Un-su Kim’s The Cabinet begins with an account of the peculiar fate of Ludger Sylbaris, one of those historical misfits whose story appears in compendia of strange-but-true curiosities, popular accounts of natural disasters, and travel guide sidebars. A native of Martinique, Sylbaris was imprisoned in the city of Saint-Pierre when Mount Pelée erupted on May 8, 1902. It was the deadliest volcanic eruption of the twentieth century, with a death toll unlikely to be matched in the future of human civilization. Saint-Pierre, typically called the “Paris of the Caribbean” in such accounts, sloped from the sea up the volcano’s lowest foothills, five miles from the summit. The city was swiftly engulfed by a black cloud of hot poisonous gas. About 30,000 people died instantly.
There was, Kim writes, a lone survivor. Ludger Sylbaris’s good fortune could be attributed to the local authorities’ peculiar decision to erect a tower of incarceration in the middle of Saint-Pierre, reserving the highest chamber for “the most despicable prisoner in all of the town.” When Mount Pelée erupted, its pyroclastic terror passed beneath him. Sylbaris watched from his aerie in horror as everyone he knew and loved and hated perished instantaneously. How the tower survived speeding flaming projectiles and how Sylbaris evaded suffocation by the volcanic gas “remains a mystery,” but the eruption ended his twenty-four years of solitary confinement. He was a free man. “Quietly escaping through the disordered crevices created by the disaster,” he disappeared, never to be seen again.
In fact, Kim reveals, Sylbaris fled to Mexico, where he spent another thirty years in solitude, at the edge of a remote and uninhabited desert. During those years he wrote a five-hundred-page history of Saint-Pierre, which was published a decade after his death. The People of Saint-Pierre reads like Gabriel García Márquez run through Dirty Mad Libs:
Father Cleore had a badger tail on his ass. Bishop Desmond also had a badger tail on his ass….
As Father Cleore and Bishop Desmond were standing in front of the holy cross, they rubbed their asses together and stuck their faces in each other’s butts and made grunting sounds as they took large whiffs, and when they got tired of that, they lay down and started fiddling with each other’s tails.
The People of Saint-Pierre was Sylbaris’s revenge on the city that had snatched away his youth. Its records, journals, and newspapers having been incinerated, he reinvented its history, celebrating its natural beauty, honoring the women who stared up at his tower cell, and transforming his enemies into cretinous monsters. Kim wonders why Sylbaris would dedicate the remaining decades of his life to such a petty enterprise. “What happened as Ludger Sylbaris walked endlessly through the labyrinth of his imagination?” writes Kim. “Why, Ludger Sylbaris, why?”
Nobody but Kim can answer that question, however, because The People of Saint-Pierre doesn’t actually exist. While Mount Pelée did erupt in 1902, obliterating Saint-Pierre, and a prisoner in solitary confinement named Ludger Sylbaris did survive, the rest is Kim’s invention. There were at least two other survivors in Saint-Pierre, and perhaps many more. Sylbaris, whose given name was Louis-Auguste Cyparis, was not accused of raping nuns as a teenager or imprisoned for more than two decades, as Kim writes, but had served a month on a stabbing charge, with only his final four days in solitary confinement. He was twenty-seven, not forty. His cell was not in a high tower but within the walls of the prison, in an arched stone hut resembling an overturned rowboat, with a small grated slit window and a chimney for ventilation. (The cell, shrouded in moss, can be visited today.) After recovering from his injuries, Sylbaris did not move to a desert but boarded a ship to Ellis Island. He toured for a season with the Barnum and Bailey Circus, billed as “the only living object that survived in the ‘silent city of death’ where 40,000 human beings were suffocated, burned or buried by one belching blast.” Sylbaris died in Panama in 1929, or 1955, depending on the account, not in Mexico in 1932.
Why, then, does Un-su Kim introduce his novel with this parable? Why commingle fact and fiction so promiscuously? Why, Un-su Kim, why?
The Cabinet was originally published in South Korea in 2006. Its translation into English follows the international success of Kim’s second novel, The Plotters, a sardonic noir caper about a hired killer—a salaryman in the assassination trade—who tries to extricate himself from a vast and invisible criminal conspiracy. The plot of The Cabinet does not give itself so easily to press copy, though it would not be much of a stretch to describe it as a sardonic noir caper about a salaryman trying to extricate himself from a vast and invisible criminal conspiracy.
The Cabinet’s salaryman is Deok-geun Kong. He is, by willing admission, a square, a mediocrity, “an idiot capable of doing absolutely nothing.” He is indistinguishable from the self-professed mediocrity who serves as the recurring hero of most of Haruki Murakami’s novels, the “average single male” leading a “perfectly ordinary existence.” He is the kind of person who does not possess desires so much as velleities—inclinations too weak to motivate action. He is the kind of person to whom things “just sort of happened.”
The first thing that happens to Kong is that, by what he can only believe to be a miracle, he aces a job exam and is hired as an assistant manager in the records department of a publicly owned research company. He comes to realize that his only professional duty is to receive a daily shipment of lab supplies. He fills out the attendant paperwork and enters it into a computer. The whole process takes about ten minutes. He spends the rest of the day dismantling his ballpoint pen, staring out his window at the three trees it frames, and reading arcane academic papers (“Comparing Average Square Footage of Apartments in Gangbuk and Gangnam”).
It would seem that Kong has lucked into the American dream—a well-paid sinecure, allowing ample time for self-discovery or at least vacation planning—but Kong is not American. “We Koreans have been trying so hard for so long,” says his boss, who spends his work hours assembling model ships. “Relax a little.” Kong can’t relax. “I wanted life to be at least a bit of a struggle,” he says. After he unlocks a storage cabinet in a seldom-visited file room at the end of a fourth-floor hallway, his struggle begins.
The cabinet contains 375 personnel files, with medical records and interview transcripts. The subjects are not employees of the research institute, however, but a latter-day edition of what Barnum called “living curiosities.” They include a woman whose mouth is inhabited by a Jaragua dwarf gecko, the world’s smallest lizard, which she allows to nibble the root of her tongue for years, until she can no longer speak; a woman who is periodically visited by a mischievous doppelgänger who breaks up with her boyfriend and runs up her credit card bill; a large man who wants desperately to become a cat; people who eat steel and newspapers and moonlight; and a man who misplaces his penis in the shower. There are the time skippers, who disappear from the planet for hours or even years at a time, emerging in a befuddled state (“Statistically there are probably 800 times as many time skippers as there are normal people”); memory mosaicers, who erase bad memories with experimental drugs, often with horrific side effects; and chimeras, like the toothpick boy whose arm fuses with wood.
There is no obvious thematic connection between the case files collected in Cabinet 13, as this filing cabinet of horrors is called, though Kim’s description of one subset of patients, the symptomers, comes close to suggesting one. Kim cites the theory of “punctuated equilibrium,” advanced by the paleontologists Stephen Jay Gould and Niles Eldredge, which holds that the evolution of a species can occur in rapid bursts when pressured by major environmental changes. Though Gould and Eldredge defined “rapidly” as on the order of tens of thousands of years, Kim adapts the idea for human beings in our age of accelerating environmental transformation:
When the world changes, the essence of what it means to be a human and the requirements for continuing to live in this changed environment also change. And I’m not talking about philosophical or ethical essence; I’m talking about biological essence.
Some symptomers seem to be evolving into machines, digesting glass or drinking gasoline. Others, like the man growing a ginkgo tree from the tip of his pinkie, protest breakneck technological change by receding into a vegetative state. The symptomers represent possible ways forward for the human species, a bridge to whatever we may become. “They are both the last humans,” writes Kim, “and the first of a new kind.” Though he is referring to the symptomers, the same could be said of the rest of the living curiosities cataloged in Cabinet 13. The defining adaptation in nearly every case file helps the subject to overcome some inhuman exigency of modern life. Kong’s useless job at the research institute makes him a kind of symptomer—an employee whose position is a by-product of the inexorable demands of the free market. Capitalism created him.
Kong does not pursue such philosophical ruminations very far. His mind is, after all, “an empty cabinet.” He contents himself with reading about the freaks. The first two thirds of the novel proceeds as a linked story collection, an Invisible Cities of human curiosities, with little extraneous plot. Kong discovers that the cabinet’s safekeeper is a senior employee at the institute, Professor Kwon, an ornery codger who reminds Kong of a highway rest stop. Like Kong, the professor lacks desire or hope. His research has convinced him that the human race is doomed. He calls the files in Cabinet 13 “the end of the Bible.” Kwon’s only duty, as he sees it, is to serve as witness to the coming of a new species. There is nothing that he, or anyone else, can do to stop this evolutionary changing of the guard.
Reluctantly Kwon allows Kong to serve as his assistant. Kong’s main job is to answer the phone, which rings incessantly with calls from candidates for Cabinet 13. How they know about the cabinet’s existence, or what number to call, is unexplained. Kong transcribes their stories, makes notes, and files them. “We’re just custodians,” Kwon explains. “People who put files into the cabinet and lock the drawer. Nothing more, nothing less. I hope you remember that.” Kong offers no objection. Still he remains confused about his own commitment to the task. Though the cabinet brings him into contact with time travelers and people with cactus fingers, his job is not unlike any other at the institute. He clocks in, fills out paperwork, goes home. “Being human is like taking a number. You just need to wait your turn quietly. There’s nothing else you can do.” This is Kong, but it might as well be Kwon, or Kim.
Or K, for that matter. Kong’s only significant act of rebellion comes in the final third of the novel, when a noir plot suddenly intrudes, disrupting the accounts of symptomers and torporers and people who discover crocodiles hiding under their beds. A vaguely defined criminal organization—“the syndicate”—has discovered Cabinet 13 and assessed its value at hundreds of millions of dollars. Their interest lies exclusively in the chimera files, which they believe represent the future of bioengineering, with lucrative potential for the health care industry and national security. When a mobster named K makes an offer for the files, Kong dissimulates. Though a timid gesture of heroism, it’s an inexplicable turn of character. Kong acknowledges that he can’t even explain it, particularly since he has admitted that he’d eagerly sell the files for a fortune. (“Who am I kidding? Of course I would. There was little doubt in the matter.”) This minor act of rebellion costs him in blood—and fingers and toes—until he resembles one of Cabinet 13’s cases, minus the superpowers.
By the end of the novel Kong finds himself marooned on an island in the middle of the ocean, another Ludger Sylbaris in exile. In his hut stands a cabinet containing the symptomer files that the syndicate deemed worthless. He spends his days reading them. Apart from hunting for fish and writing his story, there’s nothing else to do.
Futuristic novels age like mayflies—the passage of six to twelve months between final edit and first printing is usually sufficient to raise a few wrinkles. In 2006, when The Cabinet was published, it was rare to find thoughtful fiction about hybrid species and other advanced manifestations of genetic engineering (though the novelist to do it best, Margaret Atwood, had in 2003 published Oryx and Crake, the first volume of her MaddAddam trilogy, with its roaming pigoons, snats, and rakunks). The prospect of genetic mutants still seemed highly speculative, a horror for a plausible but safely distant dystopian future. The most thorough engagement with the theme came from conceptual artists. The Brazilian-Chicagoan artist Eduardo Kac coined the term “bio art” in 1997 to describe his transgenic art projects, in which he manipulated DNA to engineer bespoke species. The most notorious of these was GFP Bunny, about a rabbit named Alba that glowed neon green. (Green rabbits hop through Oryx and Crake.) GFP is an acronym for “green fluorescent protein,” a biomarker isolated from bioluminescent jellyfish. This made Alba a chimera—a jellyrabbit.
In the following years the discipline of bio art grew to encompass the psychedelic petri dish sculptures of Suzanne Anker; the butterflies of Marta de Menezes, born with wings manipulated into novel patterns; and the human ear that the Cypriot-Australian artist Stelarc grew out of his forearm. What these artists understood better than most of us who do not have doctorates in molecular biology is that chimeras and novel species already existed—and had existed, in laboratory settings, for decades. The technology was not new or secret. A crime syndicate would not have to steal files to learn how to perform such genetic tricks, even in 2006. They could just read the latest issue of Cell. The military or the medical industry wouldn’t pay a premium for the information, either. They were already experimenting with it.
“I realize now that humans shouldn’t tamper in the coming of a new species,” says Professor Kwon, near the end of his life. “Humankind has no say in the matter. It wouldn’t matter even if we tried…. Nature always does the choosing. New humans will be born on their own. All we have to do is wait.” The opposite is now true. Human beings are doing the choosing, and nobody is willing to wait—not for the regulators to wise up, not for the ethicists to navigate the moral quandaries, not for the political parties to choose sides.
Public awareness of the potential marvels and horrors of genetic engineering continues to lag several decades behind scientific reality. What seems futuristic to most of us is old hat to experts in the field. Though Kac’s green bunny drew widespread ethical condemnation, he did not actually “create” Alba, but borrowed her from a lab that was already engineering green rabbits for the purpose of conducting medical research. The creation of GFP chimeras dates at least to 1988. It was only when Kac and other artists, and later filmmakers and journalists and critics, brought it to global attention that the ethical debate moved from academic symposia to cable news, art, literature, and film. Such debates remain in their early stages, even as scientific progress continues its inevitable march. In just the past year or two, genetically engineered black-footed ferrets have been introduced into the wild by the US Fish and Wildlife Service, a human being received a heart transplant from a pig, and lab-grown chicken nuggets, cultured from skin cells scraped from a living chicken named Ian, were granted regulatory approval to be sold in Singapore.
Such changes, and others that may seem far eerier on first encounter, will soon thrust themselves into public debate, political campaigns, and Supreme Court opinions. To what extent should we be allowed to engineer our children to be healthier, fitter, and smarter? Should we bring back the woolly mammoth? Can we engineer novel species to help solve critical environmental problems, or be our pets, or our food? It would be nice to think that such questions will receive thoughtful and nuanced public debate, with consensus settling on the most prudent courses of action. But the fatalism shared by every character in The Cabinet seems likelier to carry the day. Kong asks Professor Kwon whether he thinks there’s hope for the human species. “I don’t think they are perfect beings, but they are at least capable of reflection.”
“Reflection!” says Professor Kwon. “Don’t make me laugh.”
In Un-su Kim’s fiction, we’re all just salarymen.
The Plotters, published in 2010, is the first of what Kim has called his “repugnance trilogy,” noir novels about protagonists “who abhor where they belong.” (Hot Blooded, from 2016, and Big Eye, from 2020, have yet to be translated into English.) Though a more conventional thriller, The Plotters shares The Cabinet’s fascination with the capricious drudgery of modern professional life, and the crazed whimsy and sociopathic violence it can inspire. Reseng is a functionary much like Kong, only instead of collecting files he collects corpses. He also has a curmudgeonly mentor, Old Raccoon, who runs a private library that serves as a front for a murder-for-hire business. Reseng is contracted by crime syndicates indistinguishable from the one in The Cabinet, which are controlled by a cadre of powerful people so remote that they might as well not exist. Both novels are chiefly about hierarchy and its rotten underbelly: conspiracy. When hierarchies grow too steep, with ultimate power concentrated within a shrinking network, conspiracies become inevitable. Orders come down from the clouds, targets are killed, and the gears of society grind on.
Rebellion is futile. One can either get along, get crushed, or drop out. Both novels flirt with the allure of dropping out—both include scenes in which the hero stays at home doing nothing but drinking hundreds of cans of beer for weeks or months. One case file in The Cabinet describes a man with no superpower apart from the will to quit his job and sit at home playing FreeCell on his desktop computer twelve hours a day for a decade. The attractions of the dropout lifestyle are illusory, however—the routine changes, but the same dogged inertia persists. “As long as you don’t ask yourself why you keep doing something,” writes Kim, “you can keep doing it until the day you die.” In The Plotters, however, Kim asks whether futile rebellion is better than nothing.
Since futile rebellion is an essential component of noir literature, there’s a closer match here between theme and plot. Reseng tries to murder his way out of his crime family, only to realize that all of Korean society—all of human society, perhaps—is a crime family. “From the very beginning human beings have been plotting to kill one another in order to live,” says Old Raccoon. “It’s the true reality of the world. That’s how we began, and it’s how we’ve lived all this time. It’s probably how we’ll always live. Because no one knows how to stop ityet…. That’s what has to happen to keep the wheels turning.”
In an enchanting interlude, Reseng escapes his life and assumes a new identity in a small industrial town. He finds a job on an assembly line, dates a coworker, and moves in with her. Soon they’ve settled into a routine: shopping, meal planning, TV, sex. Old Raccoon ultimately succeeds in tracking down Reseng but, in a rare act of pity, pledges to erase his former identity. Reseng is free to continue living his life as a factory worker. As soon as the conversation ends, however, Reseng walks out of the factory without a word to his girlfriend, leaving behind his apartment, his possessions, and the town, never to return. Life as a factory grunt, he realizes, is no different from life as an assassin. Your boss tells you what to do, you don’t ask questions, and one day your job kills you.
Reseng ultimately resolves to win his independence in the most spectacularly violent way possible, even though he realizes that his rebellion can only end in his own death. He figures it’s a fair exchange. Unlike Kong, who blunders into rebellion and exile, Reseng makes his choice with a clear understanding of its consequences.
Kim’s novels could be read as parables about capitalism, technocracy, or our intractable descent into ecological horror. They could just as well serve as parables about literature itself. They trouble conventional wisdom, asking the ultimate questions, with full confidence that the whole enterprise won’t do anything to change the world, apart from helping us to imagine our place in it.