Angelique Migliore, One Night in Seoul (2020, Tirgearr Publishing)
Find more from Angelique Migliore here.
I am too intelligent, too demanding, and too resourceful for anyone to be able to take charge of me entirely. No one knows me or loves me completely. I have only myself.
Simone de Beauvoir was likely only eighteen when she wrote these lines, although they were published much later in her Cahiers de jeunesse. Probably it’s pretty common, at that age, to be caught between the twin possibilities of self-aggrandisement and self-pity; being one of the most important existential philosophers of a generation likely doesn’t make it any easier. The striking part, for me, is the assertion that ‘no one knows me or loves me completely’. It might not be so surprising, when you’re eighteen, to feel that nobody else knows you or loves you; it’s more astute to realise that you probably don’t know or love yourself as well as you might, either. A few lines later—and this part is so much more rarely quoted—de Beauvoir adds ‘seule je vivrai, forte de ce que je sais être’; ‘alone I will live, strong in what I know how to be’. There is a certain sadness in it, I think, since what we know how to be isn’t always the same thing as what we would like to be.
They say it’s naïve to think you can change the ones you love, or to expect someone to change on your behalf. And it’s true, too. It’s just that the only thing more naïve than that is to expect someone you love not to change at all.
Stormy Smith, the heroine of Angelique Migliore’s One Night in Seoul, is someone who knows a thing or two about change. As a close-protection agent with a particular flair for babysitting ‘less-than-desirables’ in the interest of what’s described, near-euphemistically, as ‘balance’, she understands disguise and is used to inventing and reinventing new versions of herself; she has a great stock of outfits and wigs, fake IDs, makeup and hair dye, and has long since become used to remaining as unobtrusive as she can be in Seoul. ‘I…did my best to blend in,’ she says, ‘by coloring my hair and wearing large Audrey Hepburn sunglasses to hide my light gray, non-Asian eyes.’ Her penchant for wearing pink, we learn early on, is ‘the one constant she kept in her life.’
Jordan Black, Stormy’s latest quarry, is anything but unobtrusive. He’s a hacker with a private jet, a bounty on his head and a few too many anger issues. In a scene which is revealing in more ways than one, we’re practically introduced to him as he’s stripped naked on board his jet on the apron at Gimpo Airport:
She walked around behind me and lifted my arms out to my sides. “Any tattoos?” She gently moved my dreads away from my shoulders and unnecessarily raked her hands across my arms and down my back while she spoke.
So Jordan, from his dreadlocks down to his distinctive genital piercing, sticks out like a sore thumb, while Stormy is the consummate chameleon. And what might seem at first like a race against time to even the score—to apply, perhaps, a little of Stormy’s disguise savvy to Jordan—what in fact ensues is a much more deliberate process of breaking down identities in order that new ones can be formed.
Stormy and Jordan have a history together, having been friends and near-miss lovers during their military training back at home in the United States. And, in a version of a classic romance trope, they must feign a close romantic relationship in order to avoid the prying eyes of those who apparently want Jordan dead; naturally, the romance and the sex into which we’re dropped almost straight away begin, just as soon, to blur the lines between what is fictional and what is real. And it’s easy, when you’re forced together with an old flame, to want to regress, to look upon the past as an idyllic and prelapsarian time in both of your lives; needless to say, more often than not, this just leads to missing the wrong things—not only the person our lover used to be, but also the person we used to be ourselves. Stormy and Jordan, it seems, are looking constantly for ingenious ways to outrun this tendency, even though it sometimes catches up with them.
The opening chapters, then, give us plenty of idea what’s at stake. And they do so in exuberant fashion, too; Stormy’s narrative in particular (One Night in Seoul is told in shifting first-person perspectives, a kind of split-personality storytelling which sits very appropriately indeed alongside the themes of making and unmaking identity) begins with a barrage of figurative language, mixing in great palmfuls of metaphor reminiscent of Raymond Chandler:
The name of my former best friend and one-time lover, who I hadn’t spoken to in over ten years, slid down my throat and churned my guts. My eyes scrunched so tight I might as well have been sucking on a disgusting black licorice. I waited for the familiar feeling of being kicked in the belly by a mule once again.
And she’s not done yet, either; Stormy smiles at ‘the image of him madder than a sack of rattlesnakes’; she acknowledges that ‘there was going to be hell to pay over this one but knocking him off his high horse would simply tickle me pink.’ Given the themes that will soon arise, I can’t help but think of one of fiction’s all-time great similes: ‘he looked about as inconspicuous as a tarantula on a slice of angel food’, from Farewell, My Lovely.
It’s somehow appropriate. It’s not just pleasing in a classic, pulpy way, this mix of pacy, gritty action and colourful prose. It seems, too, as though the language can sometimes cover up, obscure and distort the sentiments lying beneath it. Of course Stormy, who has a history of heartbreak with her client, dresses up her feelings for him in layer upon layer of simile and metaphor; of course, given her professional expertise, doing so comes naturally to her. And it makes sense too that, in remaking herself and remaking her lover, some of these layers are stripped away, never to return; while I could happily devour much, much more of these figurative salvos, skipping ahead to Stormy’s final chapters reveals a stark contrast, wherein the language has become a lot more straightforward, less flowery, much more focused on dialogue than on introspection.
In between times, Stormy and Jordan set about unmaking and unmasking each other in myriad ways, some of which are metaphorical, and some of which very literal. And from the beginning, the narrative approaches these processes with a healthy degree of scepticism: often, stripping away one aspect of an identity simply leaves another one beneath it; at other times, the characters are so used to their conceits that they’re unwilling to take a good look at what they’ve been hiding. At the midpoint of the novella, Jordan is forced to shave off his dreadlocks; the reasoning may be that they’re too eye-catching in the surroundings of Seoul, but Stormy allows us plenty of space to doubt her motivations: ‘he looked younger without his dreadlocks,’ she says, ‘like the past eleven years hadn’t happened,’ leaving him looking ‘like my Jordan all over again.’ By way of payback, Jordan insists on Stormy removing her makeup—“do me a favor”, he says “and scrub that shit off your face. I want to see my Storm”—and then on his being allowed to shave her pubic hair. “Every part of me was now visible”, Stormy reflects, dropping another of those delightfully pulpy lines as she spreads her legs for him, “except my heart.”
It seems we’re getting closer to the central insight of One Night in Seoul. Amid the does-the-carpet-match-the-drapes jokes and the frenal piercings which are, as the story wears on, put to ingenious use, there’s a serious musing on identity, its truths, and its deceptions:
I picked up the passports she tossed aside and looked at the pictures. “How many of these do you own?”
She belted out a bitter laugh. “Like I have any idea. I’m not even sure what my real name is anymore.”
“Your name is Storm.”
“To you, maybe.”
I understood her meaning as I held her fake passports in my hands. All the different names. All different identities. All different targets.
Which identity, after all, is the truest? The identity you were given at birth? Or the identity—the identities, perhaps—you adopt for yourself, you fashion of your own free will? You don’t have to be a pseudonymous author of erotic fiction to see the real-world implications of this philosophical dilemma.
And so, inevitably, it turns out that there’s more than the mission at stake. If keeping Jordan alive requires disguise, discretion and deception, then breathing new life into their love requires more still than this; conveniently enough, the pretext shows up just in time for a more radical, permanent shift in identity for both Stormy and Jordan. When Jordan protests that “you’re killing me, woman”, and Stormy insists that “actually the point was to keep you alive”, it seems like both of them are right, in slightly different ways. And by the time the two of them collapse into cathartic sex, the transformation is all but complete:
We claimed each other, and she was mine. I pounded out my victory inside her. I had successfully rewritten her code, and she’d let me. After years of wanting her in college, years of waiting until I could safely locate her, and even more years of searching for her, she would finally be by my side. She was the bug I could never get out of my system.
Self-fashioning is good, but sometimes having some help to do it is better still. Change isn’t a bad thing—in fact it’s the only constant. And, if you really want someone to know and love the real you, you have to give them a hand in making it. A self having shed its attachments, as Virginia Woolf once wrote, is free for the strangest adventures.