These tales of obsession reverberate with the hard, cool, and dryly comic voice of one of South Korea’s most versatile writers (I Hear Your Voice, 2017, etc.).
In the title story, which takes up practically half of this svelte collection, Kim Byeongsu is entering his eighth decade afflicted with Alzheimer’s. Because his mind has shattered into fragments that wander or collide, he is compelled to write down everything and anything that comes into his head before it vanishes into the ether. Observations, random encounters, physical details, reminiscences, pieces of poetry—they all somehow find their ways into his journal. When he’s able to connect some of these jottings, Byeongsu determines that there’s a serial killer at loose in his neighborhood and that the next victim could be his daughter, Eunhui. Such reasoning is based on personal experience: Byeongsu himself was a career serial killer who managed to evade the law for three decades until he quit and took up…bowling? Maybe it was a car accident that shook him out of “the work that [he's] best at.” He’s not sure, and neither are we. Creeping anxiety and Kafkaesque humor meld in this deceptively intricate novella (the foundation of a 2017 movie, Memoir of a Murderer, co-scripted by its author), goading you into believing just about anything Byeongsu says, no matter how disreputable his past or unreliable his memory. The other three stories retain the first one’s chilliness (sustained nicely with help from Lee’s translation), which comes across somewhat diffused in different, but no less jolting, contexts. In “The Origin of Life,” a liaison between former childhood friends distorts itself into what appears at first to be a romantic triangle but coalesces into a more rhomboidlike shape. “Missing Child” ramps up the intimacy of terror (and vice versa) in chronicling a kidnap case, while “The Writer” frolics with sex, lies, and philosophy in tracking the crash and burn of its title character.
Kim’s gifts may need a bigger canvas than the short form allows to spread his wings. Still, this is a lively, enthralling introduction to his eclectic artistry.