Flowers Of Mold

BOOK REVIEW by Willard Manus

The young Korean writer Ha Seong-nan creates a strange, dark but compelling world in FLOWERS OF MOLD, her story collection translated by Janet Hong and published by Open Letter Books.

Most of the stories take place in Seoul against a modern backdrop of skyscrapers, bustling traffic, glitzy shops and omni-present billboards. But the subjects of her stories rarely fit into that world, living as they do in crummy rooms overlooking alleyways filled with garbage, rats and puddles of puke (courtesy of the many tipplers who had over-indulged in the nearby bars and honky-tonks).

Seong-nan's cool, somewhat deadpan style of third-person storytelling doesn't dwell on these sordid details, just touches on them while focusing on the misadventures of her protagonists. Here's what happens to one of them in "Early Beans." An unnamed man, he dresses in "pointy shoes and a white dress shirt with the two top buttons undone and tucked into snug an amateur cowboy who had just stepped out of a Western movie."

Running late to a sexual liaison with his bank-teller girlfriend, he drives through a school zone where the kids pour out and rush toward the stalls filled with "helium balloons, baby chicks and sweets." He pumps his horn and yells, but the kids refuse to get out of his way. Not only that, they play soccer and card games.

Sweating from the heat, cursing them under his breath, he inches through the zone with his foot on the brake pedal, thinking that "each child was like a lightning strike. With lightning there are no warnings."

Twenty minutes later he makes it to the main road where he heads toward a shopping mall to buy his girlfriend a present: should he get her perfume or earrings? While trying to decide, he must also come up with a joke, because if he couldn't make her laugh she wouldn't have sex with him.

Absurdity upon absurdity follows: he is distracted by the numbers of "quick delivery" motorcyclists on the road, one of whom, "Lightning Delivery 675-1234," he crashes into, knocking him for a loop. Feeling guilty, he volunteers to deliver the important package the young driver had been entrusted with. Because his own car has been totaled, he must take a train to Incheon. During the journey a group of teenaged girls enters his compartment and, giggling all the while, teases him with their provocative looks and moves. One girl in particular makes sure he catches a glimpse of her white panties.

Sweating profusely, dizzy with suppressed desire, he gets off at Incheon and walks to the home of Professor Byeon Yeongseok to deliver the package. When he gets there he discovers the girl who had cock-teased him on the train; it turns out she's the professor's daughter. She spits at him and hisses, "You asshole, wasn't that enough of a show for you? How much more do you want?"

He and the girl end up going to a disco together, where she proceeds to change her clothes and disappear on him. He tries to find her, but without success. So he limps home, where the "garbage bags seemed to have multiplied" in the alley, and looks at himself in the mirror, discovering that "his curls, which had come alive from perspiration, were matted like a steel wool pad" and that "he looked as if he'd been struck by lightning."

There is also a phone message from his girlfriend, who declares that "in all of her twenty-nine years, she had never been so insulted. She told him never to call her again, and then after yelling at him non-stop, she hung up."

Our hero's last act is to take out the garbage. "Across the way, on the roof of a darkened apartment building, there was a pointy object he hadn't noticed till now. It was a lightning rod."