Business is blooming

Ha Seong-nan, tr. Janet Hong
Open Letter, 2019

I enjoy short stories more than anything, but unfortunately the literary scene doesn’t care about them at the moment. We’re not in the golden age of magazines anymore. Writers these days need a book to be somebody, and it’s not like I’ve been amazed by the contemporary stories appearing in slick venues like Ploughshares or even Conjunctions.

So it’s lovely enough to read a collection like Ha’s published in English by Open Letter this year (the stories are from the late 90s) because they’re so refreshing, but I’ve also learned from them. The first story, “Waxen Wings,” is told in the second person, making me realize how information can be strategically hidden by the you pronoun until it discharges at the end—and this is a piece that feels like a buildup to the very last sentence.

Ha has a terse and focused voice that, yes, feels cinematic due to the use of present tense and grammatical agency. The opening passage from the story “Nightmare”:

The alarm didn’t go off this morning. She lay curled up like a millipede and heard the old grandfather clock strike six times in the downstairs living room. It was always five minutes slow. She woke from habit and the early light, not the few digital tones of “Animal Farm” that her alarm clock normally played on loop until she turned it off. Her fingers crept up to her bedside, but she couldn’t find the metal chill of the clock.

My favorite story of the ten in this book is “The Retreat,” a darkly funny thriller, similar to the movie PARASITE, but with an even more delicious irony at the center. The business owners of a run down building plot to kill their landlord at a scheduled team-building retreat. But in a second plotline that the tenants don’t know about, we see how this wastrel landlord has it coming.

Ha’s characters are not intelligent or terribly ambitious; they’re worn down by work: white collar drudgery, thankless domestic labor, filthy bars and restaurants. Capitalism in South Korea somehow seems especially fettered and hollow. The US makes its presence known through television programming.

When it feels hard to find new work that isn’t heavily committed either to unrelenting gritty violence on the one hand or milquetoast low stakes social customs narratives on the other, Ha’s collection shows the possibilities for sharply-written situations of small-time crime or just dreamlike anxiety.

Janet Hong has also translated the collection BLUEBEARD’S FIRST WIFE and a novel called A. I’d read Ha’s shopping list, although the title story’s inventories of other people’s trash is close to that.

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