Tag Archives: surrealism

The Cabinet

Surreal novel about human evolution and Korean society

Content warning: fatphobia

I received a copy of this eBook courtesy of the publisher.

Image is of the eBook cover of “The Cabinet” by Un-su Kim and translated by Sean Lin Halbert. The cover has an image of a chameleon holding onto a black branch, stylised with different textures including images of cabinets. The cover has a pale pink background, and the text is enclosed in boxes with a black cat peeking over the top.

“The Cabinet” by Un-su Kim and translated by Sean Lin Halbert is a surreal novel about a young man called Mr Kong who works in a dull office job in Korea. One day, out of boredom, he discovers a locked cabinet and when he finally manages to unlock it becomes obsessed with reading the files of people with strange bodies and abilities known as “symptomers”. As Mr Kong becomes more and more involved in their difficult and sometimes annoying lives, he must decide what his ethical obligations are for this possible new species of human.

As I have mentioned on here previously, I am always very interested in biopunk and books that examine the possibilities of genetics and human evolution. Mr Kong spends a considerable amount of time musing on how the symptomers represent the next dominant species and one that will overtake humanity as we know it. I enjoyed the individual vignettes of the individuals who contact him, and Mr Kong’s rather exasperated role as a sort of social worker for these people trying to help solve their impossible situations. I felt that the writing (including Halbert’s translation) was very smooth and captured a sense of corporate absurdism which was both amusing and eminently relatable. I enjoyed Mr Kong’s character development, especially in relation to his ostracised colleague and examining fatphobia and neurodiversity in Korean society and workplaces.

I think where things fell down a bit for me was a lack of internal logic within Kim’s worldbuilding. While individually the case studies of symptomers were interesting, such as the man with a gingko tree growing out of his finger and a people who would disappear and reappear much later into the future, Kim’s explanations for how genetics could cause these things to happen were all but absent. He hints at experimental interference, but I guess for someone who is a bit of a science fiction aficionado, I think I was looking for at least a little bit of effort towards an explanation. Even something as convenient as a “chrono-impairment” genetic disorder or having a new X-gene. I appreciate that this book is less science fiction and more surrealism and social commentary, but I think a bit more consistency to try to link how someone with a lizard in their mouth could possibly be connected with someone who sleeps for years at a time would have helped. I think that ultimately it read more like a collection of short stories tied loosely together by Mr Kong’s observations about corporate culture and inclusivity, and thus lacked cohesion.

A creative and thought-provoking novel that was enjoyable to read even if it at times felt disjointed.

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Filed under Advanced Reading Copies, Book Reviews, eBooks, Science Fiction

Piranesi

Surreal novel about a world of halls and statues

Content warning: trauma, disability

I have been anticipating this book since I first heard it was coming out earlier this year. I must have read her previous book “Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell” just before I started this blog, and it is honestly a fantastic example of the fantasy genre. It was also adapted into a BBC miniseries which is, unusually, just as good and I highly, highly recommend it as well. Despite her excellence as a writer, the author has unfortunately not published anything since her debut novel came out about 15 years ago due to her struggle with chronic fatigue syndrome or more accurately known as ME/CFS. This is a debilitating disease that can affect anyone, and that has an enormous impact on day-to-day life. Clarke has spoken frankly about her experiences as an author with chronic illness and how she was able to tackle a project like her second novel.

Image of “Piransi” by Susanna Clarke placed on a black and gold promotional tote bag with a similar design

In a physical sense, this book is absolutely stunning. The dust jacket is decorated with copper foil, and the hardcover underneath has a complementary but different design with each letter of the title, in the same font as the dust jacket, resting on a pillar. When I bought my copy from Harry Hartog, I was absolutely delighted to see that it came with a free tote bag which I have been using constantly, I love it so much.

Image of “Piranesi” by Susanna Clarke with art from the XU ZHEN┬«: ETERNITY VS EVOLUTION exhibition currently at the National Gallery of Australia in the background. I would really recommend visiting this exhibition if you want to get a sense of what Piranesi’s world is like.

“Piranesi” by Susanna Clarke is a fantasy novel about a man who lives in the House. The House is made up of many, many halls – each one leading to another. The man has one friend he calls the Other who in turn calls him Piranesi, though Piranesi is not sure if that is his real name. Piranesi spends his days observing the statues in the halls, gathering food, anticipating the ocean tides that rise and fall through the halls and writing his observations and thoughts in his carefully indexed notebooks. However, shortly after one of his biweekly meetings with the Other, the Other warns Piranesi not to speak to anyone else he might come across in the House. When a new person suddenly appears with a counter-warning, and Piranesi finds messages written in chalk, his understanding of the world is shattered. Unsure who is friend and who is foe, Piranesi must place his faith in the House and figure out the truth.

This is an exceptional novel. The pacing is absolutely perfect and Clarke expertly unfurls the story, tantalising the reader with each new piece of information. It is a surreal novel, and Clarke somehow manages to make the seemingly endless halls seem both infinite and claustrophobic. Piranesi is an extraordinarily patient, resourceful and spiritual character whose main object is survival in this peculiar world. His meticulous observation and note-taking skills allow him to predict the dangers and bounties of the House and live with just enough security to explore its halls and study its statues. Clarke is very concerned with perspective in this book, and it quickly becomes clear that Piranesi’s worldview is at odds with that of the Other and even with his past self. Through this novel, Clarke explores the limits of human adaptability and the lengthswe will go to for self-preservation. I also really liked how she handles the question of identity, what it is that makes us individuals and the extent to which memory and identity are entertwined.

Also, I cannot review this book without mentioning how thrilled and excited I was that there was a character called Angharad. I legitimately did not see how it could get any better, and then Clarke drops a character with my name.

An incredible book that I enjoyed start to finish. Clarke is one of the best fantasy authors out there and if she continues to write books of this calibre, there is no limit to how long I will wait for the next one.

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Filed under Book Reviews, Fantasy, Magic Realism, Pretty Books

Braised Pork

Surreal novella about a young Beijing widow

Back in the good old days, before social distancing, I used to go to the gym and listen to audiobooks to inspire me to keep going back. After my last few experiments, I thought perhaps 10+ hours of audiobook was a little long for my limited attention span and memory, so I thought I would try something a little shorter. On Audible, you can set the search terms for books of particular lengths, so I browsed some of the shorter ones (4 – 6 hours). This one was just over 5 hours, and sounded perfect.

Braised Pork cover art

“Braised Port” by An Yu and narrated by Vera Chok is a surreal novella about a young woman called Jia Jia whose husband dies unexpectedly while taking a bath. Childless, largely locked out of his will and without the structure of her traditional marriage, Jia Jia is left with their apartment and a small allowance. As she slowly starts to venture out into the world seeking a new independence through her art, Jia Jia begins to be plagued by realistic dreams of a watery world and the image of the fish man drawing her husband left on the bathroom slink. Eventually, after her attempt at a new romance falls flat, Jia Jia decides to retrace her husband’s last trip to Tibet to try to discover the significance of the fish man.

This is an unusual, dreamlike story the pacing of which mirrors Jia Jia’s own meandering life. I really enjoyed Yu’s writing style. She has some striking imagery that really stayed with me. There was one particular scene where she refers to Jia Jia’s hair as looking like a stroke of calligraphy, and there are quite a few similar turns of phrase throughout. This is an original story with a unique point of view. Jia Jia is an intriguing character who, after having lived her whole life doing what she’s told, suddenly finds herself cut adrift. Although she finds a new purpose searching for the meaning of the fish man, there is still the sense that she is struggling to find her independence from men, be it her belated husband, her father, her lover or even a fellow traveller. Yu explores some interesting nuances of class in Beijing, in particular Jia Jia’s new status as a widow with limited financial resources. Chok is an excellent narrator with a clipped accent and matter-of-fact style that lends itself perfectly to the story.

Although it is a short read, this is a complex story that incorporates a lot of themes, elements and locations. While many of the scenes were themselves steeped with meaning, the story didn’t always feel as though it had a strong central thread to connect them together. I think the part that I struggled with the most was the significance of the watery world and the fish man. I’m not quite sure if I had tuned out while I was doing stretches at the gym or whether the story was deliberately left open-ended, but it felt like despite the several small revelations, the final picture was still kind of indecipherable.

A fascinating debut that perhaps leaves the reader with more questions than answers, I’m looking forward to seeing what Yu writes next.

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Filed under Audiobooks, Book Reviews, General Fiction, Magic Realism, Novella