Bora Chung’s Cursed Bunny was shortlisted for the International Booker Prize this year and has received such widespread acclaim, that having read it now I can only concur with all the praise heaped upon it.
Cursed Bunny is a terrific collection of ten stories that merge the genres of horror, science fiction, magical realism and dream logic to explore a wide variety of themes that are possibly a commentary on the ills of Korean society, but which could simply be applied to any society where patriarchy and greed rules the roost.
As usual, I won’t focus on each of the ten stories but dwell instead on the ones that really stood out and made an impression.
I’ll begin with the second story “The Embodiment”, a disturbing tale of prospective motherhood, single parenting and how the idea of a family unit is heavily defined by conventional mores. The protagonist, a young woman, is prescribed birth control pills by the doctor for a certain period when she complains of heavy menstruation and the unbearable pain that comes with it. But things go awry the day she’s shocked to discover she’s pregnant, the result of having taken those pills for a longer time than necessary. Her doctor, a heavily made up woman, is unsympathetic about her plight and makes a strange statement of how the woman needs to urgently find a father if the pregnancy has to proceed normally. So intent is the woman on the task of finding a suitable father which entails going on a slew of pointless seon dates that she laments at not having the option of considering single motherhood.
But what did it mean for the baby to not grow “properly”? She thought of the hostile glare of the obstetrician with the thick make-up. If she needed a father for the baby for its proper growth, what could explain the size of the stomach now? Hadn’t she simple been scared by a few words of a doctor – some young woman with a nasty personality? Had she been so focused on finding a father for the baby that she hadn’t thought enough about that the baby really needed? Regardless of its growth, whether it had a father or not, the baby was hers and hers alone, in the truest sense. “Live only for the child.”
The titular story “Cursed Bunny” is a story within a story, a wonderful tale on the evils of capitalism which bolster greed and unfair business practices. The narrator is a man working in his family business that makes “cursed fetishes”. We learn of how his family’s business is looked upon with suspicion by their neighbours because its very nature means that it can’t quite be conveniently classified. There are two essential principles that the business must follow, and yet the narrator’s grandfather recounts a story from his childhood, a tale that the narrator has heard umpteen times, but a novelty to the reader. We learn of the grandfather’s friend, an upright man running a distillery business, a family run affair where innovation, superior quality and technology are worth their weight in gold. But then a larger company enters the scene to disrupt the operations of the family distillery. Hugely relying on political connections and networking rather than product quality and technology, the conglomerate pretty much puts the grandfather’s friend out of business with debilitating results, paving the way for the grandfather, a master at cursed fetishes, to plot his revenge.
Another favourite of mine is the story called “Snare”, a chilling, frightening tale of the gruesome aftermath of avarice. One day a man, while walking through the snow clad forest, comes across a fox trapped in a snare. However, it’s not blood that oozes out from the wound, but something that resembles gold. The man takes the injured fox with him home and over the next few years deliberately injures the beleaguered animal to extract as much gold as he can. The man thrives in his business to become immensely rich, but the fox after his grievous injuries is reduced to skin and bones, and finally dies. The man makes a scarf out of the fox’s fur which he gifts to his wife. Soon after she is pregnant and gives birth to twins, a girl and a boy. One day in a scuffle between the children, the girl lets out a bloodcurdling scream because her brother has bit her and is sucking her blood. The mother in her attempts to tear them apart, scratches her finger on the boy’s forehead, out of which gold starts trickling. The man, as a witness, realizes the implications of this, and sensing an opportunity, begins to use his children to feed his appetite for wealth with terrible consequences.
Another story “The Frozen Finger” has all the makings of a typical horror story, a story of being trapped where the line between dreams and reality is blurred. It begins with a woman opening her eyes.
Darkness. Pitch black. Like someone has dropped a thick veil of black over her eyes. Not even a pinpoint of light to be seen.
Has she gone blind?
Frantically groping around her to find her bearings, she is able to discern a steering wheel but is unable to remember a thing. Not surprisingly, she is disconcerted when a voice somewhere near her begins to whisper her name. The voice informs her that she has been in an accident, that the car is stuck in a swamp, and that she needs to get out from there quickly lest she sinks into the marsh. Rescuing her from the car, the voice urges her to move on and acting with urgency the woman relents. She begins to run blindly in search of firmer ground guided by the frozen fingers of that mysterious being only to realize that she is stuck in some kind of bizarre but claustrophobic nightmare.
In “Goodbye, My Love”, a trio of robots with artificial intelligence capabilities revolt against their maker; in “Home Sweet Home”, a woman invests her hard earned savings into buying a building only to be confronted by a host of problems, not the least of which is her irresponsible husband; the story “Scars” is a violent, disquieting tale of imprisonment, the illusory notion of freedom and the price one has to pay for it.
There’s a wide variety of themes explored – entrapment, capitalism, patriarchy, the roles of women, body image, violence, cruelty and the distorted illusion of freedom. Women, particularly, often get a raw deal trampled by the burden of patriarchal society, their agency curtailed. We see this in “The Embodiment” where the woman is told in no uncertain terms that her pregnancy has meaning only if she can find a father; we see it in “Snare” where the man treats his wife and daughter terribly as if their wishes and opinions don’t matter in his quest for immense riches; we see it in “Home Sweet Home” where the woman pays off all her debts, saves up enough to buy a house only to see her husband squander it away with no inkling of respect for her hard work.
Cursed Bunny, then, is a smorgasbord of genres, range and style – horror, fantasy, magical realism where the bizarre sometimes effectively blends with the mundane. Chung has an unflinching perspective, which is particularly jarring but vivid in the way bodily functions are candidly depicted in her stories. In lesser hands, this would have been too much to stomach, but Chung displays a knack for making the stories she weaves around them strangely riveting. The stories in Cursed Bunny are surreal, visceral and quite unlike anything I’ve read before, but they come with a unique, interior logic that works. These macabre, fantastical setups are not only horrific by themselves, but become an effective framework to explore the horrors of real life – cruelties of men, ill treatment of women, evils of capitalism and so on. Absorbing and utterly compelling this is a collection not to be missed.