THE CABINET by Un-su Kim (BOOK REVIEW)
Un-su Kim – The Cabinet (2006, translated by Sean Lin Halbert 2021)
“This is a story about a new species, one that has been hitherto considered an abomination, a disease, a form of madness. It is a story about people who have suffered from the side effects of that evolution. A story about people who have been ensnared in a powerful and nameless magic spell, unable to receive insurance benefits, proper treatment, or counselling. A story about people who have been physically and mentally devastated, and who have willingly or unwillingly lived a lonely and melancholic life away from the rest of the world. A story about people who – because they exist in an intolerant scientific world that brands anything that exists beyond its microscope as mysticism and heresy – must shut themselves in a cramped room to live a hard life, never having anyone to call for heal. This is a story about symptomers.”
The Cabinet is the debut novel by South Korean writer Un-su Kim, translated into English by Sean Lin Halbert and published by Angry Robot. The last couple of years has seen some truly wonderful and utterly bizarre Korean literature make its way into the hands of English speaking genre fiction readers for the first time, but out of all of them, The Cabinet may be the most gloriously bonkers. Kim’s novel is about Cabinet 13, a research project shrouded in mystery dedicated to exploring people with strange and unusual powers, narrated by the low-level salaryman worker who finds himself caught up in this surreal and confusing world. The Cabinet’s oddball humour is reminiscent of Douglas Adams or Stanisław Lem, and Kim’s passion for wordplay, surrealism and absurdity makes the novel a consistently amusing read. However, where a lesser author might teeter into tweeness, Kim takes the very real loneliness of his alienated characters deadly seriously, taking the novel into strange and at points unsettling places. The Cabinet is something of a bonkers gonzo masterpiece, hilariously strange and genuinely affecting. It stands in a genre almost entirely by itself.
Kong Deok-geun is a young man working a boring job in an ordinary office, until one day he stumbles across Cabinet 13. On the outside it appears to be an entirely normal cabinet, but inside Kong finds files describing “symptomers”, strange people with unusual powers who may be the next stage of human evolution. Kong soon finds himself answering to Professor Kwon, the eccentric but brilliant mind behind Cabinet 13’s research. Working as Professor Kwon’s assistant, Kong is drawn ever further into the surreal and bizarre lives of the symptomers. He meets a man with a ginko tree growing from his finger, people who can rewrite their own memories, time skippers, aliens stranded on Earth trying to communicate with their home planet, and people who sleep for years. He must navigate the tedium of office politics and field magicians and men who want to be turned into cats. When Professor Kwon falls ill, Kong faces the possibility that he might have to take over the running of Cabinet 13, but the syndicate are after Professor Kwon’s secrets, and Kong’s life is about to get even more confusing and dangerous.
The sheer strangeness of the symptomers’ powers should give you an idea of the novel’s cheerful surrealism and Kim’s off-the-wall sense of humour. The Cabinet is a mosaic novel, told in a series of nested stories and anecdotes, some contributing to the larger plot and others expanding on the novel’s themes of eccentricity and isolation. Kim is fascinated with how the surreal and the Weird interacts with the mundane, and much of the humour of the novel derives from the oddness of the symptomers coming up against everyday work life and bureaucracy. This is also where much of the pathos comes from. The symptomers are just trying to live their lives in a society that, because they are outsiders, refuses to see them. The struggles of the man who just wants to look after the ginko tree growing out of his finger, or the man who desperately wants to become a cat so the girl he likes will love him, are echoed by Kong’s own struggles to find direction and meaning in his life. Drifting through his life with no sense of direction, working an unsatisfying job simply because he’s expected to, not being able to make any friends or meaningful connections, Kong is just as isolated as many of his charges.
The Cabinet’s surface-level daffiness is balanced out by a real sense of darkness. As the novel progresses, Cabinet 13 in its own way further isolates Kong from the consensus reality inhabited by his unaware colleagues. The novel gets surprisingly dark towards the end, with the syndicate providing a genuinely terrifying threat and the seemingly benevolent Professor Kwon’s motivations and ethics called into question. As the labyrinthine bureaucracy, industry secrets and competing corporate interests surrounding Cabinet 13 spiral out of control, the novel takes on more and more shades of Franz Kafka’s The Trial (1925). The Cabinet’s dream-like meshing of fantasy, story and reality only requires the slightest of pushes to turn it into nightmare territory. That Kim is able to take the story to such dark places whilst still making it feel like part of a coherent whole is testament to his skill as a writer.
The Cabinet covers a range of tones and registers, from paranoid conspiracy thriller to fairy tale to shaggy dog story. It mixes surreal humour with personal drama, strange wordplay with believable characters. It made me laugh more than probably any other book I’ve read this year, and it definitely surprised and wrong-footed me more than anything else I’ve read. Sean Lin Halbert is to be praised for capturing the novel’s glorious strangeness in his translation, and Angry Robot commended for bringing us this delightfully bonkers and unique book.