Fiction

A Meta-Fictive Haunting: The Impossible Fairy Tale by Han Yujoo
Some of the best horror stories have placed tormented, and tormenting, children at their heart, from Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw to Stephen King’s Carrie . While Han Yujoo’s spare, spellbinding first novel is not a classic tale of demon possession, Han interrogates the innocence of childhood, deconstructing the child-monster by implicating the rest of society in the book’s central, murderous act. Han has won awards for three previous short story collections and this debut novel confirms her reputation as a bold young author at the vanguard of a new wave of Korean fiction. Its linguistic experimentalism, dream-like...
Perpetual Motion, Perpetual Dreaming: Recitation by Bae Suah
Bae Suah’s novel Recitation is a city with a thousand doorways. It is about a group of emigrants on journeys of self-discovery, but it is just as much about the act of disappearing. It is a novel about storytelling itself and the ways in which people are constructions of their stories. At the book’s center is Kyung-hee, a recitation actress. She lives in different parts of Europe and with different housemates as she travels around working. Things do happen in this book — characters travel, meet, lose track of one another, have abortions, get caught by immigration police, seek beloveds...
Stories from the Hinterlands: Wolves by Jeon Sungtae
Remarkable of Jeon Sungtae’s short story collection Wolves is that his stories do not revolve around Seoul; rather, they take the reader to places far from its sphere of influence. These places include the Tumen River, the border of China and North Korea, mountain villages in Jeolla Province, the rugged farming community of Desaengi Village on Cheongsan Island, and, most notably, Mongolia, where six of the stories take place. It is in these locales that Jeon weaves his sad, lonely tales inhabited by characters who are trying to escape their circumstances or rediscover themselves. With an attentive translation from Sora...
Coming of Age in the Last Slums of Seoul: The Muslim Butcher by Son Hong-kyu
Twentieth-century South Korea has promoted itself as a highly developed, affluent, and coherent society, but not quite everywhere in the country, and not even everywhere in its showcase capital, yet conforms to the official image. Son Hong-kyu sets The Muslim Butcher in the Seoul that the official branders would prefer visitors didn’t see: the grimy hillside slums crowded with illegal dwellings and their occupants too poor, disturbed, disgraced, or foreign to dare emerge from the margins. But Seoul’s redevelopmental churn has obliterated most of these areas that existed in the 1970s or 80s in which Son sets his novel, a...
In Search of the Perfect Sound: Song of Strings by Kim Hoon
Here is a book brimming with boundless energy, conjuring up the elements in all their vitality: wind, water, earth, and fire; the rivers and seas, the mountains, trees, and grass. It speaks of life and death over the centuries and at the heart of sixth-century Korea, of raging conflicts and the desire for peace. Death is dispensed by iron, collected and shaped by Yaro the blacksmith with the help of his son Yajeok. Life is the sound of the zither, an endlessly repeating resonance that requires the participation of the heart and not just the body, as continuously practiced by...
Sonatina for an Apocalypse: Ping Pong by Park Min-gyu
Two schoolboys are tormented, hazed by a bunch of louts working, in typical cowardly fashion, as a group. Our hero is nicknamed Nail because of the number of times he’s been struck, his companion Moai because his excessively large head evokes an Easter Island statue. Together, they must survive in the insubstantial, dull setting of their neighborhood in a South Korean town. They take refuge from their tormentors in a vacant lot, in the middle of which a ping-pong table asserts its presence. The French former world champion, Sécretin, introduces them to the subtleties of this game, which he believes...
The Simplicity of the Flipped Palm: Nineteenth Century Korean Short Stories by Park Jong-shik, Kim Jae-guk, et al.
This gorgeously designed book features a foreword and footnotes by linguistics professor A. Trotsevich, which gives the publication an academic feel while also explaining to a more general readership some fundamental aspects of the book. Trotsevich conveys to the reader a sense of unity that connects the short stories without excessive literary or historical detail. There is an explanation for why it is unclear whether the author is Kim Jae-guk or the editor, in the epigraph that also acts as the last story of this book. The resulting circularity strengthens the book’s sense of structure. The foreword explains why the...
Are You Sure You Know Who You Are?: The Testimony by Haïlji
Quietly / Very quietly / I walk toward the city to scout [ … ] / The streets are quiet / The sidewalks are hushed / There’s no Mickiewicz [ … ] / It’s grey, dirty, wintry cold / There’s no Slowacki [ … ] / There are no cosmonauts / No popes [ … ] / There’s nothing at all This is an excerpt from a famous Polish song called “Cichosza,” co-written by poet Michał Zabłocki and singer-songwriter Grzegorz Turnau. As Cracow, one of the oldest and most beautiful cities in Poland, lies sunken in silence and darkness, a...
The Possibility of Impossible Expressions: Mannequin by Ch’oe Yun
What is true beauty and how can human beings express that true beauty? Ch’oe Yun’s mesmerizing narrative places this ageless question at the heart of the novel through the character Yi Jina, otherwise known as “Jini,” a bewitchingly beautiful advertising model. Jini has modeled since infancy, laboring as the sole breadwinner of her impoverished, dysfunctional family until one day she decides to leave home. Her unexpected departure forms a gaping hole in the lives of each member of her family, but at the same time this vacuum also propels each of them, including Jini, toward a kind of liberation that...
A Modern Musical Allegory: The Library of Musical Instruments by Kim Junghyuk
In “Glass Shield,” the fifth story in Kim Junghyuk’s collection, The Library of Musical Instruments , two bumbling, unemployed twenty-seven-year-old man-children rebrand themselves as performance artists. After a disastrous job interview, during which they attempt and fail to untangle skeins of yarn in an effort to display their patience, they take their yarn on the subway and untangle it there, then walk it through several cars while people look on in confused amusement. When a video of their caper goes viral, a friend calls and asks what they were doing. The narrator answers on the spot: “You know what? We...

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