-olds talking about what a big deal they were and what great sex they were having, how well they satisfied their women, which of the French department girls were easy. And Jaehee was someone they kept returning to. Listening to their stories that were obviously at least half fiction, and fed up with wondering why I had to put up with this shit even in college, I came to a point where I drunk-shouted, “Fucking stop it with the bullshit, you all have faces like rat dicks,” and flipped the table, after which I was never invited to hang out again.
As is the nature of any group, a member who had fled the fold was inevitably fated to remain as gossip fodder thereafter. Tired of their exhaustive critiques of the female frosh, they tossed me into the meat grinder instead, saying I seemed gay and was hanging out in Itaewon doing God knows what, spreading the kind of rumors only a bunch of innocent nineteen-year-olds would care about, half of which were true. (Truth always surpasses fiction.) Barely a semester had gone by when almost the entire department knew who I was, and I’d heard the rumors myself, making me the butt of everyone’s jokes. I guess I’ll never make friends in this department, not that they can drink to save their lives, and they’re boring as hell. As I was consoling myself with such self-justifications, Jaehee veered into my life.
After my defense of her sort of outed me, the two of us developed a relationship that consisted in the first place of talking trash about boys, as neither of us had previously had anyone with whom to share such thoughts, making us both desperate for a sounding board.
Jaehee and I had very little sense of chastity, or none at all, to be honest, and we were apparently known for it in our respective spheres. Jaehee was five foot six and 112 pounds, while I was five ten and 172 pounds, both a bit taller than average but neither particularly attractive nor a complete lost cause, just enough not to embarrass any partner. (Note that when I won a New Writers Award for fiction, the judges’ comments were united in their praise of my “objective self-judgment”). The world was just not ready for the boundless energy of poor, promiscuous twenty-year-olds. We met whatever men we wanted without putting much effort into it, drank ourselves torpid, and in the morning met in each other’s rooms to apply cosmetic masks to our swollen faces and exchange tidbits about the men we had been with the night before.
—He works at a company that makes hiking gear. Small dick but good foreplay, I think worth fifty points?
—He says he went to Yonsei University, studying statistics, but I think that’s a lie. His face was a blank space, and I kept wanting to laugh because whenever he said something, it was obvious his head was just as empty.
—He tried to take a video while we were in bed, so I threw his phone across the room. He said he wasn’t going to share it with anyone, like I’d ever believe that bullshit.
And after we made fun of the men from the previous night, our eyes would begin to close and we’d fall asleep side by side, with dried-up masks on our faces. Being an early riser, I would get up first and let Jaehee rest longer, with the quilt pulled all the way up over her head, as I boiled instant pollack stew or ramen, and when it was ready Jaehee would finally get up at the smell and eat the breakfast with sides of soured kimchi and cold rice. At some point, Jaehee’s room had an extra set of my hair wax and a Gillette razor, while my room had a double of Jaehee’s eyebrow pencil and MAC powder compact. Jaehee didn’t know this, but when I was alone, I used her liner to fill in the gaps in my eyebrows and helped myself to her compact to half-heartedly apply a puff or two of concealer on my cheeks and forehead. Which made me wonder if Jaehee used my razor on her legs or armpits without telling me.