The Portable Library of Korean Literature • Short Fiction • 20 • Jimoondang Publishing • Seoul
Lee Dong-Ha’s “A Toy City” tells the story of family moving to the city (having been kicked out of their small town by unnamed political pressures). In the course of this move the narrator’s father, a respected and loved man in the village, is reduced to a bumbling caricature and the narrator comes to realize that this move has also stolen his own voice. Oddly the narrator generally views all of this with a remarkable sense of detachment highlighted by his occasional notion that the city he lives in is“A Toy City.”
Unfortunately, Lee tries too hard. “A Toy City” is stuffed with sub-plots and symbolisms that pop up, sputter to life, then gutter out with little apparent reason; it is full of sound and fury but short on significance. Some of these subplots seem intended to provide amplification or comment on the plots events (and thus on the role of the city, pretty clearly Seoul, but un-named in the text). When the narrator gets to the city there are several scenes in which food and drink are presented as poisonous, and Lee does this with absolutely no subtlety: When, for instance, the narrator throws up a glass of orange punch, it is still orange and still exactly one glassful, as though it had no interaction with this stomach. This seems a bit too exact for vomit, and in this arena I’ll put my bonafides against anyone’s! Rice, important to Koreans as both a staple food and cultural signifier, tastes so bad the mother won’t eat it. Finally, when the family tries to cook food for sale, that food tastes bitter and chemical – their failure to sell this food means that, each night, the family must choke it down, themselves.
What isn’t obvious, is inexplicable. There is a substantial subplot in which the narrator is at first beaten up, but then mysteriously befriended and protected, by classroom thugs. An imaginative reader might tie this arc to one in which the narrator’s father finally finds some kind of criminal work. But even this connection requires some imagination (in the reader) about the timetable of the story, and even if established, it is not clear why any of it is important.
Similarly there are subplots of the narrator acquiring a best friend, Tae-gil, who lives a rather tragic existence, and another of a woman who, twice, accidentally exposes herself to the narrator. But these subplots seem nearly random and are difficult to place with respect to the larger story. The woman who exposes herself does so, the first time, in front of the narrator because sanitation facilities are inadequate. Fair enough, this is a story about forced urbanization and this could be a comment on the costs of it. But what is a reader to make of the second incidence of her exposure, an accidental self-exposure to a large group of children sharing an adventure? The connections are absent and thus her two exposures within 60 pages seem arbitrary, a writer’s conceit. Tae-gil, also exposes himself. Tae-gil’s mother beats him regularly, forcing him to strip before she does so. Tae-gil runs away, with his “pepper” dangling and exposed. Again, fair enough, but what then are we to make of the fact that this flight never saves Tae-gil from any whipping and once he has exposed himself he always returns to his mother to have his punishment concluded? While three+ instances of embarrassing exposure in one novella seem to beg for some kind of conceptual connection, it is impossible to see one in this work.
These are merely representative subplots.. there are more..
At 102 pages, “A Toy City” is a very long short story, basically a novella, Many of my criticisms here seem to result from Lee’s choice of this length, It seems that Lee is either extending a short story to a novella, and thus throwing in everything but the kitchen sink, or he has the outline for a novel, but has not fleshed that novel out. In either case, this was a work that could have used a good, and persuasive, editor to push it one way or the other.
As a set of final notes, I should first add that this story is the one that occasioned my previous rant on bad translation, and it is difficult for me to guess whether Lee’s original writing was more subtle and/or connected in the original Korea. I certainly hope it was.
Second, I should note that “A Toy City” is, according to the back flap, the first in a trilogy of novellas, and it is possible that the Portable Library of Korean Literature has done Lee a disservice by publishing this work unmoored from its siblings. Once I’ve worked my way through the remaining works in the Library, I intend to track down translations of the other two pieces and revisit “A Toy City” in their context.