If you have ever lived in an apartment building and wondered about your neighbors, perhaps those living right next door or just across the hall, the title story of Flowers of Mold (Open Letter, 2019) by Ha Seong-nan, translated from the Korean by Janet Hong, is for you. Be forewarned: it might make you reconsider your interest in your neighbors, because it could lead to obsession and madness — or something odder and less reassuring than a tidy end, of which there are few in this wonderfully unsettling book of 10 masterful short stories.
The unnamed protagonist in “Flowers of Mold” is curious about the other people living in the 90-unit apartment building. Ha’s descriptions are always precise: “She is deep in concentration, like a student solving a math problem.” Some stories begin with a matter-of-fact observation. “Nightmare” starts innocuously enough: “The alarm didn’t go off this morning.” Other stories, as in “The Retreat,” pull us right in: “The drunken words spewed by a regular of Good Chicken were to blame.”
Each story is like a rollercoaster ride. Initially, Ha moves slowly from one observation to the next, as in the opening paragraph of the first story, “Waxen Wings.”
Your watch stopped at 3:14. The second hand fell off when the
glass cover shattered. Within minutes you were unconscious.
During what seemed like a nap that went on a little longer than
usual, the seasons changed in the front lawn, right below your
Frankly, the first paragraph won me over because I knew I could not predict what was going to happen next, and the only thing to do was succumb to the flights of Ha’s wild imagination. And yet, there is nothing fantastical about this paragraph. All of its parts fit together, though not in a narrative sense. Something feels slightly cockeyed. Instead of conveying realism, each sentence functions like a small, methodical piece of a puzzle. A picture emerges from the accumulation of details.
Another distinct picture emerges in the next paragraph. The author moves back and forth in time. You go with her. You follow the logic and, perhaps, like me, you fall in love with her sensuous descriptions of an unsettling reality, as perceived by the protagonist in “Flowers of Mold,” as he goes through his neighbor’s garbage bags: “Food rich in protein smells the worst. The foul stench of fish heads, entrails, and chicken bones is unbearable.”
In many of the stories, Ha describes the odors, shapes, and contents of garbage bags and dumpsters. “Liquid leaked from the bags and flowed down the asphalt and hardened in chunks. To avoid getting his dress shoes dirty, the man leapt over the stains like an athlete competing in the triple jump event.” The struggle between cleanliness and order and dirt and decay is heightened and never ending. The garbage is one reminder of how repellent the world the characters live in has become, and how they have all accommodated themselves to these extreme but commonplace conditions.
In “Waxen Wings,” we learn how a young woman in the hospital ended up there. At no point did I feel the story betray itself and say too much. By the end, its fragmented recounting and reticence became all the more poignant. What makes these stories so powerful is Ha’s ability to reveal, often microscopically, the slight, almost imperceptible slippage between the actual events and the protagonists’ perception of them. Eventually, whatever bonds exist between the protagonist and her or his reality are torn asunder, leaving the individual vulnerable and hopeless. The characters are at the mercy of other forces, over which they have no control.
The constant slippage between the protagonists’ perceptions and the reality of the things around them carries through all the stories. The outcome of that ever shifting slippage is what keeps our attention. How does Ha get from the first sentence to the last? In “The Woman Next Door,” the first sentence reads, “A new neighbor’s moved into number 507.” The story ends with: “Myeonghui, the woman next door. Who is this stranger?” The story’s 20 pages reveal different relationships and power struggles.
My husband says things that show how much he doesn’t
understand: The washing machine does the laundry and the
rice cooker cooks the rice, so what do you do all day?
Myeonghu, the woman next door, comes to borrow something and the protagonist thinks:
A spatula. I’m stunned once more. Although I’ve lived here
for six years, no one’s ever come to borrow a spatula. It’s totally
put of place, as foreign as, let’s say, the name Remington rifle.
Not once has a spatula come up in conversations with my husband.
And would I need I ever need to mention it to my six-year-old son?
So of course it would sound alien to my ears.
At another point, the protagonist states: “At the same time, it isn’t good for boundaries to be so unclear from the start.” This porousness between one person’s reality and another’s — in which very little is agreed upon — is at the heart of the narration, with the author changing the angle of her focus slightly this way and that.
Ha fully inhabits her very different protagonists. She registers the beginnings of their unraveling; she follows them as they begin to spiral, wobble, and slip into their isolated realities, cut off from everyone around them. And yet, I would not say they descend into madness — or, perhaps more accurately, I would say madness only tells part of the story. Although the author seldom gestures toward the global reality her characters inhabit — a divided country still technically at war with itself — I could not but feel that that instability haunted everyone I encountered in these stories, from the housewife who gives the washing machine her name to the man who “had come up with a hit soju commercial twenty years ago.”
Flowers of Mold was originally published in Korea in 1999. It feels as contemporary as the news reports and accompanying films and photographs of President Donald Trump and North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un standing on North Korean soil on June 30, 2019, in Panmunjom, Korea. Ha knows that whatever we see on film will be spun many different ways, with all of the views containing at least one small grain of truth. This everyday unreality is what the author is sympathetic to.
According to her biography, Ha Seong-nan is the prize-winning author of five short-story collections and three novels. I would like to believe that Flowers of Mold — which has been translated into sparkling English by Janet Hong, who would hopefully continue as Ha Seong-nan’s translator — receives the reception it deserves and this leads to her other books being translated into English, introducing her works to a larger worldwide audience.