Prodigal Son Returns: The Man on the Tip of the Tongue by Baek Min-seok

  • onOctober 27, 2014
  • Vol.23 Spring 2014
  • byUh Soo-woong
The Man on the Tip of the Tongue

I saw God on the tip of my tongue.

God was walking in silence with his hair on fire.

God did not look like any man that I knew. Nobody I knew had flaming hair like his. Nobody walked on the tip of tongues bearing fire on their head.

Never had I met anyone who walked in such absolute silence as God. No one had hair that burned so perfectly.

                                                                                                                                                                                                               - "The Man on the Tip of the Tongue"


Baek Min-seok’s collection of short stories, The Man on the Tip of the Tongue, feels like the mature confession of a prodigal son who has put his wild, young ways behind him. Out of the nine stories in the collection, this is particularly true of the title story. "The Man on the Tip of the Tongue" tells the story of god and man. It is not the story of an almighty god rescuing helpless men, however, but of a fake god created by men and the men that are rescued by that fake god.

This collection marks the return of the prodigal son of the Korean literary world, Baek Min-seok, after 10 years of silence. During those years, enormous changes have come to pass in the world and countless stories have been written, but the general consensus is that few have succeeded in replacing Baek Min-seok’s singular brand of subversion. Since the 1990s, many novelists have written works that are directly or indirectly indebted to Baek, but most of them have merely served to point out how irreplaceable of an author Baek Min-seok is. For this reason, his most recent collection has been hailed by many as his “release.”

At first glance, “The Man on the Tip of the Tongue” reads like a travelogue of India, but the scope of exploration represented transcends the boundaries of earthly countries. Pursuing the dry record of grotesque landscapes, the reader soon realizes that this world, seething with silent desires, is none other than purgatory. The story is an exploration of that old sanctum of anthropology, the desire towards deities.

Also included in the collection is a story called “The Emoticons of Love and Hate.” Call it an apology for disappearing and not writing for 10 years, but Baek's use of emoticons (read horizontally, as is Korean practice) may well hold up as an example of 21st century writing. The author certainly makes use of digital parlance fluently in this story. It is revealed that he was once incapable of expressing emotions other than those of joy, anger, sadness, and pleasure as expressed by the most basic emoticons: >.< -.,- ㅜ.ㅜ ^.^. But then he experienced a numbing of emotions that made it difficult for him to make faces other than the most basic expression of: *.*. It caused him much despair that readers around him freely expressed emotions as evolved as (^(00)^) or (~.^).

Perhaps it would be too much to call this the literary sublimation of the despair and hatred he experienced as an author during the time of his self-imposed retirement, compounded by illness and death in his family, as well as a long battle with depression, but it is definitely a jocose example of how a once frighteningly serious author has begun to include humor and wit in his arsenal.

Other stories in the collection include the familiar landscape of slums from the author’s childhood in “The Birth of Violence,” as well as unusual situations inserted into ordinary life to surreal effect in “Nineteen-Eighties-Style Barricade” and “A Just, Eternal, and All-encompassing Peace.” 

Author's Profile

Baek Min-seok (b. 1970) made his literary debut with “Candy Whom I Loved” in the quarterly Literature and Society. He is the author of the short story anthologies: 16Believe It or NotThe Errand Boy of Jangwon, and the novels Hey, We’re Going On a PicnicCandy Whom I LovedPoor Little Kid HansThe Grotesque Tale of the Cotton Field, and The Dead Owl Farm.