Bored at work, Kong Deok-geun explores the office building he’s in and stumbles upon Cabinet 13. With nothing else to do, he returns day after day to try different combinations for the lock until he finds the right one and begins reading the case files within. Including the one about a man with a ginkgo tree growing from his hand, the story of a girl with a lizard for a tongue, anecdotes from people who drink gasoline, and records of “memory mosaicers” who can alter their memories and rewrite their pasts.
When Professor Kwon, who keeps the records, finds out that Mr. Kong has been breaking in, he makes the unexpected decision to take on Kong Deok-geun as his assistant. So begins Mr. Kong’s work with the symptomers as dull corporate life drones on in the background. In between the demands of his office job, which include socializing with bosses and coworkers after hours, Mr. Kong takes calls from symptomers and those who want to become symptomers so they, too, can have superhuman traits and powers. Initially unconcerned with the nature of Professor Kwon’s research, Mr. Kong soon finds that darker motives are at play, ones that may put him in danger as Professor Kwon chooses a successor.
The Cabinet is told in a playful, tongue-in-cheek voice that works well with the surreal nature of the narrative—but there’s also a deeply philosophical thread weaving through the story. While The Cabinet may superficially be a series of intriguing and amusing vignettes about augmented or evolved humans, the deeper narrative focuses on deconstructing the nature of society and how we understand ourselves as individuals. In particular, The Cabinet makes visible the artificial constraints of capitalism as it highlights and questions social norms.
He’s not afraid because he doesn’t understand why flames come from his mouth. No, he’s afraid because he doesn’t understand why he’s different.
The Cabinet feels deeply informed by a specific South Korean capitalist context. Many of Mr. Kong’s musings about purposes, and the marginalization of the symptomers, relate to the fact that the symptomers don’t fit within the expectations of Korean society, in particular the demands made of them by capitalism. Capitalism is portrayed as bleak, the end of people. Through the banality of the characters’ lives and their struggles to find fulfillment, Kim illustrates how the demands of capitalism crush people and pull them away from a deeper understanding of themselves.
I found it particularly fascinating how Kim highlights the fact that time within capitalism is a constructed concept, as symbolized by the “Clock of Babel”:
Our bodies demand sleep, but the Clock of Babel demands we wake up and go to work. The Clock of Babel doesn’t care if we’re not hungry: it’s time for lunch; it’s time to eat. The Clock of Babel doesn’t care if we don’t want to talk: it’s meeting time—time to flick our tongues rapidly and come up with new ideas.
The Clock of Babel pushes me to move faster. Whenever this happens, I feel myself groping for the rusty lever that will allow me to move my clanky metal suit of armor a few more inches. The colossal Clock of Babel shouts out to the city, “We’re on Modern Time!”
I must confess, I think we’re in different time zones.
For Kim, time is a deeply personal concept and experience. Many of the symptomers experience time differently, as do the torporers, who lose significant amounts of time to uncontrollable hibernation, and the time skippers, whose frequent episodes of lost time intrude on their ability to live their lives meaningfully. Losing time is portrayed as a destructive and traumatic experience, one that leaves people feeling displaced, echoing the office workers’ laments about not having enough time for themselves around their jobs.
It wasn’t a misunderstanding. The problem was time. The problem was they exist in a universe in which time is fundamentally different for anyone. […] According to this cosmic teaching, the only time an individual can perceive is its own. It is less that we lack empathy, and more that we never could understand each other in the first place.
The Cabinet simultaneously engages with ideas on a macro and micro level. On the macro level of the narrative, The Cabinet philosophizes about society, capitalism, and time. Running parallel to that is the micro level of the narrative, focused on the individuals who make up that society. The opening vignette about Ludgar Sylbaris and the vignettes about the memory mosaicers in particular focus on how we construct our own personal narratives. How do we make sense of our pasts to give our present selves a sense of identity, continuity, and meaning?
The Cabinet is more of an ideas book than a book that you’d read for the story. I found myself drawn into the narration’s exploration of philosophical concepts, all done in an approachable, whimsical tone, but I felt far less pull when it came to the plot. I found the conclusion of the book in particular to be jarring, as the story escalated into violence that I wasn’t expecting and that didn’t match the tone of the rest of the novel. By the end of the book, I still didn’t know what the true purpose of Professor Kwon’s research was, either, nor did the ending conclude Mr. Kong’s character arc in a way that felt satisfying. But I ultimately felt that the purpose of the narrative was more about exploration and questioning than storytelling.
For the most part, the translation reads smoothly. The one line that gave me pause was “Tomayto, tomahto. She likes cats, she doesn’t like you—what’s the difference?” as the decision to go with an English-specific phrase felt like a bit too much localization. Also, Halbert italicizes terms in Korean, which disrupts my immersion in the story, but that’s a personal preference; italics still appear to be the norm in the translation of literary fiction. I’m unable to read the original Korean, so it was unclear to me whether contextualizing statements in the text (such as “large as Totoro, that creature from the Miyazaki film”) were part of the original or a translation technique. I got the sense that the narrative contextualizes itself for non-Korean readers, but I’m unable to tell whether that existed in the original Korean, or if it’s an artifact of the translation.
The Cabinet is an anti-capitalist narrative at its core, one that makes explicit the arbitrariness of capitalist expectations and assumptions. Kim deftly juggles both macro-level and micro-level ideas about social roles, purpose, and personal narrative. More of a thought experiment than a thriller, The Cabinet is a lighthearted, amusing read that nonetheless dives into some deep philosophical topics.