Kim Bo-Young’s ethereal new diptych
Central to Kim Bo-Young's winning I'm Waiting for You: And Other Stories (HarperCollins, 2021; transl. Sophie Bowman & Sung Ryu) are duality, symmetry, and (dis)harmony. This new four-story collection is divided right down its middle—where the first and fourth stories are continuations of one another, while the second and third merge to form a tessellation of one overarching narrative. In its 314 pages is a constellation of imagined lives, imagined realities, that try and verily succeed in drawing the reader into its bizarre, brilliant, and frequently confounding orbit. Bo-Young has done well in structuring the two main stories of the book, though the hooking nature of the first forces a halt when one turns the page over to the contemplative and shape-shifting second.
The lauded science fiction writer has amassed a solid reputation for herself in her native South Korea (a glowing review from no less than Parasite director Bong Joon-ho is quoted on the front and back of the cover), but beyond those geographic boundaries, Bo-Young's name has only carried weight to readers of Clarkesworld, the online science fiction and fantasy magazine, and the like. This has thankfully been rectified with the 46-year-old author's first wide release reaching shelves in April of this year, attracting international readers and admirers after nearly two decades since her first published work. This is not an unfamiliar pattern in the publishing and marketing of "world literature", but at the very least the trend appears to be slowly course-correcting. (Interestingly enough, Googling the Korean award her first novella had won in 2004 only turns up results pertaining to reviews of this book.)
This new collection comes packed with a good few extras in the back pages in the form of Author's Notes, Translator's Notes, glossaries for the challenging middle two stories, and—most curiously—Original Readers' Notes. It is first in the author's notes that we learn of the origin of the titular story, which involves a friend of Bo-Young commissioning the author to pen a "proposal story", to be read aloud by the friend to his fiancé-to-be, who, as it happens, lists Bo-Young among her favourite writers. Bo-Young, though, by her own admission had "never once written a story where two people get together, let alone a romance, for a story to propose with." As the science fiction writer began writing the story, things unsurprisingly took a turn—'unsurprisingly' seemingly to anyone save for the commissioner. This gem of an exchange occurs between the two at the start of the author's notes, perfectly encapsulating the story's inception:
"So . . . you want a science fiction proposal story?"
"Well, can you write anything other than science fiction?"
"Umm . . ."
The story that we end up getting is a bizarre, epistolary love story that ties in themes of time, space, abuse, social and ecological catastrophe, global warming, time travel, space travel, and perhaps the end, or perhaps the rebuilding, of the universe. One of the great short stories you'll read this year, "I'm Waiting for You", reads like an amalgamation of Andy Weir's The Martian (2011) and Cordwainer Smith's "The Lady Who Sailed The Soul" (1960).
Bo-Young's restraint more than anything is what best makes the story such an enthralling read. An age-old conundrum for writers is the reconciliation of stylish prose that is to be the first-person thought and speech with the ungrammatical, inelegant way it would come out in actuality. In Bo-Young's writing, there is no maddening inconsistency, and her protagonist writes each letter that makes up the 15 chapters with words simple and deceptively engaging. So restrained is the writing that it takes until the 30th page to exhibit any perceptible writerly flair—"The streets were quiet but I felt like I was being attacked. The road was full of dark gaping potholes, and shopfront windows like empty eye sockets seemed to glare at me. Packs of dogs prowled around the streets, acting like they'd never been tamed. They growled ferociously, as if to prove that dogs could never have behaved another way."
When one is finished gulping on the streaming pages of "I'm Waiting for You", there is the reminder, the promise made in the table of contents, that a continuation of sorts is to come in the final story of the book. You won't find a better hook, a meatier steak to dangle before the reader, to have them running to the last quarter of the book. While this is an ingenious structure that the book adapts, I can't help but find a crucial fault in it. The interconnected second and third stories, "The Prophet of Corruption" (itself broken down into 13 subsections) and "That One Life" (broken down into three), felt at first like the middle rungs of a ladder I had to scramble past on my way to the top.
There is an oft-repeated line in theatre: "Follow that". The pure exhilaration that the first story provides is a tough act to follow, especially for an intrinsically mystifying tale that summons Korean creation myths, Norse mythology, and Tibetan Buddhism in its tale of "Prophets", "students", "divisions", "merging", "corruption", "persuasion", "Naban" and "Aman" (reminder that the story comes with its own three-page glossary). The symmetrical arrangement of the four stories is a conceptual success, but ultimately, though not entirely, hinders the flow of the book. "The Prophet of Corruption" is in fact a splendid story, one that rivals the others every bit of the way.
It follows the story of Naban, who simply is the universe and all life. Over time, however, Naban had divided himself into Aman, and more entities thereon. Soon these Prophets, who dwell in the The Dark Realm (Myung-gye, as it is known in East Asian cultures), create The Lower Realm (Ha-gye), the world of the living, which they see as "schools" and where they send mortal incarnations of themselves, with memories wiped clean, so as to "learn". It is only Aman who views life in The Lower Realm as sacred and more important, and beliefs such as theirs are termed as "corruption". In the two stories, Aman is a figure comparable to both Eve and the Devil, with Naban playing a cross between Adam and God.
The high concepts of the stories go down fairly easy once the reader adjusts to its world, which may take a few pages. Fans of Neil Gaiman's The Sandman may find lots to cherish here, as will those with a keen ear open for mythology and cosmogony. After putting down the book, it is "The Prophet of Corruption" that has stayed most with me, and the one Bo-Young should perhaps most be proud of.
Both the two narratives of I'm Waiting for You, delightful and heartrending, are inhabitable worlds in themselves—which "broke" its splendid translators, Sophie Bowman and Sung Ryu, "in different ways". If my experience of it is anything to go by, it is a book best cherished with pauses in-between stories, with space enough to dwell in the ideas for a little while.
Mehrul Bari S Chowdhury is a writer, poet, and artist. His work has appeared in Blood Orange Review, Kitaab, and Sortes Magazine, among others. He is currently the intern at Daily Star Books.