by Corrine Watson
December 6, 2022
Corrine Watson is a freelance writer and editor based in Charlotte, NC and is Reviews Editor for West Trade Review. Her work has appeared in Wretched Creations and the Southern Review of Books. Follow her on Twitter @CorrineWatson6.
Cursed Bunny by Bora Chung Translated by Anton Hur; Algonquin Books; 256 pages; $17.99
Shortlisted for the International Booker Prize, Korean author Bora Chung makes a striking U.S. debut with her disturbingly unique collection of short stories, Cursed Bunny, translated by Anton Hur. As the characters face the monstrous and absurd, each tale grapples with lessons and morals that aren’t so easily pinned down. The stories in the collection read as modern fables commenting on generational trauma, the pitfalls of greed, and the confines of maintaining the status quo within a patriarchal society. Throughout the collection, Chung expertly blends surrealist horror with the unsettling truths that illustrate our darkest fears.
The first two stories in the collection dive directly into surrealism in a way that felt creatively absurd and grotesque as it explores body horror in the context of women’s bodily autonomy. “The Head,” follows a woman who is haunted by a physical embodiment of her waste, which takes the form of a monstrous head living in her toilet and calls her mother. The meaning behind this story is illusive, which leave room for reader interpretation. Perhaps, the grotesqueness of the situation was a strategic distraction for Chung to focus on the taboo of a woman’s excrement as the absurdity of the situation draws the reader into the narrative while leaving space for interpretation. What stood out was the woman’s ability to create life, both human and monstrous. After she gives birth to her daughter, the Head tells the woman that “I may have been birthed a different way from that child, but I, too, am your creation, Mother.” The concept of monstrous motherhood carries over in “Embodiment” as a young woman finds herself spontaneously pregnant after taking birth control too long in an absurd twist of fate. The doctors are overtly condescending insinuating that this was her fault and they repeatedly tell her “If you want a normal child, you’ll do whatever it takes to find a father” which is overtly sexist and illustrates the pressure to maintain the status quo of a heteropatriachal society. Even when she calls off the quest to find a father because “she had conceived on her own and therefore would raise the baby on her own,” she worried “that she was somehow irreparably harming the child by having this baby without a father.” The irony of the story resulted in a deformed bloody blob of a deformed baby because the doctors literally meant that the fetus needed sperm to develop correctly, but overall, this illustrates the pressure on single mothers to maintain the status quo of a nuclear heterosexual family. Chung’s writing is often blunt and mater-of-fact which made the overt sexism of this particular story come off as satirical. Whether this was intentional or not, the story works well as a timely representation of women’s autonomy in a patriarchal society as she struggled with her medical condition and was dismissed and talked down to by nurses and ignored by her family when she decided to raise the child without a father. And in the end, her autonomy and choices meant very little as the monstrous birth was pinned down to her own inadequacies as a woman and mother for failing to find a father.
As with “The Head,” Chung’s writing often asks the reader to consider the lines we draw between the human and monster. While the Head shapes itself into a homunculus that forms from the waste of its creator, the androids in “Goodbye, My Love” are created to serve their masters only to be disposed of once obsolete, which aptly illustrates the wasteful nature of consumer capitalism. The narrator in this story struggles to let go of his outdated android as if she were a dying lover on life support, but finds himself uncomfortable with the ways the upgraded model oversteps the lines between android and human-like behavior. The narrator notes that, “Seeing an android smiling like a human after doing something a human wouldn’t do is creepy. I wonder whether the concept of the ‘uncanny valley’ can be applied to behavior as much as it does to appearance.” The nature of the inhuman beings in these stories is meant to be unsettling to the reader as they are to the characters, yet Chung endows them with a sentience that makes them sympathetic in a similar way to the pity readers might have for Frankenstein’s monster. The moral complexities that arise between human and monster in this collection illustrate Chung’s expert ingenuity in reframing classic tropes to create her own unique blend of surrealist horror.
The majority of the collection reads as cautionary tales on the follies of greed, which often manifests as a generational curse passed down from fathers to sons. In “Cursed Bunny,” a man curses the CEO of a large corporation who caused the downfall of his friend’s small business and eventual suicide. Rather than attacking the CEO directly, the curse tore apart his legacy starting with his grandson, son, and eventually his business and reputation. The logistical structure of the storytelling is fairly straightforward in terms of portraying karmic justice, yet it misses the mark when it tries to slip in the lesson that vengeance comes at a cost because it felt a bit rushed and underdeveloped as it was tagged on at the end of the story. Both “Snare,” and “Ruler of the Winds and Sands,” dip into fantasy and magical realism to illustrate these themes. “Snare” reads the most like a dark folktale as a man’s greed spirals into an amalgamation of sins at the detriment to his family. When he discovers a trapped fox that bleeds gold, he brings the animal home and slowly bleeds it dry for years until it dies and he is left wealthy and prosperous. Things take a darker turn when he learns that his children, in a twisted blend of vampirism and abuse, are able to produce the gold blood. The man cannot help but choose his fortune over the well-being of his children. “Gathering, drop by drop, the golden liquid flowed from his son’s body, the man felt peace in his heart and his hope for the future was restored.” While there is an inevitability to the plot of these stories, Chung’s originality stands out in the chilling twists and use of magical realism to create these unique tales.
Chung’s genre-defying collection breathes life into literary horror as the stories incorporate common fears and societal flaws with elements of the fantastic in the most chilling ways. The tales in Cursed Bunny will draw readers in with familiar themes and genre tropes and leave them pleasantly surprised, if not disturbed by the monsters within.
Folklore with a Chilling Bite: Generational Trauma and the Pitfalls of Greed in Bora Chung's Cursed Bunny
Photo by Velizar Ivanov from Unsplash