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Nothing much compels reader to sympathize with characters

by Michael Hoffman

RIVER OF FIRE and Other Stories, by O Chonghui. Translated by Bruce and Ju-chan Fulton. Columbia University Press, 2012, 224 pp., $27.50 (hardcover)

I can’t remember a book of fiction that felt as much like a force-feeding as this one has. It seems only fair to say that O Chonghui enjoys a considerable reputation in her native South Korea, and my negative response may reflect nothing more than my failure to read her deeply enough.

She is, we are told in an afterword, “the elder stateswoman of contemporary Korean fiction, a writer who enjoys critical success, if not widespread popularity, and who is proving increasingly influential among younger Korean writers.”

She was born in 1947. Her first published story, “The Toy Shop Woman,” appeared in 1968. It is the first of the nine stories that make up this volume. The stories proceed in chronological order and span her career to “The Old Well,” published in 1994.

The afterword states that “she emerged more or less fully formed as a writer,” and this seems to be true in the sense that the mood and style of the first story are essentially the mood and style of the last, and of the ones in between, too.

O’s world is a dark place, where birth is nauseating and death is never far away. Life is awful, in a grim, silent, filthy sort of way, but death brings no release, only horror.

Three lines into “The Toy Shop Woman” the narrator says, “I felt like I was in a tomb.” She is in fact in a classroom, alone, at night, inexplicably rifling the desks. She seems to be enjoying her own sweaty terror. Then she passes into the hall.

“I felt like hoisting my stiff skirt and urinating where I stood. Instead I spat … Strange how the gummy stuff always went splat on the fake marble.”

The toy shop woman of the title is confined to a wheelchair. So had the narrator’s brother been, before he deliberately rolled himself down a flight of stairs — “his head was a bloody mess.” The narrator is drawn to the toy shop by its dolls. “Before I knew it we were locked in a tight embrace” — she and the toy shop woman. There is nothing climactic about this; it just happens. She leaves us with this thought: “My heart was drying up — how much longer before it crumbled?”

Throughout the stories, regardless of what happens or doesn’t happen, the mood is essentially the same. “What an idiot I was, coming here on a sweltering day to kill myself. ‘I’ll get rid of the baby,’ I thought. …” “Our relationship was like stagnant water — stale, peaceful.” … “He looked at me with such a serious expression I thought he might reply.” … “We are, every one of us, born a bloody mess from the crotch of a pitiable woman. …” “Mother was consumed in a blaze. The image that remains with me is a tree radiating flames.” … “He died, and something within me died. What that something was, I don’t know.”

In “The Old Well” the middle-aged housewife-narrator tells us of a peculiar quirk of her husband’s — he forgets to flush the toilet. The trouble with this scene is the trouble with the book. If the reader is to be invited to inspect a character’s feces, the reader must first be made to care about the character. As with toilet bowls, so with the dark interiors of the individual psyche — before we see we should care; if we don’t care, what we see is merely revolting.

I began by saying the failure may be mine and not the author’s. I would add this: Any story too deep to be understood in a single reading must have that in it which compels the reader to reread. Some readers may find that compelling quality in O Chonghui’s stories.

This reader doesn’t.

Michael Hoffman’s latest novel is “The Naked Ear”