Having read and very much enjoyed the Portable Korean Library translation of “The Photo-Shop Murders” and especially “Whatever Happened to the Guy in the Elevator,” I went into this book expecting something dark, funny, and entertainingly disturbing.
Kim scores on about half of those expectations: this “novel” (at 120 pages, it’s more of a novella, really) is somewhat disturbing and rather dark. There are entertaining and funny moments, but I was in fact a little bewildered by the book. It certainly didn’t seem to me to be written by the same person who’d written “Whatever Happened to the Guy Stuck in the Elevator.”
I don’t really want to get into too many specifics since, with such a short book, one can give away far too much even in the most cursory review. However, I will say the book read something like what Chuck Palahniuk might write if he’d grown up in Seoul, spent time watching depressing French movies, and anxiously reading Japanese literature. (I’m thinking specifically of Kawabata, though Murakami on psychoactive depressants would be another reference point.) None of that is necessarily bad, and there would be stories I’d be eager to read from such an author.
But this was not one of them. It jumped between two storylines, which ultimately were interwoven anyway. There are a couple of neat “Easter Egg” features in the novel, where you get glimpses of characters as seen through others’ eyes (which reveals the narcissism of the overally narrator of the text), and there are some really compelling conversations, some gripping moments. But mixed in was a bunch of the stuff that makes me find mainstream novels boring — graphic and studiously odd sex, a kind of over-the-top bizarreness that’s no longer shocking but perhaps is still thought of as “edgy,” a fixation on suicide and the “meaning of life,” and some superficially weird human relationships. All of which kind of goes into the blender and if it comes out with any real point, I couldn’t find it. The story doesn’t seem to go anywhere, something even the narrator himself comments about at the end. It’s probably all postmodern and all, but it didn’t work for me.
Still, Kim is a skilled writer, and having liked other of his works, I’m still interested to read something else by him. And to me, what’s interesting is the question of why.
Why do we like certain authors’ works in general, even if we dislike one or more of their books? Adam Roberts is a major example for me that I’ve mentioned before here. I read him faithfully, and always end up disappointed. Why is it I keep reading him?
Likewise, what is it about writing that brings out that elusive consistency in a person? There are authors whose work I consistently enjoy over the years, and yet I don’t know why, since their novels are so different every time. There must also be an essential similarity to each of these various works, as the books all feel like they’re by the same person.
With some authors, answering that question is easy. I’ll discuss the authors I don’t know personally: Cory Doctorow, for example, has specific enthusiasms that are explicitly recurrent in his work, such as copyright, patent law, internet freedom, and so on. Roberts has a kind of English-majory approach to texts which, even when it doesn’t quite work for me, seems homey and familiar due to my having spent so much time in that world. In other authors, like Bruce Sterling, Charlie Stross, Connie Willis, there’s something else, something subtle that just is Sterling, Stross, or Willis, in the story.
I mean, To Say Nothing of the Dog and Doomsday Book are absolutely different types of stories, one a laugh-a-minute, and the other heartbreaking and harrowing. They’re both time travel novels, and hell, they’re set in the same world, but they’re utterly different, and both utterly Connie Willis. It’s quite odd, if you think about it.
I wonder sometimes whether it’s just something at the sentence level, some imprint that some people leave as individuals in what they write that is as distinct as the timbre of a spoken voice, as unique as a fingerprint. Maybe it’s more than that. Maybe that’s why reading translations never gets you quite close enough to the original text to really “know” the author?
Anyway, this book, I’m not sure what to say about it except that it wasn’t quite for me, regardless of what I think of the author in general.