Author: Un-su Kim
Title: The Cabinet
Among my recent reads this novel turned out to be the strangest one; for me, it resembles mostly an early attempt at a Frankenstein’s monster: sewn together from disparate parts it ends up having three arms, one leg, and an off-color head tacked on back to front. The first 60% were highly enjoyable, but afterwards, an inexorable downward spiral got me in the end to a disheartening feeling of “wtf did I just read?”
It’s a pity, really, because the premise of Kim’s novel is quite promising, with a lot of potential: the life in modern cities became so unbearable for humans that their evolution accelerated rapidly, creating first cases of a post-homo sapiens species. The mutations don’t seem to be adaptive, at the moment, but as evolution works through trial and error, we might see some that would become highly effective.
For now, we meet “symptomers” with a range of strange skills or traits. It’s a Korean novel, so be prepared for what would usually fall into the category of body horror: a ginkgo tree growing from a man’s finger, slowly leeching him to death; a woman relieving a soul-body separation, in which her body remains in a factory, engaged in a mind-numbingly repetitive work, while her materialized soul can roam free and far, but inevitably must soon die and be buried by the body left behind. There is a man who wants to become a cat, though it seems to me that it’s the woman whom he loves who is the real symptomer here: she feels no emotions toward humans, only toward cats, so in order to form a meaningful relationship with her he feels he needs to turn into one. Another woman has a lizard instead of a tongue: she allowed the lizard to live in the cavity of her mouth, and the lizard slowly ate her tongue away, nesting in the hole it made.
Yup, body horror is about right.
Whatever you may feel about body horror, those early pages of the book make for a fascinating read; there is a clear direction, a clear goal, and the parabolic character of the story interspersed with lightly philosophical musings about the nature of our modern life makes it all the more engaging. There are the torporers, who sleep for months on end, and time-skippers, who, in especially stressful situations can suddenly miss chunks of time – from minutes to years. Doesn’t this feel like a natural continuation of the strangely meaningless and yet horribly stressful lives? 😉
Our narrator is a corporate (well, research, really, but no difference there ;)) drone with a safe, utterly unimportant and useless job, who one day, bored out of his mind, discovers the infamous Cabinet 13, filled with files on various “symptomers.” Blackmailed into working with the author of this research, Professor Kwon, our protagonist slowly reveals to the readers the tidbits of information about the symptomers, about himself, and about his world, uncannily similar to ours. The various forms of escape from reality that the symptomers exhibit are somehow touching even despite – or because – of their alienness. The sense of being lost, alone, directionless, grieving, and depressed is conveyed artfully and precisely, and the unforgiving nature of big city life makes a very realistic backdrop to those outlandish stories. In that sense, The Cabinet is an unusual meditation on modern life, quirky and intriguing, and quite unlike anything I’ve read.
But after the 60% mark the book develops worrisome symptoms (forgive the pun), which are certainly not adaptive – on the contrary. Changing into a plot-driven novel it introduces an arc of corporate espionage, torture (LOTS of digits cut off there, so beware), valuable files and safe houses, and loses all its soul in the process. Some of the “symptomers” cases, the “chimera” cases like the ginkgo man or the lizard-tongued girl turn out to be valuable to a shady “syndicate” willing to experiment on people, and our protagonist is drawn into a dangerous search for them. But, I’m sorry to say, at this point the novel becomes a caricature of itself, its previous direction completely lost and no new direction introduced, its plot derivative and soulless, its protagonist undeveloped and uninteresting. And in a way, it’s inevitable, because the novel started as something completely different. To suddenly try to make a 180 degrees turn in the middle of a book is always a very risky, if not an outright doomed move. It almost seems as if the author had been pressed to write some kind of “making sense” conclusion to his work, because it has this forced, rushed, unloved feel. And because the beginning is so different, the disparate parts are never seamlessly joined; the stitches are skewed and ugly and oozing, and the final monster fails to elicit compassion or comprehension.
So, in the end, despite some utterly fascinating ideas, The Cabinet turned out to be a rather disappointing read for me. I believe it might have been also, at least partly, a problem of editing, as my ARC copy was full of errors. And yet, I’ll be on the lookout for whatever Un-su Kim writes next – his imagination is a captivating, bewildering, bizarre place.
Actually, after some exchange of comments, I decided to alter the score a bit: 8/10 for the first half (more like 60%) of the book, and 3/10 for the second.
I received a copy of this book from the publisher Angry Robot through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. My thanks.