THE PLEASURES OF WEIRD FICTION
Or a Review of The Cabinet by Un-Su Kim
There is a certain pleasure to a weird tale.
The mind delights in the creation of something new. There is an indestructible and permanent need in human nature, to make something. To spend time in labor of something that has not been there before and to do so with care about its form and appearance, affords a keen pleasure to the creator. Even if a man spends his entire existence as a servant of an industry, he will still make something in his spare time, be it a doodle on canvas or even a window box garden.
Writers do so with words. But before anything is penned down, writers first need to observe, and then to imagine. Writers shape an aspect of reality and show us another reality that is not only plausible but one that provokes thought and discussion.
The form of weirdness I am talking about refers to the way a writer puts an imaginative spin on a familiar tale. Like how Angela Carter reshaped fairy tales like Bluebeard and Red Riding Hood and made you see old friends in a new light. A weird tale is the literary equivalent of a Salvador Dali painting. It transforms a usual story trope into unusual and fantastical shapes. It is like seeing a typical story through the opposite end of a literary kaleidoscope. One is entranced by new shapes and forms and configurations.
I am not however talking about that kind of a weird tale.
A horror story is a kind of weird tale. Those who have sat around a campfire would remember being comfortably scared and entertained by an urban legend. A horror story can be cathartic, allowing us to give vent to deep seated fears, while at the same time reminding us of the perils of trespassing societal moral codes.
I am not talking about that kind of a weird tale.
The kind of weird tale I mean, takes a certain character type that can only be found in modern society. The writer paints a precise portrait of such a character so that you are convinced of its realism. This is how the writer baits and secures your buy-in into the story. Once you have taken the bait, the writer begins to devise weird and strange situations in which he plunges the hero.
By then, you are fully involved in the tale, no matter how weird it gets. As your eye roams over each sentence, your mind conjures fantastical images, as your imagination goes into overdrive on adrenaline.
The effect can be electrifying.
Welcome to THE CABINET, written by Korean writer Un-Su Kim.
You can regard the book as a scathing portrayal of the soul-less careers of salarymen in Asian countries. The bureaucrats, pen pushers, form fillers and data collectors. Or an indictment of the kind of modern job that chips away at your soul day by day, robs meaning from your existence hour by hour and strips dignity from your personality until it is about as bland as chalk paste.
Or you can just plunge in and enjoy the ecstatic weirdness of the stories as told by Un-Su Kim, who takes his fictional characters very seriously.
The Cabinet is the debut novel by South Korean writer, Un-Su Kim. I came to know about his work through his second novel — The Plotters — and was immediately drawn to his ability to take known and realistic aspects of society and create his own original take on that world with its own internal rules and logic. For The Plotters, it was the world of assassins. I devoured Plotters very quickly and looked forward to the next work by Su-Kim and was happy to find that his debut novel had been translated and published.
So, what’s The Cabinet about?
It features a guy who works at a research center. He organizes documents and files at a lab. He does basically administrative work. The work is boring. It is so boring that the character has given his boredom a nickname. He called it an I-would-rather-eat-dog-treats-than-suffer-this boredom, boredom. One day he gets a memo to report to a Professor Kwon. There, he gets a job to investigate files in Cabinet 13.
These files are reports on weird characters. And when the guy goes to check them out, we are introduced to even more weirdness.
Here’s a sample of the kind of characters found in the files in Cabinet 13.
A report of a woman with a lizard for a tongue.
A report of a man who eats moonlight.
A report of a man in Singapore who eats 6 newspapers a day. He reads each section before eating it, moving from politics, to culture, and so on. On Sundays, when the paper isn’t delivered, he eats a few weekly tabloids. During the week, he avoids tabloids at all costs as he can’t stand the taste. When asked which newspapers taste the best, he replies that as long as they’re interesting to read, it does not matter what the quality of the paper is. In that respect, American newspapers do not taste particularly good. They’re all so shameless. The New York Times is the worst.
These humans are known as “symptomers”. Armed with strange abilities, and bizarre experiences, they might herald the coming of a new species.
Every chapter of this novel is filled with delightful surrealism and absurdist humor. During an interview, Un-Su Kim said….
The goal of reading a novel is to go beyond one’s life; it’s all about experiencing it, not understanding its themes. If one wants to get lessons or morals, they can read proverbs or self-help books. Understanding themes or lessons cannot change one’s life. Rather, a novel just lets readers live an alternative life and experience it as vividly themselves, just like traveling.
If you’re feeling jaded as a writer and in need for some inspiration, and think that every story has been told, and tired of yet another Harry Potterish kind of fantasy — and seek an alternative to the Haruki Murakami brand of weirdness –
You should check out the works of Un-Su Kim.
And rediscover the pleasures of the weird tale.