A Banal Meditation on Evil: City of Ash and Red by Hye-Young Pyun

The extent to which award-winning Korean novelist Hye-Young Pyun’s City of Ash and Red (originally published in 2010, now translated into English by Sora Kim-Russell) is science fictional is entirely debatable. You can read it as science fiction, perhaps. But it’s a very literary sort of science fiction. Although the majority of the novel takes place in a city referred to as City K, in a country known only as Country C, there’s else nothing to suggest a futuristic or fantastic setting. Given that the novel’s main figure is nameless, called only “the man” throughout, and that one of the main themes winding its way through the narrative is anonymity, atomisation, anomie, the choice to refer to places by letters (and to districts by numbers) feels more like the past literary convention by which certain Victorian or Georgian books referred to such figures as “Lord M–, the Baron of C–” and “Mrs. S–“—the creation of plausible deniability, slight distance from the real person mentioned, rather than the creation or evocation of a specific new place.

Though the author previously won the Shirley Jackson Award for her The Hole, City of Ash and Red belongs in the literature genre, I feel, rather than in the SFF one. It’s involved in an entirely different project than the usual run of speculative fiction novels: its concerns and its tools are literary ones. It’s a well-constructed, elegant novel whose translator has done an excellent job: the prose is deft and eloquent, the sentences compelling, the voice distinctive.

I disliked it intensely. It is precisely the kind of literature—and the kind of main character—that could have been designed in a laboratory precisely to elicit my dislike. The reason I didn’t realise this at the beginning was because I was reading it through the lens of speculative fiction: I was waiting for the SFnal reveal, or the extra-human layer of horror. Neither of which ever came, and I gradually came to understand it never would. Instead, this is a novel in which we slowly discover that the main character—who initially comes across as hapless, victimised, lost and out of his element—is, in fact (however hapless and lost he is at the novel’s beginning), a really shitty human.

That’s… pretty much it. An examination of human anomie and the banality of evil, really. I don’t find the banality of evil all that exciting.

“The man”—for that’s all he’s ever call, the man, as though he stands in for every man, for the essence of Man—is a pest control specialist. He’s transferred to a branch of his company in a different country, Country C. Country C is suffering from a disease outbreak and the area he’s staying in is piled high with uncollected waste. He loses his suitcase. His new office doesn’t want him to come in. He doesn’t have anyone’s phone number, and he doesn’t speak the language well. Eventually, he becomes a ratcatcher. There’s probably some metaphor in here in the relationship between his self and the context in which he’s living, some delicate balance between how the external world of the novel improves even as we learn more about how morally compromised the man is, but I’m not sufficiently au fait with the conventions this novel is working in to tell you if it’s having a conversation or if it’s trying something new.

I said “morally compromised” just now. What I mean is that “the man” is a shitty excuse for a human. He sees himself, naturally, as victimised by circumstance and the world. But over the course of the novel, we learn that he almost certainly killed his ex-wife, that before he killed her their relationship died because of his self-absorption and paranoia that he was cheating; that he raped her; that he’s willing to participate in the murder of sick men, and will excuse himself by telling himself that he wasn’t the first to act, that he only went along with it; and that the novel ends with his murder of a woman who learns that he’s padding his paycheque by claiming he kills more rats than he really does in a day.

City of Ash and Red is a clever, elegant novel. But it’s a clever elegant novel about “the man” and his entitlement and anomie: a novel about the banal evil of small, everyday men. You may judge for yourselves whether that’s the kind of novel you’d enjoy: for my own part, though I admire the craft on display here, I can’t like the book.

City of Ash and Red is available from Arcade Publishing.

Liz Bourke is a cranky queer person who reads books. She holds a Ph.D in Classics from Trinity College, Dublin. Her first book, Sleeping With Monsters, a collection of reviews and criticism, was published in 2017 by Aqueduct Press. It was a finalist for the 2018 Locus Awards and was nominated for a 2018 Hugo Award in Best Related Work. Find her at her blog, where she’s been known to talk about even more books thanks to her Patreon supporters. Or find her at her Twitter. She supports the work of the Irish Refugee Council, the Transgender Equality Network Ireland, and the Abortion Rights Campaign.

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