Tr. by Bruce and Ju-Chan Fulton
In South Korean writer Ch’oe In-ho’s Another Man’s City, K wakes one morning into his familiar world. But over a single weekend, discrepancies begin to multiply. He recognizes confederates who overplay their appointed roles. He finds himself trailed by the same faces. Here are actors who are not so much histrionic as too unruffled. The groom at a sister-in-law’s wedding is described as a “toy soldier, complete with his been-there-done-that smugness.” A father-in-law assumed dead seems to have been revived and plays “to a T the role of father-of the-bride.” During lovemaking, his meek wife imposes herself as readily and as aggressively as an escort. K suggests each is not entirely autonomous, that each has been recruited by a grand conspirator and accorded his discrete instructions.
That the construction of the novel resembles the Biblical origin myth is no coincidence: as was Adam upon the arrival of Eve in the Garden of Eden, here is the virtually unspoiled man tested by sexual temptation. K discovers a criminal identical in appearance. He finds that the man has been estranged from a wife and daughter no different than his own. K, prim and righteous, is the antithesis of the other, who describes his plunge into crime and prostitution. The author is after the retelling of the birth of original sin as the union between an unstained soul and its morally corrupt counterpart. It is as if the simulated world has been contrived as a stage for pondering large biblical questions. Just as in the biblical arc of Adam and Eve, K becomes possessed by lust. As if previously unknown, sexual desire constitutes the first signs of sin in an otherwise stainless existence. And because of the demands of this experiment, In-ho’s great challenge is to dream up the sinless man.
A sense of artificiality is amplified through K’s rigidly moralizing lens. He is a modern ascetic with a low threshold for hypocrisy. When a cuckolded friend, often exploding into profane exclamations over his wife’s infidelity, is revealed to have kept his own mistress, K is quick with an indictment: “K didn’t get it — was H really that angry because of his wife’s affair? It wasn’t like H owned her. She wasn’t an asset — a fancy jewel or a piece of real estate.” This is typical of his high-minded thinking. He claims to have never lied. He possesses a prepubescent repulsion for sex. He admits to have considered celibacy before a trusted professor friend guilted him into wedding his student. There is a hermitic, uncorrupted air about him, as if he has never experienced the joys of carnal pleasure. Sexual desire for another’s wife is a sensation rarely if ever felt. He is a neutered individual with a dried libido. He is garrulous and decided on the topic of marriage as a contract. Here is K recovering the familiarity with his wife: “In the end K and his wife were bartering their bodies, each to the other, renewing their conjugal contract like two debtors paying on installment on a loan.” This is a sexless description of sex. Supposedly his wife’s body had become “warm, intimate, familiar,” but the physical act of consummation remains cold and unfeeling.
Following these accounts, the reader is left with a desire to penetrate K’s moral armor but what lies beneath? Surely there is a heart to be found. But perhaps it is a heart that has been wholly given to his Christian God. K is a businessman whose only convincing conviction is that of his religious faith. He inherited an appreciation of a just and mighty Christian God from his mother. He attributed an abusive father’s death to divine intervention. One senses that affection has been redirected, that God has become a surrogate for his dead mother. What is curious is his own denial of love for his mother. One thinks of him as wedded to his God. And the precious currency of love, spent for another, however sparingly, is no different from an adulterous act.
In-ho is absorbed with sex as a consumer sport and it is unsurprising that K is acerbic and indiscriminate in his criticism. His intimates begin to feel unfamiliar and he begins to question whether he is a fake in an alternate reality. A psychologist prescribes the seeking out of his estranged sister to confirm his identity. Their reunion is perhaps the most tender moment of this novel. But love for his sister degenerates into inexplicable sexual desire. When he is afflicted by this temptation as if by a virginal case of chicken pox, he literally pleads his case on the altar in his church’s confession box. There is little bargaining needed with this emissary of God. K suspects that his listener is too forgiving until he consults the Biblical text.
What was he to do about his guilty feelings? He had visited an illicit place where a little kiss could lead to who-knows-what, but the main anxiety was his conflicted feelings for JS [his sister]. To what charge he found himself guilty not of a misdemeanor but a felony — he had broken a basic human taboo. Could that sin be dismissed by a few minutes of confession, three recitations of the Lord’s Prayer, and a reading from the Bible?
In a fashion, Another Man’s City asserts the primacy of the Bible. It is true that K is a rational creature and for that, the Bible feels an open interpretable text. Though one senses K’s increasing consciousness of his own automatism, his rebelliousness is at most halfhearted. But the novel’s great flaw is in equating sexlessness with lack of fervor, as if those fluids were secreted from the same organ. It is true that when challenged with sexual temptation, he feels the tenuousness of his own faith: “Is God the father whom I believe is the great creator of all the Universe and of humanity, or is he simply the mortal body of a fake God disguised as God the father?” Though one is gladdened by these occasions of doubt, one does not ever feel that his faith is at risk. The stakes never escalate. The soul never unstitches. His mind is never agitated, too cool, and too organized when challenged.
We are leashed to K as he sniffs out inconsistencies in the first half of the narrative. There is much labor devoted to the construction of this artifice. When it dissolves crudely (the entire simulation is dismissed as a fitful dream), we feel the simulation as a flimsy convenience. It is a gamble that does not pay. It is Nabokovian in its self-consciousness (the fact that it knows itself to be both calculated and incredulous), its indulgence (the self-involved joy its takes in bricklaying), and its maddening repetitiveness.
Though Another Man’s City may also share a preoccupation with sexual deviancy and doubles, it goes about its business with none of that predecessor’s ironical sense of humor. In Despair, Nabokov admitted to the inadequacy of metaphor and doubles to approximate a human experience beyond the text by parodying a conventional detective novel. In Another Man’s City, In-ho adopts a similar construction but he stares at the incredulities without ever a wink or a smirk. In this way, it is a novel that admits its surface is manufactured out of outlandish and obtrusively jutting parts while failing to justify that clumsy craftsmanship.
It is a shame that the author feels the need to outfit his central myth in a gaudy and unnecessary veil. No different from the confederates, K is ultimately another well-oiled part in a machine. He never emerges as a coherent, respiring character. It is true that characters can be idle, unfeeling, or apathetic towards the worlds they inhabit (one thinks immediately of Michel Houellebecq). But he is not a man without passions and it is a matter of consistency that one seeks the symptoms of despair. Reflexively, we might consider biblical myths and particularly that of the original creation. Regardless of the truth of their lessons or the listener’s faith in the divine, they have become immortal because their narratives did not dispense with creating characters who did not merely doubt but lost their faith or doubted passionately (one thinks fondly of Job). With the author’s energy so lavishly expended on mythmaking, the humanity of his characters suffer as they lose their abilities to contest whether that myth should matter at all.
Darren Huang is a writer of fiction and criticism based in Manhattan. He is also studying towards a dental specialty in Orthodontics. His most recent criticism is forthcoming in Pleiades.