“Life Is Not a Joke”: A Review of The Cabinet by Un-su Kim
Reviewed by Katie McIvor
I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say I’ve never read anything quite like this book. Un-su Kim’s debut novel, The Cabinet, which was first published in Korean in 2006 and translated into English in 2021, could be described as a novel which reads like a collection of short stories, or, just as accurately, as a short story collection which reads like a novel. The genre is equally hard to pin down: you could call it science fiction, fantasy, literary, magical realism, or all of them at once. The opening takes us from a Caribbean island in 1902, to a man eating glass in Hong Kong, to a person in Finland who lives off electricity, all within the space of the first two chapters. The unreasonableness of expecting everybody to adhere to the demands of time, despite our different body clocks, is explored through the concept of a galactic track-and-field event. There’s a whole chapter about “the existential essence of toothpicks”. Going through the notes I’d taken while reading the novel was a surreal experience in itself; for one chapter, I had simply written queasy scenes at the sushi restaurant.
Ostensibly, the novel’s protagonist is Kong Deok-geun, an office worker in Seoul. While bored one day at work, he stumbles across a locked cabinet which contains files on “symptomers” – people with mysterious ailments which often seem to contradict the laws of nature. Kong inherits responsibility for Cabinet 13 from his cantankerous predecessor, Professor Kwon, and describes his experiences of meeting and trying to help the various symptomers, in a tone which is sometimes sympathetic but often impatient, or even disgusted. This framework allows the narrative to traverse continents, introducing us to a vast array of characters along the way, in a novel which somehow contrives to seem sprawling and yet compact at the same time – just like a filing cabinet.
The choice of such an outdated filing system as a cabinet seems deliberate. Modern technology means nothing to symptomers. Science can’t help you if you have a lizard instead of a tongue, or a gingko tree growing out of your fingernail, or an overwhelming desire to turn into a cat. In fact, the pressures of modern life may even be causing these strange symptoms: as Kong says at one point, “It’s probably because this city is no longer able to maintain our humanity. After all, species don’t evolve when their environment is safe.”
It’s this concern for human welfare that really provides the heart and soul of the novel. The competitive, disconnected nature of modern society forms a constant backdrop to these stories. Even Kong has his moments of existential alienation: he recounts his intense struggle to get a job as a young man, only to find himself then languishing in an office where nobody has any actual work to do. One time, mourning the death of a pet, he locked himself in his apartment for seven months and drank 12,000 cans of beer. Is Kong a symptomer? Are we all?
The novel is packed with tiny, exquisite details. In the chapter about Time Skippers (people who inexplicably lose chunks of time, sometimes whole years, in the blink of an eye), we are told: “In their absence, their cactuses grew large.” At times the level of detail can be gruesome; one character resorts to selling “his kidney and one of his eyes” to pay off a debt. Throughout the novel there are moments of extreme and unsettling solipsism: “Being human is like taking a number. You just need to wait your turn quietly.”
It’s a testament to Un-su Kim’s enormous skill as an author that the deeply philosophical subject matter is handled with such lightness throughout. The characters are always treated with sensitivity, even at their most miserable. The narration overflows with humour, and the language is beautifully illuminated by Sean Lin Halbert’s glowing, pitch-perfect translation. The Cabinet breathes new life into the question of what it means to be human. It blends science with magic, and reality with the impossible, but never loses sight of the human experiences at the heart of it all. As Kong remarks, “No matter how charming cats may be, people should never turn into cats. Why, you ask? Because life is not a joke, of course.”
Katie McIvor grew up in Scotland and studied at the University of Cambridge. She now lives in England and works at a language library, where she is surrounded by books and films in over 200 languages. When not struggling to alphabetise Japanese textbooks, she likes to go on long walks with her husband and two dogs. Her short fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Terrain.org, Mythaxis Magazine and Potato Soup Journal.
Katie can be found on Twitter @_McKatie_