My Palpitating Life is the first full-length novel by the critically and popularly acclaimed Kim Ae-ran. According to the author’s prologue, it is “the story of the youngest parents and oldest child in the world.” The protagonist has just turned 16-years-old, born to parents who had him in high school. He suffers from the rapid aging affliction progeria. So the stage is set for the story of the impossibly old child with impossibly young parents, told from the perspective of a 16-year-old with the face of an octogenarian whose parents are still in their early 30s.
The narrative of My Palpitating Life is split into two parts. One deals with events of the protagonist’s last year of life in the present, when the novel is set, while the other concerns the protagonist’s imaginings of his parents’ past, putting together his own versions of how they met and why they had him. In the former part, which makes up the bulk of the novel, the protagonist appears on a fundraising television program in hopes of raising money for his medical care when he becomes pen pals with a teenager watching the show. Exchanging letters with her becomes the highlight of his days. It turns out however that she never really existed, whereupon the protagonist dies of shock and grief.
The latter part of the narrative may be seen as a reiteration of the family romances featured so memorably in the author’s previous works, the short story collections Run, Pop, Run! (2005) and A Pool of Saliva (2007), that raise the question of where the self comes from. Even without referring back to Freud’s “Family Romance,” it is plain that all children wonder why they were born and desire to find meaning in their selves while they try to solve this mystery. All of us have been there. What meaning can the protagonist attach to his life, however, when he is destined to leave this world so soon? While the question might be the same, the protagonist undoubtedly has the tougher riddle to solve. To himself he asks, “Why do people have children?” To which he answers, “To relive the life they do not remember.” And “To see again the self that one never saw. To once more become a child by being a parent. Was that not the reason why people had children? What could my parents have seen in the baby who started aging when he was two years old…another question soon arose to bother me. ‘What purpose did God have for me?’ Unfortunately I have no answer for that yet.” Faced with this enigma, the 16-year-old protagonist suffering from an incurable disease is touchingly mature. Rather than question the meaning of his existence, he asks what he means to his parents, and to other people. His considerate nature prompts him to try to please his parents to the very end, and to leave them with a final gift. What are gifts for, if not to give joy to the recipient? In this sense the protagonist was a gift to his parents and the world. The gift he left, or rather, the gift he was, will be remembered long after he is gone.