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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


Bae Myung-hoon

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To purchase Tower

Title: Tower
Author: Bae Myung-hoon
Genre: Novel
Written: 2009 (Eng. 2021)
Length: 251 pages
Original in: Korean
Availability: Tower - US
Tower - UK
Tower - Canada
La torrre - Italia
directly from: Honford Star
  • Korean title: 타워
  • Translated by Sung Ryu

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Our Assessment:

B : neat premise; creative tales around it

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       Tower is a collection of very loosely overlapping stories that all take place in and feature the mammoth building-as-nation-state of the title, the tower called Beanstalk. The super-structure has 674 floors -- yet even these are not the simply layered stories of your usual building; instead: "oddly-shaped spaces like Tetris blocks were piled to a height commensurate with 674 floors, so you could not say for sure how many floors the building had". Beanstalk has a population of half a million people, and is seen as: "something of a symbol of modern capitalism, where every inch and movement on its territory was commercialized". Housing is, unsurprisingly, expensive, but employment in Beanstalk is highly sought-after; several of the stories feature outsiders who have settled there. All in all it comes across something like a super-compact Singapore -- albeit with a slightly more militaristic edge, as hostilities with rival Cosmomafia repeatedly threaten to escalate.
       Despite the large population living in a relatively tight space, the stories in Tower focus on individuals; these might work in or constantly come in touch with larger organizations or groups, but mostly the stories really only show their dealings with a very few other people. Indeed, there's a surprising sense of isolation, with close interaction tending to be limited to a very few characters while the greater interactions blur into anonymous crowd-scenes. Among the most extreme is the epistolary chapter, 'The Buddha in the Square', in which a brother-in-law, a former office worker who recently got a job in Beanstalk as a security guard, corresponds with his sister-in-law abroad; the story is entirely in the form of their letters back and forth. Beside the complicated family dynamics -- the wife is constantly mentioned in the letters, but is not part of the conversation, apparently not thinking highly of her husband -- it also gives some insight into the staggering dimensions of the building, as the security force not only features a new mounted horse unit but also imports an elephant for crowd control -- hoisted up to Level 321, where the brother-in-law becomes its main minder. (As readers might imagine, an elephant in an enclosed space -- no matter how spacious -- three hundred floors up, plus crowds meant to be controlled ... it does not end well.)
       Other stories describe the antagonism between the horizontalists and the verticalists, as the building is criss-crossed with elevators and walkways to transport people around, with many changes of transportation usually needed to get from place to place, as few elevators go anywhere near top-to-bottom. Taklamakan Misdelivery explains the unusual internal mail delivery system in Beanstalk, where people pick up and drop off letters in mailboxes situated at each elevator, passengers moving the mail along if they're headed in the same direction -- a fairly efficient (if not entirely reliable) system. In this story, however, a city public relations officer, Byungsoo, suddenly finds that he has been carrying around some letters that he picked up but forgot to drop off for some four months. One is a postcard, sent by a Kim Minso, from a neighboring country, to a Cho Eunsoo, now a satellite designer in Beanstalk; they had been a couple, but five years earlier Eunsoo had gone to Beanstalk to further her career -- leading Minso also to apply for a contractor job with the Beanstalk Navy, in the hopes of eventually obtaining citizenship this way. When the plane Minso is piloting crashes in enemy territory he can not rely on the Beanstalk Defense Forces to save him -- not least because, lost in the desert, he'd be difficult to find. The story finds Byungsoo and Eunsoo utilizing their abilities and contacts to essentially crowd-source the problem of finding Minso -- a needle-in-the-haystack problem of examining satellite pictures. A remarkable number of people, in Beanstalk and abroad, join in -- an anonymous crowd, but showing society working together, something of a surprise to those used to the ultra-capitalist go-it-alone Beanstalk ethos.
       The final story, 'Fully Compliant', finds Beanstalk seriously threatened by Cosmomafia. They fear an ICBM strike, to which the building would obviously be vulnerable, but soon learn that the danger already lurks within. Already in the first story a bomb had gone off, a blow to the belief that well-guarded Beanstalk with its highly secure borders was safe. With its sleeper agent, cat-and-mouse game, and large and smaller-scale real estate speculation, this story is typical of how Bae mixes the features of Beanstalk with a variety of personal elements and somewhat unusual twists. If, like most of the stories, it also relies on some simplification -- it's hard to believe Choi Sinhak, in his significant role as Administrative Officer, wouldn't be listened to more closely as his suspicions firm up, especially given the stakes here -- it's also anything but predictable.
       The collection consists of six stories, but a nice added feature is an Appendix that includes three smaller pieces, connecting back to the heart of the collection. So, for example, 'In Praise of Nature' featured K, a "die-hard realist writer" who is also "terraphobic", never venturing down to the ground floor (and hence the outside world) who has suddenly, surprisingly, started: "extolling the beauty of Mother Nature" in his writing -- and the Appendix then features an example of this new writing, an: 'Excerpt from "The Bear God's Afternoon" by Writer K". There's also another book-excerpt in the Appendix which reflects on the earlier stories, as well as: 'A "Crazy" Interview with Actor P, Who Understands Interiority" -- an exceptionally successful actor and powerful figure in Beanstalk who happens to be a dog, and who readers have also heard about in the earlier stories.
       Bae's stories include some lovely, imaginative ideas -- writer K's exposure to a world, and person, far away, through the distant eyes of a robot is typical, down to its unlikely but still charming conclusion. While the stories concentrate on individuals, the few more in-depth dealings these have with others -- such as K and his editor -- generally also have interesting dynamics. Both in relationships and plot, these stories are rarely predictable, and it's quite fun to see where Bae takes them, and how he goes about it.
       There's a somewhat basic feel to most of these stories -- an idea latched onto, and the story then spun around it (admittedly in generally creative ways, with unexpected turns along the way) -- but given the collection's imposing foundation readers likely would have appreciated more world-building and reflection on the nature and consequences of this form of nation-state. Those technical, social, and political features that are addressed -- and there is quite a bit of that, woven in -- are fascinating, and obviously there's the potential for a great deal more here.
       The creative stories, solid story-telling, and fascinating building-nation premise make for en enjoyable and readable collection -- even if it ultimately also feels a bit like Beanstalk itself, not neatly built up, floor by floor, but something of a Tetris-block-like jumble (and one that could use a few more pieces).

- M.A.Orthofer, 24 February 2021

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Tower: Reviews: Other books by Bae Myung-hoon under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       South Korean author Bae Myung-hoon (배명훈) was born in 1978.

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© 2021-2022 the complete review

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