Originally published in Korea in 2006, Un-su Kim’s THE CABINET (Angry Robot Books, 301 pp., paper, $14.99) is narrated by an administrative worker named Kong Deok-geun who, while navigating the extreme boredom of his office job, discovers Cabinet 13: a filing cabinet filled with extraordinary accounts of “symptomers,” people experiencing strange and marvelous occurrences and abilities. Overseen by the crotchety Professor Kwon, symptomers describe sleeping for months (“torporers”), seeing their doubles (“doppelgängers”) and growing gingko trees from their fingers (“chimeras”). It becomes Kong’s job to interview and console these people, whose symptoms often obstruct their ability to function within society. Kong’s own life — his mundanity and mediocrity — gradually becomes a needle threading the Cabinet reports together, as Professor Kwon’s health declines and a sinister apparatus called the syndicate begins pressing Kong to turn the contents of the Cabinet over to them.

“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. By grounding them amid joyless, life-leeching work, the assembled files don’t make up a Wunderkammer so much as a Banalkammer, a cabinet not of curiosities but of mundanities, in which the most astonishing occurrences share space with gray, draining reality.

“The Cabinet” is a kind of echoing chamber in which the comic, heartbreaking and terrifying bounce against, amplify and distort one another. The ending bears down on the reader like teeth, and may seem, at first glance, like a sharp and sudden betrayal of its main affect. But its end is in its beginning, which rewards rereading.


Natashia Deón’s THE PERISHING (Counterpoint, 307 pp., $26) is a supple exploration of life in 1930s Los Angeles as well as a moving meditation on the Black American experience in the 20th century; it draws on patterns and histories of racial solidarity and oppression to tell a loving story of people and their relationships with places. Told mostly through the perspective of Lou Willard, a young Black woman hired to work the death desk at The Los Angeles Times, “The Perishing” weaves in major events such as the building of Route 66 and the failure of the St. Francis Dam, while gesturing toward tragedies in Lou’s previous and future lives, glimpsed in mixtures of memory and dream.

Deón’s prose is beautiful, and the voice animating “The Perishing” is heartfelt. But this is not a book interested in the structure it proposes at the outset: that of an immortal intelligence, one of several, who moves from life to life doing good. While Lou’s story is the core of the book, it’s often interrupted, peeled back, doubled over, in order for her future incarnation, Sarah Shipley — standing trial for murder in the year 2102 — to comment on or explicate it. This means that we’re never wondering who Lou is, why she can’t remember her childhood, or why she heals supernaturally quickly — but instead are left to wonder why we’re seeing haphazardly deployed pieces of previous lives that have little to do with Sarah’s story, Lou’s story or the story of the immortals in aggregate.

Overall, “The Perishing” pulses with moments, phrases, passages that are deeply affecting and could have formed an organizing principle for the whole: the wonderful irony of an immortal working at a newspaper’s death desk; the wrenching instance of a 1930s Black woman grieving the future killing of Latasha Harlins; the notion of a community of immortal spirits being hunted by someone outside of it. The book embraces none of those — but while it doesn’t cohere, or close the framing stories with which it opens, the window it maintains on Lou’s life shows a vibrant, immersive world that’s worth spending time in, learning and remembering.

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