Mr. Kong is a dedicated and concerned office worker whose job is to watch over the special Cabinet 13. Cabinet 13 looks like any other ordinary office cabinet full of folders stuffed with papers, but Cabinet 13 may contain some of the most precious information for the future of mankind. Cabinet 13 contains the stories of people who have strange abilities or have experienced unusual happenings in their lives. Is humanity on the verge of becoming a new species? If so, Mr. Kong is the caretaker of the early portent to this metamorphosis.
I love what we might call absurdist fiction – where someone or some situation is beyond all common expectations or reason, but no one bothers to explain it away … that this unusualness is accepted by those living within the story. Gregor Samsa is a perfect example of this. And Gregor Samsa would likely have a file buried somewhere in Cabinet 13.
Cabinet 13 is both a novel, featuring Mr. Kong and his care and concern over the cabinet and its belongings, and also a collection of short stories.
Those people featured in the cabinet’s files are referred to as “symptomers” – those showing symptoms of becoming a new species. Or are they just oddities – people who need to be psychoanalyzed and perhaps put into sanitarium? Like the person who eats glass … and ONLY glass, leading scientists to wonder if maybe glass doesn’t contain calories of a kind they haven’t discovered yet. Or the man who has a tree growing out of his finger. Or the woman who has a lizard for a tongue. Or the annoying man who keeps asking to be turned into a cat because the woman he loves has no emotions for other humans, she only loves cats. (He’s not really a symptomer, but he would like to be one.)
The stories of these people are all strange, absurd, and often a bit on the dark side. And Mr. Kong can’t help but be both attracted to and revolted by them – like driving past an accident.
There s more to Mr. Kong’s story, but ultimately he is an ‘everyman’ – a dedicated worker, going about his job and happens to be let in on this important bit of study. Still, it means not much to him. He’s just a cog in the machine of bureaucracy, and in this sense the book feels very much like something that would not come from a writer in West, but a writer from the East and it surprises me not at all that Kim Un-su (or Un-su Kim is an award-winning South Korean author.
It’s hard to know what gets lost, or even reinvigorated from a translation – does it seem more cohesive as a novel in the original language, or does it feel interrupted with the short stories as this translation does?
This is one of those rare books that I actually want to read again. I didn’t understand the format initially, and was thrown off by the symptomer sketches mixed in with Kong’s story, but I worked it out eventually. Still, I think there’s much more to Kong than appears on a first reading. His own sometime unusual behavior – what we might otherwise refer to as quirks – suggest that we all potentially show signs of being symptomers – just to different degrees. And so, is there an analogy or corollary to be made? I think I got too caught up in the absurdities to catch on. Thus, another reading will be required.
Looking for a good book? The Cabinet, by Kim Un-su, is a novel of the absurd with a Korean ‘everyman’ at the center, navigating through the files of unusual lives.
I received a digital copy of this book from the publisher, through Netgalley, in exchange for an honest review.
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author: Kim Un-su
translator: Sean Lin Halbert
publisher: Angry Robot
paperback, 304 pages