The Cabinet by Un-Su Kim
(Angry Robot, 2021)
Reviewed by Kate Onyett
The book begins with a tall tale about a man alone and the lengths he took to populate his isolated days. It ends with a man alone and wondering if staying safe and isolated is worth it. The book started with a question, posed to the creative loner: what happened to make you this way?
The first-person narrator is a disaffected young man, burned out by the failure of society’s promises, watching his coworkers and other people with a distant contempt. Stuck in a dead-end, unfulfilling job he finds a cabinet full of files on strange and impossible people. Those who can jump through time, grow plants on their bodies, sleep for long periods of time with no ill effect, eat and drink preposterous substances and even have a duplicate soul. There are even those who want to be Symptomers, and those for whom modern living has rendered their life and behaviour so bizarre and frightening, they fear they have become Symptomers. Our narrator is caught reading the files by the professor working on these cases and charged by him to help with recording and supporting Symptomers. Are Symptomers in fact the next stage in human evolution or are they aberrations?
However, this is not a sci-fi novel. It is actually the story of the narrator’s answer to that first question, whether he realises it or not. He claims his main problem is boredom, but this is not true. ‘Boredom’ is the protective cloak of numbness he has drawn about himself. As the book progresses, we peel it back to find a man with a good heart, but a fragile soul.
Kim explores and criticises the human condition in the modern world. His protagonist has had pretty much all that life can throw at someone: a struggling youth, three huge emotional losses in one short summer, suffering the utter contempt with which the powers that be regard his life while doing military service, and the failure to achieve in the system of life despite playing by the rules. The narrator is a nondescript everyman, chewed up and spat out. Reference is often made to the ubiquitous City in which he lives and works, where ‘making it’ actually means no less than justifying your very existence. Falling through the cracks means total, ignominious failure. This may be felt more intensively in Kim's culture, but it is a message that now wraps around the world wherever capitalistic power is the main societal construct.
Symptomers are the burst of colour, the parts that do not fit, the transformative ones. Are ‘normal’ people any better off than Symptomers and the situations that their condition leaves them in? Going deeper, are Symptomers metaphors for really living life that the narrator is so afraid to do? Are they risks he feels he cannot afford? Or are they maybe allegories for his regret, pain and loss? Despite this weight, the book reads so softly, like a fever dream; a tender, magical plunge into the dark night of the soul. Rare it is to come across a book that challenges in such a soft, polite manner.
The final part of the story, when it kicks up several notches and turns into a full-blown spy thriller, (complete with smooth-taking torturer and a mysterious escape), is the time when the narrator’s mettle is being directly tested by circumstance. It has come to this. Will he be a hero and sacrifice himself to save the Symptomers or sell them out? If heroics means rising above one’s condition to be extraordinary in the moment, don’t hold your breath. Before tutting, consider: given the chance of something truly astonishing, how many of us would or could take it? How many of us, really, could be heroic, or would we, too, run? This examination of human psyche is a subtle, misanthropic little tale, leaving a bitter-sweet recognition behind.