Originally published in Korea in 2006, Un-su Kim’s THE CABINET (Angry Robot Book, 301 pages, paper, $14.99) Narrated by an administrative worker named Kong Deok-geun who discovered Cabinet No. 13 when he was extremely bored at his office work: a filing cabinet filled with extraordinary records of “symptoms” people experienced Strange and wonderful events and abilities. Under the supervision of the eccentric Professor Kwon, symptomatics describe months of sleep (“torporers”), seeing their doubles (“doppelgängers”) and growing ginkgo trees (“chimeras”) from their fingers. Kong’s job is to interview and comfort these people whose symptoms often hinder their ability to function in society. Kong’s own life – his mundane and mediocre – gradually becomes the needle that ties the cabinet reports together as Professor Kwon’s health deteriorates and a sinister institution called the Syndicate begins to force Kong to hand over the cabinet’s contents to them.
“The Cabinet” is a sly, whimsical satire of late capitalist life, slippery and surreal, and in some ways reads like a historical novel: it was written and published before smartphones and social media were ubiquitous, and There’s almost something — almost — that makes the monotony of office life refreshingly far removed from the polluted water fountains of our current digital environment. Kong’s down-to-earth voice, delivered in a crisp and playful translation by Sean Lin Halbert, is the perfect foil for what he describes as “symptoms.” By placing them in uninteresting, life-sucking work, the assembled file is less of a Wunderkammer than a Banalkammer, a cabinet of not curious but mundane, in which the most astonishing events are associated with gray, depleted real shared space.
“Cabinet” is an echo chamber in which the comedy, the heartbreak and the horror collide, amplify and twist. The ending presses down on the reader like a tooth, and at first glance appears to be a sharp and sudden betrayal of its main influence. But it ends where it begins, and it rewards rereading.
Natasia Deon Perish (Counterpoint, 307 pages, $26) A flexible exploration of life in Los Angeles in the 1930s, and a moving meditation on the experience of black Americans in the 20th century; it uses patterns and histories of racial unity and oppression to tell a love story of people and their relationship to place. Mainly told through the perspective of Lowllard, a young black woman hired to work on the Los Angeles Times’ death desk, “death” weaves through major events, such as the construction of Route 66 and the failure of the St. Francis Dam, While pointing to Lou’s tragedies of past and future lives, glimpses in the mix of memories and dreams.
Deón’s prose is beautiful, and the animated voice of “Death” comes from the heart. But this is not a book that is interested in the structure it proposes at the outset: an immortal wisdom, one of several people who goes from life to life doing good deeds. While Lou’s story is at the heart of the book, it is often interrupted, stripped, and doubled up for her future incarnation, Sarah Shipley – on trial for murder in 2102 – Review or explain it. That means we’ll never wonder who Lou is, why she doesn’t remember her childhood, or why she’s healed supernaturally quickly – but rather why we’re seeing haphazardly deployed clips from past lives that hardly ever What to do with Sarah’s story, Lou’s story or the sum total of Fairy’s stories.