Ch’oe In-ho, Another Man's City, Trans. by Bruce Fulton, Ju-Chan Fulton. Dalkey Archive Press, 2014.
An excerpt from Another Man’s City in Asymptote
Another Man’s City is structured as a virtual-reality narrative manipulated by an entity referred to variously as the Invisible Hand or Big Brother. The scenario is reminiscent of Peter Weir’s 1998 film The Truman Show and Kazuo Ishiguro's novel The Unconsoled. The novel begins with a series of seemingly minor juxtapositions of the familiar and the strange, as a result of which the protagonist, K, gradually finds himself inside a Matrix-like reality populated with shape-shifting characters.
This lightly Kafkaesque fable from a South Korean writer presents a man who suddenly finds his world not quite right in increasingly strange ways.
Known only as K, the hero wakes up one morning to find his alarm ringing on a Saturday, his pajamas missing and his favorite aftershave changed from brand V to Y. They’re small, almost explainable alterations, especially given the heavy drinking he performed the previous night. Soon, though, it’s clear that many things aren’t what they should be or what they seem to be, and that includes his wife and daughter and most of his relatives. More deceptions, illusions, masks and role-playing arise as K embarks on what’s at first a simple quest to find his lost mobile phone. Something that reads like a butcher’s promotion is an ad “from a purveyor of human organs.” A psychiatrist could be a “fruitcake.” A girl for hire, wonderfully named Sailor Moon, the Moon Nymph, is a “Pinocchio-like figure.” The whole situation could be a “mammoth conspiracy,” an “elaborate production that Big Brother was staging.” Like the almost-boy, Choi’s imagination is also loose-limbed, at times seeming to scramble through a grab bag of ideas, allusions and narrative elements, and ultimately succumbing to some unsatisfying gimmickry. Yet he has a knack for the sinister moment, and one fine and funny sustained passage takes K the devout Catholic through Confession and Mass. Most impressive is the consistency of K’s voice, sometimes comical, ever skeptical, oddly acquiescent—more Beckett than Kafka and a real achievement.
Choi may be straining for postmodern effects, but there’s a lot of charm to his anxious novel, as if Thurber and Orwell had gotten together for a skull session. - Kirkus Reviews
God often plays an outsized role in science fiction, if only by not showing up. In H. G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds, for example, the narrator encounters a deranged curate—that’s an assistant to an Anglican priest—in the turmoil following a Martian invasion. The two hide in a ruined house, where the holy man rants on how the extraterrestrials are God’s punishment for a fallen world. The narrator must incapacitate him with a shovel to prevent the enemy from detecting them. Later, as the Martians fall prey to a virus benign to humanity, the irony becomes clear: Matter, not spirit, drives the universe.
But the genre can’t quite leave Christianity, and many SF writers have speculated in ways much more commodious to the religion. In November 1974, Philip K. Dick received a mystical vision that would later become a legendary episode in the history of the genre. At home, recovering from an operation on an impacted wisdom tooth, he received a visit from a strange and beautiful woman wearing an ichthys, the Christian symbol of the fish, as a gold pendant on her neck. Dick then described a “pink laser” shooting from the symbol directly into his mind and imbuing him with divine logos. This included the author catching a glimpse into a parallel life as Timothy, a persecuted Christian living in 1st-century Rome. The vision set off a torrent of creative activity, which included Dick’s later novels VALIS, The Divine Invasion, Radio Free Albemuth, as well as an 8,000-page journal of philosophical speculations, selections of which were published in 2011 as The Exegesis of Philip K. Dick.
Intimations of the divine can also be found in Another Man’s City, a short novel by the late Korean writer Ch’oe In-ho (excerpted in Asymptote here). The book follows K, a middle-aged banker, as he attempts to reconstruct missing memories following a night of heavy drinking. Things are, of course, not what they appear to be. His domestic life, tranquil on the surface, begins to exhibit cracks. Wife and daughter begin to treat him differently, as if they were becoming different people. K wanders the streets of Seoul in search of answers. He encounters a wide range of sinister or eccentric characters who aid or thwart his efforts respectively. As he progresses on his quest, K comes to realize that a vast intelligence, inhuman but capable of taking human form, is guiding events.
From the summary, you would be forgiven for thinking Another Man’s City to be the work of Haruki Murakami, and the similarities between Ch’oe’s novel and those of his famous Japanese contemporary deserve some further attention. First of all, there’s K. Like many of Murakami’s protagonists, he’s a rather colorless figure. And his crisis of identity, however mysterious, is firmly rooted within the drab realities of a middling professional man, a type recognizable in Seoul, Tokyo, New York, or wherever.
And also like Murakami, Ch’oe generously borrows elements from popular culture, not only as a way of rooting the narrative in contemporary life but as a crucial element in the plot itself. It may seem perverse, having existential questions hinge on details from Sailor Moon and the Power Rangers, but in that regard K seems quite plausible. It’s a distinct fact of contemporary life that grown men and women will use children’s entertainment as a key to deciphering their lives.
Where Ch’oe and Murakami diverge sharply is on matters of faith. The Japanese novelist prefers to investigate its more sinister aspects, especially in Underground, his investigation of the Aum Shinrikyo cult and their 1995 sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway system. In contrast, Ch’oe’s protagonist is conventionally religious. He attends Catholic mass and believes in the teachings of the Church regarding sin and absolution. And though K does not narrate, his faith tints the perspective of the novel with Christian values, which form the negative and positive poles of the book.
The bad first: the protagonist’s distinct revulsion toward sex. As a more or less conventional believer, K is disturbed by unrestrained carnality. Yet the narrative tone doesn’t quite work, with its moralizing bent sliding too easily into scolding. Early in the novel, the protagonist finds himself in an empty movie theater where a man and a woman are copulating in the darkness. K’s own antipathy spills over into poorly stated condemnation of social license in general. “They were like drug addicts seeking a place to inject the poison of artificial pleasure—a public toilet, an alley, a fire escape, a rooftop, seat H15, seat J23. Or like gay men looking for a place to plant themselves in each other’s rosy sphincters.” This ugly priggishness rears its head at points elsewhere, often enough to trigger doubt as to what’s at issue. Is it K’s position as believer in a liberal, secular society? If so, one would do better in reading other Catholic conservatives like Walker Percy, Muriel Spark, or Shūsaku Endō.
For the good, let’s return to the theme of mystical communion, where Ch’oe follows in Philip K. Dick’s tradition. K is on a spiritual rather than material journey, and this raises the stakes of the novel, becoming more than just another tale of an aimless, middle-aged man trying to solve the riddle of himself. After attending mass, K thinks of what an accurate representation of his soul might look like. A Möbius strip, he decides, but that’s not quite all.
And the cross is exactly the same—can’t tell inside from outside, beginning from end, or right from left—it’s a Jesus strip. The two members of the cross intersect, but the image of Jesus has no boundary between inner and outer, beginning and end, alpha and omega. But doesn’t the anti-Christ also use that cross as his trademark? Just like counterfeiters focus all their efforts on faking the authenticity of a brand?
K then epitomizes what the psychologist William James called “the sick soul” who yearns to be made whole again. Missing memory is the least of his problems. As he approaches the truth of what happened to him while having a night on the town, K realizes that the people around him, his family and friends, even K himself, are merely elements in an artificially created environment. The simulacra he encounters represent elements in a spiritual machine, which exists outside time and space. K’s encounter with the divine might not resonate with too many readers, but it vividly shows the strange directions that religious belief might take in a world of omnipresent technology and globalized popular culture. - Matthew Spencer
Another Man's City covers barely more than a single weekend, describing what the character K experiences, feels, and thinks as he finds his world slightly (and then increasingly) out of whack.
As the opening headings suggest, the story closely tracks unfolding events, down to the exact time as K progresses through his days:
SATURDAYAnd as the parenthetical 'Power on' might suggest, this isn't entirely an everyday story, on any level. Exactly how far those levels reach isn't immediately clear, but it won't come as a surprise that the book's closing words are:
For all the precision, Another Man's City finds K in a bit of a daze. It begins when his alarm goes off at 7 in the morning -- on a Saturday, when it shouldn't. His memories of the previous evening are hazy, and include a whole block of lost time -- and he seems to have forgotten his phone somewhere along the way. Small details are wrong, too: he wakes up naked, despite never having slept without his pajamas his entire married life, for example, and his aftershave -- V, whose: "scent defined him" -- has inexplicably been replaced by aftershave Y. There's something off about his wife, too and all sorts of other small and larger details. Adding injury to confusion, his daughter's puppy bites him.
K feels like:
everyone was plotting to turn his life upside down. Behind a façade of peace and tranquility they were deceiving him, they were preying on his frailties.
Things get stranger, as K sees people he vaguely recognizes -- more and more -- but generally can't quite place them, or if he can, their presence doesn't add up. And in trying to piece together what happened the night before, he tries to retrace his steps, but the paths he follows raise more questions than they answer.
"Familiarity was a deception", he finds, as everything familiar is off kilter. It feels like some greater force, some 'Big Brother' is staging life for him, but isn't getting the smaller details just right. K tries to reason his way through what's happening -- "I think, therefore I am. I am, therefore I am not deceived", he tells himself -- but the world around him becomes more surreal the more he engages with it. K encounters his old brother-in-law, who reveals an unusual but still plausible other side to his identity, and then his sister, whom K hasn't been in touch with for ages, now a bloated woman out of the spotlight she once enjoyed.
From the wife, who doesn't seem quite like the woman he has long been married to any longer, to a variety of characters who have assumed new roles -- some only part-time, in forms of what can seem like play-acting -- the boundaries between familiar reality and this seemingly slightly different world K finds himself navigating remain mostly vague. K feels things are wrong, but he finds it hard to put his finger on exactly what's wrong -- and some of the explanations he reaches for, like that the woman now posing as his wife is some substitute, seem far-fetched even to him.
Ch'oe leads the reader along with K through this odd, off-kilter world, and he doesn't disappoint with the final twists in this reality of doubles and of assumed roles. An unusual speculative philosophical-existential story, Another Man's City takes the very grounded K for quite a ride, and the reader along with him. Ch'oe's narrative veers towards the science-fictional, but is -- unsurprisingly, given the protagonist's identifying name and the focus on both the mystifying and ineffable circumstances he is confronted with and on physical change (i.e. metamorphosis) -- closer to Kafka in atmosphere and feel. (Kafka does get an incidental mention in the story, too.)
The danger with a novel such as this is of course that it can sink in its own willful murk. For the most part, however, Ch'oe's close description of K's progress over these few days is readily followed. Only in some of the deeper issues that surface -- questions of intimacy and sex, or his family-relations going back to his childhood -- can it feel like the reader is left in a bit of a lurch; indeed, the K outside these pages and this time-span -- such as at work (he works in banking) -- arguably remains too little-known.
Ultimately, Another Man's City is perhaps stretched just a bit too far -- without the adequate foundations to support that -- but in the unpredictable and unusual turns it takes is an intriguing examination of contemporary life and identity -- the roles we play and the ones forced on us -- that allows for myriad interpretations. - M.A.Orthofer
As I’m writing this, the rain is beginning. The spattering sounds of drops hitting the fat, broad maple leaves on the tree outside my window catch my ear like static. The rain turns on the rich, dirt smell of the ground and dampens the sound of passing traffic. My neighbor, who plays the piano for the Portland Opera, is practicing some Brahms and singing out the notes as he plays them.
This is my place. Do I think I belong here because my senses interpret it as “mine,” and I’m attached to the reality I identify as “mine,” or do I belong in any old place, whether I recognize my surroundings or not?
This impossible question is the crux of Choe In-Ho’s novel Another Man’s City. I walked into it expecting something bizarre, futuristic, and possibly a bit whimsical. But this is not The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. Instead, I ended up in one of Philip K. Dick’s amphetamine dreams. “Every train station displays a timetable,” he writes,
For the public, it’s a kind of civic contract, it’s the way things work. Likewise, weren’t all K’s thoughts and actions following a sequence, a meticulous computerized program? Hadn’t K become a human train, an automaton, coming and going as programmed?For K, the unmoored hero of Another Man’s City, the universe collapses on a Saturday, around 7 a.m. He wakes up, shakes off his hangover, and after a few bilious heaves, comes to terms with the strange, fleshy creature who sulks at him in the mirror. Last night went poorly; he came home drunk, couldn’t get an erection, and forgot to turn off his alarm clock. And another thing: “And then, for the first time in his fifteen years of married life, he had risen from his bed naked, his bedclothes having vanished like a magician’s dove. And finally his aftershave had disappeared, replaced with a brand he wouldn’t be caught dead with.” Curiouser and curiouser. K, it seems, has woken up on the wrong side of someone else’s bed, next to someone else’s wife. Even his dog fails to recognize him and sinks its puppyish fangs into his ankle. Can it get worse? Absolutely.
Bitter, bare, and oppressive in its tone, Another Man’s City is a claustrophobic story about a man going to pieces. Convinced that he has somehow been replaced by a clone of himself—or maybe he is the clone?—K whips himself into a paranoid lather. Is his wife really his wife? Is his wife the same woman as his best friend’s wife? His suspicion seems to center totally around women, their inherent untrustworthiness. He seems to think they’re interchangeable, and in fact one woman easily becomes the surrogate for another.
On top of this, Choe, who converted to Catholicism in the 1980s, layers on a thick frosting of Catholic imagery. Original sin, cheating wives, and unpredictable lust bubble through the crust, adding a creepy logic to K’s unwieldy thinking. “He remembered passing his hand across the cheek of his mother just before she was encoffined—his wife had felt even colder. The frigidity of marble, of ice, of an inanimate object—that’s how his wife’s body had felt.”
Choe is one of South Korea’s most famous writers. Decorated with literary awards from a young age, he often wrote in a way that criticized Korea’s totalitarian regime, and his signature, surrealist style is credited for breathing new life into modern Korean fiction. 19 of his works were made into films, and his novels were serialized in the magazine Saemto for more than 34 years, a record in South Korean publishing. He was so famous that his book covers were adorned with his face—no author photo hidden on the back jacket flap. He pushes the envelope in every way, challenging us to change our minds about everything we know (or think we know) about ourselves.
In Another Man’s City, Choe’s fifth novel to be translated into English, we’re led by a master storyteller through the maze of our own minds. As K doubts his reality, the reader begins to doubt K. Who’s the crazy one here, I wondered. If K’s madness is so accessible, is mine, too? Is his paranoia the symptom of a mental illness, or is it the natural consequence of realizing that there are larger, darker forces at work, pulling the strings that underlie every aspect of human life?
These are big questions, and they push Another Man’s City beyond the genre parameters of science fiction. This is the novel that Choe In-Ho, who died in 2013 at 68, wished to be remembered by: according to the translators, “he finished the first draft in two months, writing as usual by hand, but with thumb and fingertip thimble guards, his fingernails and hair having been lost to chemotherapy and radiation treatments.” Reading, I imagine the author bending over his notebook, a man so pale that his extremities are nearly transparent, doing the work of transmitting his final story. I wonder if the rain distracted him; if, like K, he felt so much fear that he wanted to leap out of his skin.
Maybe, like K, he felt like an ant on a Mobius strip, “on an infinite journey, from inner to outer and back to inner, a journey without beginning or end,” with no goal in mind except making it through the next day. Or maybe he was like any of us, ill at ease in the world even as he claimed it for his own. Maybe there is no moral, no punch line. Maybe we can hear the single footfalls of the rain. - Claire Rudy Foster