Welcome to another Kpopalypse book review! This time, Kpopalypse takes a look at “Shine”, the new novel by ex-Girls’ Generation member Jessica Jung!
Author: Jessica Jung
Egmont/Electric Monkey, 345 pages, softcover, 198mm x 129mm
e-book ISBN: 1534462511
It may be hard to cast your memory back this far, but at one time long ago in the far-flung depths of k-pop history, Girls’ Generation were “Korea’s most famous girl group”, and Jessica Jung was considered by many to be k-pop’s “it” girl. Remember that this is an industry where if a group doesn’t have a comeback for nine months, their fans start foaming at the mouth and planning to sue their label for spiritual neglect, so despite her k-pop fame being recent in normal-person-years I’m sure this introduction to Jessica is necessary for many of you. Of course Jessica’s k-pop career didn’t last, she eventually left (or was kicked out of) SM Entertainment for the crime of being a fashionista, and went on to found fashion label Blanc & Eclaire. Since then she’s recently turned her hand to the “young adult” fiction genre, writing about
the secrets of her k-pop past a completely fictional k-pop world that definitely has no parallels with real life whatsoever, oh gosh no.
The line between fiction and fact here is so blurry that there was some mild controversy when this book had to be delayed a few weeks because someone accidentally promoted it as autobiographical on the dust cover. Rest assured that if the people publishing this stuff are that confused that they have to tiptoe around this issue so much and make mistakes like these, we can safely assume that we’re well and truly in “Chopper” territory in regards to how fictional this is.
(For international readers: the late Mark “Chopper” Read was a well known Australian “standover man” (a uniquely Australian occupation that involves getting to know criminals, waiting for their pockets to fill up from illicit activity and then robbing them) who started writing books about his criminal life. The extent of exaggeration in these books is disputed, but nevertheless law enforcement became rather upset about him publishing the details of his alleged underworld exploits so in order to placate any legal action that would potentially stop him from writing further, he switched to “fiction” along a similar theme.)
Just to be on the safe side, “Shine” even says “a novel” on the front just so you’re clear, and the standard “this is a work of fiction, any resemblances to…” etc disclaimer is literally the very first thing you read on the first page under the publisher’s logo. But never mind all that for now, what’s “Shine” about, and is it actually worth reading?
Let’s start with the plot. The protagonist of the book is a lady called Rachel Kim, a Korean-American and blatantly obvious author self-insert character, who is a trainee at Korean pop agency DB Entertainment, and all scenes in the book are written in first-person from her perspective. The book follows Rachel from somewhere during the middle of her training process, to somewhere near the end of her training process, as she seeks to hopefully become a member of DB Entertainment’s new nine-member girl group. There’s several interactions with the other girls in her group (bitches), her parents (typically strict) and staff at DB Entertainment (even more typically strict) as she struggles with the challenges of training while also trying to please everyone else’s heightened expectations at all times. Rachel’s life develops another layer of complication when Jason Lee from DB Entertainment’s k-pop boy group NEXT BOYZ turns up and appears to have some vague semblance of an actual personality and sense of humour, ensuring that Rachel falls for him simply because he’s the only person in her life not berating her about something every two seconds. Of course this creates problems because of DB Entertainment’s dating ban, which is an obvious setup for the usual generic and predictable problems that appear in most romance novels (“I want to be with you, but I don’t want to fuck my career”). The two main relationships in the book that drive the plot are the Rachel/Jason romance, and the Rachel/Mina situation – Mina is one of the other prospective members of the new girl group, and the incredible bitchiness and catty backstabbing between Rachel and Mina brings us the book’s most entertaining and least predictable narrative moments. There won’t be any plot spoilers in this review, but the book ends on a note that guarantees a sequel (apparently to be called “Bright” and coming in October 2021) so you know at the very least that our female lead isn’t going to be injecting heroin under a highway overpass by the end. Maybe that comes at the end of the second book.
Jessica’s writing style is a lot better than you’re probably expecting, it’s decent and appropriate for the material, frequently nailing the characterisations required to drive the book’s story. Having lived through trainee life herself she doesn’t make her self-insert character too much of a snowflake (like k-pop fiction generally tends to), and the dialogue across the board is actually really quite good. Of course it is – it’s probably all based on real people and events, I don’t think Jessica is a genius author or anything, I just think she has a deep well of real personal experience to draw on for her writing. The book also doesn’t fuck around too much with boring descriptors and generally gets straight to the point, not wasting too much time with crap you don’t care about, by about the fifth page in you’ll already be straight into the eye-dagger-throwing, self-esteem-lacerating trainee drama.
Where the book is somewhat weaker is in the long game of narrative development. I did get the feeling that Jessica maybe watches too many trash Hollywood films because some of the story arcs are honestly a bit bland and cliched in that “reaching a hand out to save someone about to drop off the edge of a tall building” kind of way. There’s a couple really good twists in the book that I won’t ruin, but there’s also a few generic scenes that are just too obviously built for sheer narrative convenience (the ‘car breakdown’ scene which is clearly inserted to give Rachel and Mina a reason to advance dialogue without other characters interrupting for a while probably being the worst of these) while doing nothing to really add to the world, these scenes feel like they belong in a completely different book. It’s a small flaw but it’s noticeable when you’re keen for other more interesting parts of the story to advance and having to wade through these more obviously contrived sections to get there.
However – let’s be real. Probably about 2% of you are reading this review because you care about Jessica’s skill as a writer or whether this book is one that will be considered by esteemed book critics to be a quality addition to the young adult fiction genre. What the other 98% of you want to know is this: assuming that this book is a complete self-insert, that the situations in the book are heavily based on reality and that Jessica is actually writing to a large extent about her personal struggles while training at SM Entertainment, what is she actually trying to tell us about the k-pop world? Let’s go with some dot-points.
- Girls who are k-pop trainees are frequently complete cunts to each other, with everyone jostling for an advantageous position, not hesitating to shit on someone else in the same group to get ahead. I felt some serious empathy for Jessica herself all the way through this book, it’s obvious while reading that the shit she must have gone through would have been extreme. Even if some of the more volatile situations in the book never actually happened to her, just the fact that she can characterise the trainee bickering and backstabbing so convincingly makes it clear that the world of k-pop trainees is every bit as unpleasant, hyper-competitive and soul-destroying as everyone I’ve ever interviewed has ever told you it is.
- The ridiculous standards of perfection are also just as ridiculous as you have been told they are, and agency staff really don’t give much of a fuck about you other than whether you can do your job or not. Belittling trainees and making them feel like shit is part of keeping them in line.
- Dieting is also crazy. K-pop trainees do regular monthly weigh-ins and can be cut from groups in a flash if they don’t measure up.
- Trainees can also be cut from line-ups for refusing surgical procedures, for questioning any statement from someone in authority, or any other reason at all.
- Even though seven years is the maximum legal contract length, k-pop agencies have ways of working around that.
- Favouritism and connections won’t get you over the line necessarily, you still need to have some raw ability, but a good word from the right person or a relative in the right spot certainly means that if you fuck up you’re more likely to get a second chance. It’s all about who you know.
- Aside from the obvious dating bans, trainees also have complete social media bans.
- K-pop performers don’t get much of a say in anything creative, certainly not in anything musical. Companies have all the power. Any type of creativity is highly discouraged, in favour of blind obedience.
- Male performers command more authority and power than female performers, even after debut, and obedience is expected much more if you’re female even if you’re an industry veteran. Boy, does Jessica labor this point which forms a key part of the romantic axis, clearly she has been burned raw by k-pop’s gender double-standards.
A lot of the above points won’t be news to veteran Kpopalypse readers who have followed my interview series and have already read much of the same stories directly from the mouths of k-pop idols and trainees, but it’s worth noting that Jessica’s “fictional observations” absolutely line up with the alleged experiences of every real-life idol and trainee I’ve ever spoken to. While the book presents itself as mostly bright and aspirational, the picture that Jessica paints of the k-pop world is relatively bleak and harrowing. While we don’t get into the real nitty-gritty of some of k-pop’s more notorious dirt (there’s nothing Burning Sun-tier here, but there are hints that she’s saving some of the more extreme skullduggery for the sequel), nor do we get the complete roll-call of scandal that many people were possibly expecting, what we do get is certainly a book that feels like it’s very grounded in the reality of how k-pop actually is, despite the romantic theme.
I’ll give this book four Jessica-endorsed Revlon eye shadow colours out of 5.
Add a fifth colour if you’ve already read other k-pop themed novels and been annoyed by the irritating Christian perspective that they seem to all have. There’s no god-bothering in “Shine” whatsoever. Given how certain Girls’ Generation members are known to crap on about god at every opportunity I was afraid that this book might be similar, but I should have known that I could trust Jessica. She’s probably a satanist by now given what she’s had to go through over the years.