A deliciously strange collection

Flowers of Mold
By Ha Seong-nan
240 pp. Open Letter Books. $16.

South Korea is finally getting its due as the great storytelling mecca it is. The South Korean film industry has been on fire for decades now and director Boon Joon-Ho’s latest film “Parasite” made history recently as the first South Korean film to score an Oscar nomination for Best Picture. 

Not to be left behind, well known South Korean authors like Han Kang and Ha Seong-nan are finally being discovered by western audiences. Though it was published in her native South Korea all the way back in 1999, one of Seong-nan’s short story collections, “Flowers of Mold”, was only published in English last year, by independent publisher Open Letter Books. 

I have a mixed record with short story collections. I recently read acclaimed Israeli writer Etgar Keret’s The Bus Driver Who Wanted To Be God & Other Stories and found it lacking, though I’ll read Raymond Carver any day. I’m happy to announce then that “Flowers of Mold” is as deliciously weird as advertised, though, as always, some stories are better than others.

Here’s a rundown of the 10 stories in Seong-nan’s collection, in order.

1. Waxen Wings

You can probably get the allusion to Icarus from the title alone, and indeed it’s about a woman who, as a child, first discovers the thrill of hanging suspended in the air. This thrill quickly turns into an addiction and her life soon turns into a pursuit of this defiance of gravity with, true to the title, somewhat grave results. While intriguing, this was probably the story I liked least in the collection. 

2. Nightmare

One night in the pouring rain, a man sneaks into the upper floor room of a house on a huge plantation and rapes the young daughter of the land owner. She wakes up. Relieved that it was just a nightmare. But if she had dreamt it, why are there muddy tracks leading from the window to the bed?

3. The Retreat

The owner of a building with many commercial tenants is rumored to be selling. The tenants have poured their savings and years of their lives into the businesses that take up space in the building and are freaking out accordingly at the news that they might have to leave. When one of these tenants, an older, respected academy owner, agrees to talk to the young man who runs the building, all hell breaks loose.

This was my favorite story in the collection and may be one of the best short stories I’ve ever read. The eeriness and gradual escalation of events feels ripe for a Hitchcock adaptation. Really fantastic.

4. The Woman Next Door

When the new woman who just moved into the apartment building asks her neighbor to borrow a spatula, it soon becomes clear that there are some things you can’t ever expect to be returned. 

Along with “The Retreat”, this is a highlight of the collection. The ending will cause you to reevaluate everything you read before, and might even make you think you’re going a little bit crazy. Really, really good.

5. Flag

This is about a young man who works at a Chrysler dealership. His goal is to sell the luxury sedan that rotates on the pedestal in the middle of the showroom but every time he “gets the vibe” that a buyer is near, something happens and ruins his chance of making the sale. 

This story is about a young man who polishes the windows of the dealership each and everyday so that they’re so clean a bird would be fooled into flying into them.

This story is about a young man who finds an entire outfit scattered up the length of a telephone poll.

6. Your Rearview Mirror

A security guard in a department store watches a woman admire the gray dress displayed on a mannequin. The woman shoplifts various items but the man fails to stop her. One day she comes for the dress and the guard’s life is changed.

7. Flowers of Mold

The title story in the collection is about a man distraught that the woman he loved chose someone else. He’s certain that if he had only known her better, he would have made her love him. Confident in his belief, he begins searching through his neighbors’ garbage to learn more about them.

8. Toothpaste

An employee at an advertising company is charged with writing a memorable catchphrase for a generic brand of toothpaste. While wracking his mind trying to come up with something, he runs into the young woman who is to be the face of the product. He’s certain he’s seen her before …

9. Early Beans

A man needs to go to the mall to buy a gift for the woman he’s courting. He also needs to think up a really good joke, something that will make her laugh because, if he succeeds, she says she will “give herself to him”. Along the way he gets into an accident and hits a young man on a delivery bike. If he would please deliver a package, the delivery guy would be very grateful. As the delivery guy’s in the hospital, delivering the package is the least the man can do, isn’t it? 

10. Onion

Two people are thrown together following a series of bizarre events. A woman accidentally sits on a newborn baby in a hospital waiting room and makes a run for it, and a man’s obsession with his sashimi knife turns bloody. Things don’t end well.

In short, this is a fabulously strange collection of stories that speaks not only to life in modern-day South Korea but life in the western world generally. It’s fantastically original and certainly unlike anything you’ve read before. 

I highly recommend it.

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