- onJune 23, 2019
- Vol.44 Summer 2019
- byKim Sehee
- Unremarkable Days
Tr. Slin Jung 2019328pp.
My first online sock puppet—Lady Chatterley, as the chief called it—raised a child and a dog while living far apart from her husband. The chief liked the single mother concept and the frail-on-the-outside-strong-on-the-inside way she always set out to find happiness in every moment, but he suggested that I put a bit more effort into the details. Several rounds of feedback exchanges later, we were each granted an account. It felt like I was cradling a small potted plant. I spent that afternoon drawing up a self-introduction for the blog. Something short but full of heart, just like what any other blogger would start off with. Lady Chatterley had made her internet debut.
They assigned us to review work, mostly for restaurants. The restaurants would send us pictures of their interior, menus, and mouth-watering offerings, and we would re-organize them and arrange them into reviews that made it seem like we’d gone there in person. Eventually we even learned to place emphasis on specific phrases at the client’s request.
The way I saw it, a good review was all about specificity. It didn’t take long to realize—specificity could make or break a review. The words had to make it seem like I’d really eaten that food and used that product. And if the client didn’t give me enough information, I emailed them for more. No one else at the office went that far, but I didn’t care. I wanted to get better. I was a professional.
“Could you tell me the difference between these two menu items? I’d also like a different picture of the vongole, please,” I would ask.
Sometimes I caught myself thinking, Is this really okay? That was when I was writing a review for reduction surgery for Lady Chatterley’s square jaw, complete with the phrases requested by the clinic. It was the same for Lady Chatterley’s dental braces and Lasik surgery. Was this really all right? But soon, even those questions disappeared.
That was partly because I realized that all the blog reviews I used to look at when I wanted to buy or find something had been written by other corporate sock puppets. The more I came to grasp the logic behind the portal site that provided the blog service, the more I came to see that an honest-to-goodness blog written by an ordinary person had little chance of making it to the top of the search results. Especially for the things people looked up often, like restaurants and medical clinics. Markets were built on the searches and references of the public, but once they got big enough, the real information—the information people actually needed to see—was pushed off to the sidelines.
That was how the economy worked.
I nodded in understanding, eyes tinged with awe and resignation. I had attained enlightenment.
My first sock puppet reached market-optimized status in the blink of an eye. The chief began to send important tasks my way. Lady Chatterley now tucked her baby in a premium toddler crib “for children ages zero to six” that boasted three adjustable modes, and on Saturday evenings would bathe her dog with the “Chanel of dog shampoo brands” imported from Japan.
Looking back, that was the most passionate period of my twenties. I’d poured so much love and care into Lady Chatterley. I spared no effort—and did it all out of my own volition. Until my mid-twenties, I had been paying money to learn and be taught. But now I was the one receiving money and using my mind and my fingertips to produce something. I loved that feeling. The feeling of being useful. I could clearly see my extra efforts bear fruit and improve my output.
If I spent the entire work day on reviews, I’d stay at the office after dinner to compose my “daily life” posts. Our sock puppets had to appear to be real individuals, meaning we employees had to post about their personal lives. We used photos of our families and relatives, and even of their pets. To maintain our follower counts, we would visit the blogs of our followers and comment on their posts. It was not easy to tell fellow sock puppets apart from real people. We followed one another, left warm comments, and said hello like digital ghosts.
All this work wasn’t just for the public. We were trying to avoid being penalized. The public would simply leave a blog when they caught wind of a sock puppet, but the portal site had the power to kill. The portal—Naze—wanted to provide quality content, which was why it launched its blogging platform in the first place. Their monitoring team gave penalties to posts containing explicit material, clickbait stitched together from popular keywords, and advertisements with no real content. But no one knew how the penalty system really worked. Naze never disclosed its internal logic, so our industry had nothing to go on except rumors and guesses.
The realistic details of Lady Chatterley’s life were built partly on my cousin, who was raising a baby and a large dog. She would often send me pictures, and I would use the ones with the dog, and with the baby’s face in profile or from behind. I even used my cousin’s descriptions of the photos, word for word. She probably never knew in her wildest dreams that she was providing me with pieces of an internet sock puppet, and I never told her. But Lady Chatterley wasn’t inspired by her. My cousin’s daily life was simply a raw ingredient. Lady Chatterley was a part of none other than myself.
I was always exhausted, but those were the most driven days of my life. I had the firm sense that I was a capable member of the team and the office. I confess that I thought I’d found my calling and was lucky enough to find it as my first full-time job. I’d always enjoyed classes in my major, and in my first year at university I’d written (admittedly amateur) poetry, fiction, and academic papers. I enjoyed completing writing projects. But I’d never really fallen deeply in love with literature. I understood the beauty of poetry, and I could explain all the features that made poems so beautiful, but that was all. I was probably born with a utilitarian streak. Each time I tried to delve deeper into this world, the voice of my inner utilitarian stopped me. Do you really need to read so much into it? it asked. Is it really worth putting in so much effort for literature?
Maybe that voice was right, I thought to myself. Maybe that voice inside was my subconscious, holding back all my artistic capabilities, I said inwardly, telling myself—naively—that maybe this workplace was the most optimal for me. It was a place where I could both make money and unleash my creativity.
It had been a long time since I last worked on Lady Chatterley. I finished my work that day and went back to her. She was still there, with her records perfectly intact. Even the date of her final post remained the same. She was encased in a block of ice and frozen in time.
Without much thought, I opened Lady Chatterley’s inbox. There was a long list of old messages I’d exchanged with mutual followers, and a new unread one at the very top. It was recent.
I clicked on the message. It was packed with words. I thought it was an ad at first, but it wasn’t. The sender said she was a follower of my blog, and introduced herself as one of the victims of B Corp’s toxic humidifier disinfectants. According to the message, both her children were affected: she’d lost her newborn, and her five-year-old suffered serious lung damage that would leave him connected to a respirator hose for the rest of his life. She explained that it took a long time before the toxic ingredients in B Corp’s spray-type disinfectant product “Feather-Fine” were discovered as the cause.
“I started using the disinfectant because of your review, Lady Chatterley. You said you used it every day, so I was wondering if you were all right. I hope nothing’s happened, but if it has, please contact me.”
What was she talking about? I wondered.
She had attached a link to a newspaper article. The first thing I saw was a massive photo. A little boy sitting in a wheelchair, clinging to a rocket-shaped oxygen tank. The picture below—even more shocking—was a middle-aged woman attached to a respirator, with a massive washing machine-scale hose running down from her jaw. Something pulsated from the pit of my stomach, encroaching across my body until my hands went cold. It was almost like something out of a sci-fi animation film I’d seen, where people in an alternate future were connected via hoses to machinery. But this was real.
I turned. Empty chairs stood silently in the office. I went to the search bar on Lady Chatterley’s blog and typed in “Feather-Fine.” The search immediately turned up one post, out of over a thousand.
I didn’t remember anything about the review, but it was definitely mine. I’d written that I sprayed it on everything, from linens to the fabric sofa to things that the baby touched. It was “easy to use and made me feel light as a feather,” I’d said.
“Especially recommended for families with young children! :)”
My heart was pounding. I’d heard about the product on the news, and from other people. But it had never occurred to me that I’d written a review of it before.
When? I asked myself.
The post was almost two years old, said the blog. I was still stunned. Here was my two-year-old Feather-Fine review, and this message from a woman I’d never met. What was the connection here? I didn’t understand. Why had she messaged me?
I clicked on the sender’s username and visited her blog. It was five years old, with posts sorted into different categories. Her pageviews and follower count showed that she had once been very active. But at some point, she seemed to have gone on hiatus. The posts had started again recently, with most of them being articles about the Feather-Fine case.
I went into her post history, and found pictures of children sitting on a mat on a lawn. And a selfie with the children, where the woman’s face took up half the frame. If she had been an active blogger and mutual follower, then I had probably seen these pictures before. But I didn’t remember them. I had always operated under the assumption that all of my mutual followers were sock puppets, too. I’d probably thought the same about her.
I clicked on the arrow button and went further into the past. To the point when I’d posted my review of Feather-Fine. I found journal entries bemoaning endless streams of housework, and a compilation of information about robotic vacuum cleaners and gas dryers. In several posts, she was looking for ways to make her homemaker life easier. I remembered the phrase I used at the end of my Feather-Fine review. “Life is so much easier when you can just spray it and forget it.”
Suddenly I thought, What if she comes after me? Before I knew it, I was picturing our confrontation. What would I say if she came to find me? What if she told the police or the government that she used Feather-Fine because of me? Maybe I could say that I’d only used it once. But then they would find out that
I wasn’t a housewife, that I didn’t have a child or a dog, that I’d never even used the product. Would that mean trouble? Would I get charged? What would happen to the company?
I looked at the clock. It was past ten in the evening. Immersed in the ambient hum of the computer,
I opened my inbox again and read the message again from top to bottom. I went over each line carefully and realized that I’d completely misunderstood. The woman was asking if my family and I hadn’t been affected and if I’d known that the disinfectant was toxic. She was telling me about the class action lawsuit the victims were launching. She wasn’t blaming me. She thought I was a victim, just like her.
My heart slowly calmed. For some reason, I had reflexively assumed the woman was angry at me, and that she was trying to make me take responsibility.
I read the message again. She most likely wasn’t going to come looking for me. She wouldn’t.
I finally remembered to breathe. I went to the water cooler for my parched throat and returned to my seat. I wiped my glasses with a cloth to calm myself. But even then, a small part of my mind was running a simulation of the conversation. Even though I already knew that no one was coming after me. It helped me to come up with even more brilliant defenses. How could anyone prove that the woman had bought Feather-Fine because of Lady Chatterley’s review? They couldn’t. We were mutual followers online, not real-life acquaintances. She could have easily been introduced to it earlier from somewhere else and forgotten about it.
On the bus home, I spotted snowflakes whipping past in the darkness outside. It was the first snowfall of the year. The snow was powdery, the kind that fluttered on the wind briefly before scattering, but gasps of wonder arose on the bus anyway. People opened the windows and took pictures to send their friends and lovers. Cold air dotted with snowflakes rushed inside.
Once I got home, it was time to wash up and go to bed. I turned out the light and lay down under my blankets. It was terrible what happened to those people, I thought. But it was a relief that the cause was ultimately discovered. The lawsuit was being processed. The victims would be given fair compensation.
I sincerely hoped so. I remembered the pictures from the article. For as long as they lived—breathed—their hoses would chain them to their oxygen tanks.
I turned over and thought:
What was fair compensation for those people? Did such a thing even exist?
(Excerpt from pp. 105-111; 116-122.)
Translated by Slin Jung
Kim Sehee is the author of the short story collection Unremarkable Days. She debuted in 2015 with the short story “Shallow Sleep,” which won World Literature’s New Writer Award. In 2018, she won the Munhakdongne Young Writers’ Award for the short story “Unremarkable Days,” which is excerpted here.