The science fiction bookshelves at the New York Public Library are filled with many gems. Granted, I have been frustrated more than once when trying to find books by authors who write in multiple genres, but a quick perusal of these shelves gives me a good idea of what's happening in that genre. Thanks to the librarians (or whoever is doing the book purchasing), there's a wealth of small-press books spread among the mix. If it weren't for these beleaguered and faceless civil servants, I might never have found Minsoo Kang's story collection, Of Tales and Enigmas (Prime Books, 2006).
I took it off the shelf because the cover has a George Fredrick Watts painting on it and I'm a sucker for nineteenth-century Gothic Romanticism. But it was the description of the stories inside, the mix of subject matter and styles, that made me ultimately take it home.
Of Tales and Enigmas consists of fifteen stories divided into three thematic sections: "Tales from a Lost History," "Fables of the Dream World," and "Stories from an Imaginary Homeland." Three of the "Fables of the Dream World" appeared in Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet 11 (2002), and a fourth in the Korean American anthology Manoa 11.2 (1999). Kang is Korean by birth but has spent much of his life traveling the globe. He's a historian by training whose reviews and essay have appeared in the American Historical Review, the Times Literary Supplement, Rethinking History, and Comitatus.
Kang belongs to that circle of Asian authors who have consciously adopted the styles of Western genre fiction. Edogawa Rampo, Haruki Murakami, and Chang Hsi-Kuo all took a piece of their style from the work of genre. Whether in horror, mystery, or science fiction, these authors found a key to their fiction in styles and modes outside their culture. In each case they did more than merely mimic style and content; they used genre to express their personal vision. Rampo went beyond Edgar Allan Poe in his exploration of the criminally perverse. Murakami took Philip Marlowe and turned him into an alienated everyman wandering the streets of Tokyo. Chang used the style of Jack Vance and Isaac Asimov to re-create Taiwanese history as space opera. Similarly, Kang finds his inspiration in the work of Jorge Luis Borges, Umberto Eco, and Italo Calvino.
Of Tales and Enigmas has the necessary comparisons to Borges displayed on the cover (and not just once, but three times). It is a comparison made by fiction and publishers almost too desperate to be well regarded. What foreign author working in the fantasist style has not been compared to Borges? And Kang's work at times consciously reaches for this respectability. He ends stories with quotes from Eco, Calvino, and Borges, and he's written stories that draw attention to the fact that they are stories. Here's a typical self-referential Borgesian bit of prose, from "The Dilemma of the Beggar and the King":
Your dilemma in the face of the identities of the king and the beggar arises from the mistaken assumption that you are dealing with only two people. In truth, there are two more beings whose actions and natures are directly responsible for both who these two individuals before us are and what they have done. There are the king-who-might-be-the-beggar and the beggar-who-might-be-the-king, but there is also a writer of this very story that we are living in who created and wrote of these individuals, and the rest of us as well. But that is not all. There is also God who created the storyteller, and so is responsible for everything in the ultimate sense. (p. 127)
Repeated three or four times, this style starts to negate itself. The stories fail to coalesce and become merely the essence of labyrinths sprayed from an aerosol can like air freshener. But beneath this miasma of earnestness, the true treasures in the collection can be found. Stories such as "The Beautiful and Useful Machine: An Intellectual History" and "Hwansang of Munmyeong" evoke all the mystery of Borges without hitting the reader over the head with their attempted profundity.
In fact, "Hwansang of Munmyeong" is the standout story from the first section. It recounts the tales of a group of men and a woman as they search for the title character. A lover, a hero, a villain, a con man, and a saint—Hwansang of Munmyeong is all of them:
The last realized that it was not Hwansang of Munmyeong each of them had sought, that he was only a beacon in the quest to understand the mystery of their own lives, a sign long since revealed to them in the course of their long journey to the non-existent center of the world. (p. 75)
In "The Beautiful and Useful Machine," Kang creates a whole series of intellectual movements and philosophies of a civilization that has at its center a Beautiful and Useful Machine. As the story's subtitle claims, this is an intellectual history. Sectarian strife, factionalism, historical lectures, and overheard conversations provide a composite view of the mysteries of the machine. The story calls to mind Stanislaw Lem at his most experimentally playful, as in the collection of fictitious introductions Imaginary Magnitude. There are stories within stories, as in the "Lost Pictures," in which a disgraced monk finds himself in an abandoned house and pieces together a metaphysical tragedy from the murals on the walls. There are inconclusive scraps of legends ("Lady Faraway") and the exploration of the real and the illusory ("The Well of Dreams").
But it's in the last section that the book really shines and Kang exhibits a voice of his own. These five stories share a sense of loss and a yearning for a time and place that might never have been. They are ghost stories and tales of chance encounters ("The Ghost Child," "A Confucian Coincidence," and "A Fearful Symmetry," which is available in The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror 2007 and takes place in the DMZ between North and South Korea). At other times they address the chimerical nature of history.
In "The Death of King Gongmin: A Murder Mystery," Kang traces the story of "an obscure king of an obscure age of an obscure country. A monarch in the shadow of history" (p. 176). The trail leads through conflicting texts written by courtiers trying to rewrite history and bring legitimacy to their dynasties. Truth and rumor, fantasy and hearsay: it's a fascinating story, and Kang quotes Voltaire—"History is after all nothing but a pack of lies we play on the dead" (p. 166)—as he sets about his interrogation of King Gongmin. In the essay/memoir "Gyeongbok Palace: History, Controversy, Geomancy," Kang furthers this exploration of the nature of history:
For some blessed countries, history is something that happened long ago and far away. For others, the present is full of the past, sometimes as a great burden that prevents forward movement and other times as a great storm that sweeps everything up and takes it to some unknown place in the future. A historian living in a fortunate country may complain of the public's lack of interest in the past, but it should be realized that the people to whom history matters the most are those of troubled lands, where the tempest of events is still raging. . . . That is why I find the Korean obsession with history both fascinating and sad. (p. 211)
This story becomes the crowning achievement in Of Tales and Enigmas and shows that Kang is at his best when crafting his stories from his observations of our world and not following so closely in the footsteps of well-regarded fantasists. It was these explorations and visions throughout the book that made the collection an unexpected pleasure. In the future I hope Kang shares more of them.
Justin Howe is a graduate of the Odyssey Writers Workshop currently living in New York City. His work has appeared online at Spacesuits and Sixguns and the Internet Review of Science Fiction. He has several other reviews available in Strange Horizons's archives.