Flowers of Mold by Ha Seong-nan

Flowers of Mold by Ha Seong-nan

Description

“On the surface, Ha Seong-nan’s stories seem pleasant enough, yet there’s something disturbing just below the surface, ready to permanently disrupt the characters’ lives.

A woman meets her next-door neighbor and loans her a spatula, then starts suffering horrific gaps in her memory. A man, feeling jilted by an unrequited love, becomes obsessed with sorting through his neighbors’ garbage in the belief that it will teach him how to better relate to people. A landlord decides to raise the rent, and his tenants hatch a plan to kill him at a team-building retreat.

In ten captivating, unnerving stories, Flowers of Mold presents a range of ordinary individuals—male and female, young and old—who have found themselves left behind by an increasingly urbanized and fragmented world.

The latest in the trend of brilliant female Korean authors to appear in English, Ha cuts like a surgeon, and even the most mundane objects become menacing and unfamiliar under her scalpel.” – the blurb on the back of my copy, also on the publisher’s website.

Recommendation

Probably skip it unless you’re really into unsettling mundanity that often turns sinister. Reading this collection felt a little bit like reading the part of a Junji Ito comic before shit gets wacky.

Cover of Flowers of Mold

Discussion

First off, did the person who wrote the blurb on the back read the same book??? “Pleasant enough”??? In what world are literally any of these stories at all pleasant by any measure?!

Most of the stories felt to me like a Goosebumps, Twilight Zone, or watered-down Junji Ito-type experience. Instead of some small revelation of character, which is my usual preference for short stories (Alice Munro and Lorrie Moore have lots of good examples of this kind of story) we find out some plot detail in a twist that’s almost always disturbing to some degree, and some final impactful image full of ominous dread, and how that image opposes, exaggerates, or imitates some aspect of daily life, seems to be the point of the story. The stories started to feel a bit samey to me in their oppressive, menacing drudgery. I noticed a lot of recurring images and actions between the stories. Digging holes; looking at the same billboard over and over during a soul-crushing commute. Garbage; specifically the smell of garbage. Terrible apartments that aren’t what was promised. Fish tongues.

I didn’t like the writing. Either the author’s writing is vague, stilted, and general or there’s a whole lot missing in translation. By vague, I mean that whenever there’s a song or a car or a brand mentioned it’s always “a popular song” or “a discontinued model of car” or “a well-known toothpaste brand.” This kind of refusal to mention specifics always sticks out to me in writing because I think it weakens the setting considerably. I wonder if in this case the reluctance toward name specificity is related to South Korea’s intense laws about defamation. Like how BTS has to change the words of “Converse High” to say “lovers’ high” instead when performing on music broadcast shows. Also, I had a difficult time with pronoun and generic noun references in the stories where the characters weren’t named. Scenes with multiple men talking often heavily used dialogue tags like “the man said” and I sometimes lost track of the speaker. I think I’ve mentioned before on this blog that I don’t really like to read translated writing because I worry that I’m missing something in the original context of the native language of the author. That feeling was pervasive during my reading of Flowers of Mold.

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