Scenes from the class struggle, Gangnam-style.
Grandpa is convinced that the Japanese, who have not ruled Korea since 1945, are bugging his phone. Pop has taken to calling Grandpa “the old man.” Grandpa is old, of course, born in 1916, but that’s no reason to rub it in—it’s just a sign of the coldness and disrespect that has settled in between the generations. “I’m not trying to make an ethical point here,” insists the protagonist of Kim’s story “The Country Where the Sun Never Rises,” whose day consists of work, sleep, and stopping at the corner store for a pack of cigarettes, a bottle of soju, and a lottery ticket—the cigarettes for Pop, the booze for Grandpa, and the lottery ticket for the young man, desperate for a way out. Kim’s characters are much put upon, long enduring, and discontented no matter what rung of the social ladder they’re on. In “Ninety-Nine Percent,” an ad writer is convinced that he’s seen his well-heeled, abrasive boss somewhere before—but where? Both boss and writer lock into a weird head butting that hinges on the elevation of the Jungfrau, the Swiss alp that speaks volumes about “new market segments that we can explore.” In the world Kim limns, people are commodities, and those who can afford it are slaves to whatever fashion happens to be current; in “The Runner,” a yuppie’s girlfriend turns up “wearing a hoodie and a denim mini-skirt with black knee-socks and expensive, imported running shoes,” guided to her look by a Japanese fashion magazine. So are the Japanese bugging her phone, too? That would be the least of the conflicts that unfold, conflicts on which Kim’s elegant vignettes turn.
Kim opens an intriguing window into modern South Korean society, a slice of the world that is confoundingly different from ours—but also much the same.