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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Cabinet

Kim Un-su

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To purchase The Cabinet

Title: The Cabinet
Author: Kim Un-su
Genre: Novel
Written: 2006 (Eng. 2021)
Length: 301 pages
Original in: Korean
Availability: The Cabinet - US
The Cabinet - UK
The Cabinet - Canada
Le placard - France
from: Bookshop.org (US)
  • Korean title: 캐비닛
  • Translated by Sean Lin Halbert

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Our Assessment:

B : much that is compelling, but the pieces more successful than the whole

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Guardian . 8/10/2021 Lisa Tuttle
The NY Rev. of Books . 9/6/2022 Nathaniel Rich
The NY Times Book Rev. . 3/12/2021 Amal El-Mohtar

  From the Reviews:
  • "What begins as a rather whimsical set of stories turns into a much darker novel, raising issues of difference and acceptance, what people must do to survive, and what is truly monstrous." - Lisa Tuttle, The Guardian

  • "The plot of The Cabinet does not give itself so easily to press copy, though it would not be much of a stretch to describe it as a sardonic noir caper about a salaryman trying to extricate himself from a vast and invisible criminal conspiracy. (…) Kim’s novels could be read as parables about capitalism, technocracy, or our intractable descent into ecological horror. They could just as well serve as parables about literature itself. They trouble conventional wisdom, asking the ultimate questions, with full confidence that the whole enterprise won’t do anything to change the world, apart from helping us to imagine our place in it." - Nathaniel Rich, The New York Review of Books

  • "The Cabinet is a sly, whimsical satire of life in late-stage capitalism, slippery and surreal, and reads in some respects like historical fiction: It was written and published before the ubiquity of smartphones and social media, and there’s something almost -- almost -- refreshing about the humdrum monotony of office life, away from the polluted water cooler of our current digital landscape. Kong’s matter-of-fact voice, conveyed in a sprightly and hilarious translation by Sean Lin Halbert, is a pitch-perfect foil to the “symptoms” he describes. (...) The Cabinet is a kind of echoing chamber in which the comic, heartbreaking and terrifying bounce against, amplify and distort one another." - Amal El-Mohtar, The New York Times Book Review

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Cabinet is basically narrated by Kong Deok-geun. He works in a lowly administrative position at a "research center affiliated with a publicly owned company". While getting the job was difficult -- Kong scored highest among 137 applicants for it --, it is, in fact, barely a job at all. Indeed, Kong complains: "My problem was that my office didn't give me any work". His sole duty is to deal with the small amount of paperwork involved when the a truck delivering lab supplies arrives every morning. For the rest of the day, he has absolutely nothing to do. He eventually even asks his section chief whether there isn't something more he could be doing, but his superior basically shrugs it off: "We man our post; that's what we do here". Nothing more is expected of him.
       Trying to pass the (free) time, Kong eventually ventures up to a floor where all the offices are empty and checks out the file room there. He comes across a filing cabinet with a lock on it -- Cabinet 13 -- and, with nothing better to do, tries to open the lock. It has to be a number between 0000 and 9999, and he simply tries them all, one by one, until he hits the right one. The contents -- accounts of unusual lives -- first disgust and then fascinate him, and he keeps coming back to read more.
       Eventually, he is officially summoned to the office of a Professor Kwon, an actual researcher at the center -- with a reputation for being an: "eccentric old coot". The material in Cabinet 13 is Kwon's, and he basically takes on Kong, who still has nothing better to do, to become his assistant.
       In part, The Cabinet is a workplace novel, as Kong describes what he, in his official capacity, and his co-workers do (very little of which involves any kind of actual work) and their interactions in the workplace. Even after seven years helping out Kwon, he notes: "I still had nothing to do at my job downstairs". But he does interact with other employees, complains about the company cafeteria, and discusses some of his co-workers, including Son Jeong-eun, something of an outcast among the employees, and someone who keeps to herself -- and who turns out to eventually have also discovered Cabinet 13.
       Eventually, Kong is approached by members of a syndicate (which has long been interested in Kwon's work) and offered a great deal of money for information they believe he has. Kwon's health declines and the outside party's interest in the material they believe Kong has access to becomes even greater; eventually they take quite strong measures to convince Kong to give it up.
       As things come to a head, Kong wonders about Kwon:

But why ? Why did he need an empty cabinet like me ? I was nothing more than an empty cabinet.
       With little drive or ambition, Kong lives out his days in numbing routine -- whether doing nothing, in his official job, or helping Professor Kwon. He doesn't have much of a life outside work either. As we eventually learn, he did go through a crisis of sorts at one point, years earlier, basically spending six months in his apartment and chugging beer, having stocked up some twelve-thousand cans' worth. Looking back to that time, he notes:
     As long as you don't ask yourself why you keep doing something, you can keep doing it until the day you die.
       This is also Kong's dilemma for much of the novel, as he can barely bring himself to ask Why ? at any point at his pointless job.
       If the guiding arc is Kong's own story, slowly unfolded over the course of the novel and then coming more strongly to the fore at the conclusion as events force him to take some sort of action, much of the filler and (vivid) background comes in the form of the contents of Cabinet 13 and the life-stories Kong is exposed to here. The novel moves back and forth in fairly short and often relatively self-contained chapters between Kong's own experiences and the accounts in the files from the cabinet.
       Very early on, Kong suggests about what he recounts:
     This is a story about a new species, one that has hitherto been considered an abomination, a disease, a form of madness. It is a story about people who have suffered from the side effects of this evolution.
       The cabinet is filled with stories of unusual existences, so-called symptomers who display new kinds of qualities; they are: "both the last humans and the first of a new kind". Among those Kong learns about are "people whose time disappears" or, for example, a man who has a gingko tree growing out of a finger. Much of the appeal of The Cabinet is in these richly imagined descriptions of these surreal existences and their (generally sad) fates. The Cabinet is something of an album-novel, collecting these stories -- and juxtaposing them with the narrator's own increasingly warped life.
       The stories -- both from the cabinet and Kong's own -- are compelling enough to hold the reader's attention, but it ultimately makes for a bit of an odd jumble of a novel. As appropriate as the threatening syndicate is, its use feels underdeveloped -- compounded by an overall vagueness about so many elements in the novel (not least the research center that Kong is employed by). The novel goes a long way on the mysteries of and in Cabinet 13 -- but ultimately that's not quite enough to sustain the whole of it. Much here is very satisfying, but the novel as a whole feels like a near-miss, Kim close to presenting what he wants to get at but just not able to find and fit all the pieces to do so.

- M.A.Orthofer, 13 August 2022

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The Cabinet: Reviews: Other books Kim Un-su under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Korean literature

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About the Author:

       South Korean author Kim Un-su (김언수) was born in 1972.

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© 2022 the complete review

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