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The feelings of entitlement held by the high-society elites in Y. Euny Hong’s debut novel, Kept: A Comedy of Sex and Manners, are inflated in direct proportion to their egos. But, then again, so are their problems: In between reading Hans-Georg Gadamer and attempting to debate the role of the United States in ensuring the stability of Chad, Hong’s characters partake in incest, engage in screaming matches at the opera, and—in the case of the protagonist, Judith, who enters the world of the demimonde and becomes a courtesan—dabble in prostitution.
Hong’s well-bred-but-broke anti-heroine is a descendant of Korean nobility who is averse to 9-to-5 drudgery. Introduced to prostitution by her Aunt Jung, Judith becomes the paid companion of a classical violinist, all the while falling in love with Joshua, a socially awkward academic snob who, at first, finds Judith’s aristocratic pretentiousness appalling. Judith’s debauchery—as well as that of her college friends, relatives, and fellow courtesans—is detailed in dense dialogue rife with references to obscure writings.
Hong cites François Rabelais’ 16th-century work Gargantua and Pantagruel as a model of using beautiful language to discuss crude things. “It’s a story about the creation of the world—a disgusting giant creates it by taking a shit,” she says. Gross humor, perhaps, “But it’s an extremely literary book,” Hong says.
This juxtaposition of highbrow and lowbrow has earned Kept a classification as “snob lit,” which Hong doesn’t necessarily object to. “It’s the first time I’ve ever seen that phrase, but I guess I wouldn’t call it entirely inaccurate,” says the 33-year-old Silver Spring–based writer. “There are books—[by] Evelyn Waugh, maybe Oscar Wilde—that are satires of people who feel really good about themselves because of their social station. I accept the label if it’s that.”
Hong, who has written for the Wall Street Journal and New York Times, began work on Kept in November 2003, during a period of major life change. “At the time, I was living in Berlin; I had just come out of a divorce; I was alone and in a strange city,” Hong says. “I was unemployed—while married I had the luxury of not having to work full time. I was really incredibly depressed and tired of rejection.”
The character Judith, Hong says, is loosely based on herself: Both have loving but blunt fathers quick to comment on their accomplishments (or lack thereof), share similar lineage (Hong and her fictional counterpart can both trace their royal Korean ancestry back 28 generations on the paternal side and 26 on the maternal), and are Ivy League–educated and well-traveled—Hong wrote portions of Kept in Berlin, the States, the Koreas, and Algeria. The author hopes, however, that she isn’t as brash as Judith. “I like to think she’s a caricature of me,” Hong says. “Judith is what people think of me if they really, really don’t like me.”
Hong says that, like Judith, she felt seduced by family stories about their untainted bloodline and their social station when she was younger, but she gradually saw the tales for what they were—fiction. “I wasn’t fascinated by the sort of pretentious, hoity-toity parts as much as the really sad parts, really—trying as hard as possible to turn a blind eye to one’s complete unimportance,” Hong says. “Most people can’t really sustain that kind of cognitive dissonance for a long time without a sort of breakdown—either they’re crushed by the realities of the world or create counter-pressure and develop outsize psychotic personalities in order to maintain a barrier.”
With so much of Judith’s experiences drawn from Hong’s own life lessons, the obvious question is whether Hong herself was ever a courtesan. She says it’s a question she’s asked almost every day—and the answer is always the same: No way. Hong says that aspect of the novel was based on a college friend who became an escort after being cut off by her family. “A lot of people have come forward that can account for that period of my life,” she says.
Hong is currently working on a second novel—the only detail she can share is that it will take place in a French monastery. She’s also still doing book signings for Kept and garnering critiques of the work, including a recent one from her father. In an e-mail, she says, he called the first half of the book “treacherous” and took exception to all of the Ivy League references. “He says, ‘Too often the names of good schools appear…there is no role for high-school dropouts.’” But Hong disagrees. “They do have a role in the real world,” she says. “They can purchase the book.” —Sarah Godfrey