Wednesday, November 8, 2023

THE OWL CRIES, latest "anxiety fiction" from South Korea's artist of same

(tr. Sora Kim-Russell)
Arcade Publishing
$26.99 hardcover, available now

Rating: 3.5* of five

The Publisher Says: From the Shirley Jackson Award–winning author of The Hole, a slow-burning thriller with a touch of horror and the uncanny

A disappearance. A missing brother. A lawyer asking questions. And a vast forest in the mountains—the western woods—where the trees huddle close together emanating a crushing darkness and a chill dampness fills the air. The ranger, In-su Park, who lives nearby with his family, is a recovering alcoholic. He claims no knowledge of the man who disappeared, even though the missing man had worked as the ranger just before him. In the little village down the mountain, the shopkeepers will do the same and deny they ever saw or knew the man, though they’re less convincing; and his former supervisor at the Forestry Research Center, Professor Jin, dismisses his importance. But when an accident and a death derail the investigation and someone attempts to break into his office, In-su Park finds himself conducting his own inquiry into the goings-on deep in the heart of the western woods—spurred by the mysterious words he discovers on a piece of paper beneath his desk: “In the forest the owl cries.”

The Owl Cries is a treat for fans of Stephen King, David Lynch, and the nightmare dystopias of Franz Kafka.


My Review
: You’ll all remember that I am a fan of Pyun’s earlier novels. Her fiction is, I think, perfectly described as “anxiety fiction.” Like the oft-cited comparison to Kafka, her characters don’t seem to know what the hell’s going on, much like the reader…for a while, anyway. We, of course, catch on before our main character Ranger Park does that there are wheels within wheels among the people of the village, in fact everywhere surrounding the strange world of the forest he's the ranger of.

What makes this read satisfying to me is the claustrophobic, contained world that Ranger Park thinks he's found refuge within turning into a stage for some of the most venal, terrible, conscienceless people to conduct the parts of their affairs that do not stand up to close scrutiny. Pyun's opinion of those we've ceded control of the world to matches mine: Poor.

I'm less inclined to forgive the book's, um, magisterial pace. If you're centering your story on the disappearance of a person, the previous Ranger to Park, and that person's relative comes to seek them and/or their fate out, pay attention to the means by which the people looking into it do this. That means, for me, allow me to be there for the asking and answering of relevant questions. What people say is one thing, what they do is often very different. Let me in on that journey or the book becomes, as this one does, an excercise in atmospherics.

It's a superior exercise therein...the forest is such a beautifully evoked entity, almost Kinglike in its mute menace...but again, nothing happens that makes it other than a lovely evocative setting. King would've had some dread spirit or creature do something. In this book, it's build-up without release. It becomes very easy to feel stalled in the read, as the investigation into the disappeared brother does nothing for long stretches of time.

What is often a beautiful read is not a satisfying story. The ending resolves enough fates and reveals enough "why"s to count as an actual ending. The main issue is the way it's done in presenting the conclusions. This makes the journey up to that time feel...hollow...because it's an unearned climax. I've read lovely image after lovely image upon interesting observation, yet there's nothing in all of it that contained the information I needed to get there with the author. This violates thriller ethics, and removes any hint of mystery novel from what is, in the end, a lovely literary exploration of surfaces not matching interiors, of how hard the terrible people in charge work to prevent us fro noticing how terrible they truly are.

That read appeals to me, so I liked the book fine. Your mileage may vary, of course.

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