Locked in the back room of a research institute where little work is ever done, Cabinet 13 holds secret files documenting cases of spontaneous evolution. When a bored office assistant picks the lock, his understanding of the world changes – but how will forbidden knowledge transform him?
This is how you start a book:
Warning: we are not responsible for any harm that may result from using the contents of this book as factual scientific evidence
I am inevitably charmed by science fiction that presents as science fact, inhabiting a recognisable contemporary world and introducing speculative elements. The cheek of opening a such an account with an admission that readers might treat it as science fact whilst denying any liability sets the perfect tone for The Cabinet, which is something of an affectionately satirical curiosity.
Narrated in bored, matter of fact tones by deadbeat admin assistant Kong Deok-geun, The Cabinet posits that modern life has become so stressful that our bodies sometimes respond with unexpected transformations: ‘symptomers’ exhibit unusual digestive preferences (steel, glass, petrol); new body parts; different perspectives on reality (or at least perceptions of it). As stress responses go, they’re hardly good coping mechanisms – most make life even more challenging – but they’re certainly interesting.
Often surreal, sometimes grotesque, the book is as much about the emotional and psychological response of the symptomers as about the odd conditions they are learning to live with. Throughout, Kim creates space for cynicism, often (if not always) leaving room for the reader to diagnose mental illness or delusions instead of weird evolution; but he always invites the reader to believe.
“You may never discover magic. But it won’t be because magic doesn’t exist. It’ll be because you stopped dreaming.”
By contrast, Deok-geun is the most mundane person in town: a young man of no particular talent or ambition desperate to get a job and conform to expectations. He is entirely uncomfortable with the fact that his role at the research institute appears to be to survive the day by doing as little as possible – nothing, if you can – driven largely by a misplaced fear of being found out and fired. When his search for something to do brings him to the attention of famously solitary (and grumpy) Professor Kwon, he finds he should have been careful what he wished for: Kwon has plenty for Deok-geun to do.
While Deok-geun may have been desperate to be useful, he’s not entirely sure this is the use he wants to be put to. He is bemused – even exasperated – by the callers the Professor expects him to deal with, although for all his protestations he has a compassionate streak that prods him into helping people. I never really warmed to him, but his heart is usually in the right place (let’s take a moment for him taking time to help one caller turn into a cat to win his beloved’s affections rather than pushing them into therapy). But the point is very much that Deok-geun isn’t remarkable; he’s an entirely average man whose circumstances keep pushing him ever further from the conventional life he thought he wanted.
Like the symptomers, the question is how he will respond to the pressure.
One of the things I appreciated about The Cabinet is that Kim takes time to acknowledge and celebrate the magical transformations that are part of all our lives: seasons, aging, cooking, love. Combined with the anecdotes about the symptomers’ responses to their adjusted circumstances (typically embracing them, rather than raging fruitlessly against them), the result is a sideways reflection on the human condition in all its flawed glory that reflects Kim’s core themes through a number of lenses (and sure, a few are rather on the nose, but it broadly worked for me as a kaleidoscope of responses). It’s not all wholesome – the thesis also requires focus on the ways in which modern life isolates and grinds us down; the careless micro-aggressions and deliberate cruelties with which we hurt one another; our willingness to do work that can only harm the world – but it is largely charming in spite of Deok-geun’s irritable narration.
That said, there were aspects of The Cabinet that I wasn’t entirely comfortable with, starting with its portrayal of female characters (while it’s not universally misogynistic, there are undertones, although I’ll forgive a great deal for the elevation of Son Jeong-eun from bullied co-worker to quiet heroine). In addition, Deok-geun can be both ableist and fatphobic and the VP at his work is significantly worse; the work lunch scene merits a content warning, with the VP plumbing the depths of powerful bullies and people who powerlessly nod along. But Kim is intent on showing humanity warts and all, and the scene contributes to our expectations of Deok-geun, adding to the tension of the final act.
At its best, The Cabinet urges us to allow the universe to be bigger than we know; to marvel at how resilient humanity can be; to be compassionate towards those struggling with the pressures of modern life; to admire how much we can accept with good grace; and to reach out to others. It’s life affirming, and for me the wry tones stopped it ever feeling saccharine. As it’s largely episodic, it’s easy to enjoy a chapter here and there over a cup of tea – at least until the final act.
Unfortunately, the final act left me cold. In a sudden left turn, Kim develops a forced subplot in which a rapacious business Syndicate comes for the case files (because in the cold calculations of the modern world, everything is an opportunity). It was an odd change of pace and tone that I didn’t care for; while the book arguably needed some direction, I enjoyed this a good deal less than the gentle meanders through the human psyche.
A mixed bag in the end, but I still found much to enjoy.
I received a free copy from Angry Robot in exchange for an honest review. THE CABINET is out now in ebook/paperback.