“The Consultant” by Im Seong-sun

Im Seong-sun Im Seong-sun

Film and television that satirize South Korea’s class division has garnered considerable audience and critical attention in recent years, notably the award-winning Parasite (Bong Joon-ho, 2019) and the record-breaking Squid Game (Hwang Dong-hyuk, 2021). Less well known internationally, however, is literary fiction that takes aim at South Korea’s social hierarchy. Im Seong-sun’s The Consultant, first published in Korean in 2010 and now available in English translation, takes full advantage of the medium of the novel to create an ambiguous, mysterious satire that can be grimly satirical and coldly terrifying.

The Consultant’s unnamed narrator explains how he came to work for “the company”, a mysterious entity that contracts him to write ‘fictional’ murder scenarios based on his success as an online writer of amateur crime fiction. Soon he finds that murders eerily similar to the ones he has concocted are turning up in news reports. As a matter of morality, he is mostly morally untroubled by this. At one point, noticing a passerby smoking a cigarette, he reflects:

 

No matter how many people I kill during my lifetime, it’ll still be fewer than the man who created the adverts for the cigarette he’s smoking.

 

These kinds of justifications turn up in numerous variations throughout the novel. After a while, the narrator stops looking for reasons why his victims might be bad people and deserving of the fate he dreams up for them, and resolves that everyone has a dark side that can justify their murder.

The narrator is gradually initiated into higher levels of the company. They seem to understand his tastes, his motivations, and even his private sexual fantasies. But his relationship with Hyeon-gyeong, a company secretary, soon conflicts sharply with the wishes of the company. Gradually, he becomes less and less sure what is real and what is fabrication, and unsure of just how much power and influence the company has on events in his life and in the world at large.

 

The Consultant. Im Seong-sun, An Seon Jae (trans) (Bloomsbury, November 2023)
The Consultant. Im Seong-sun, An Seon Jae (trans) (Bloomsbury, November 2023)

Though marketed as a thriller, The Consultant largely eschews white-knuckle set pieces and high emotional stakes. Its central character is deliberately anonymous, bereft of personal details as well as a moral blank, essentially a desk clerk despite the murderous nature of the Company’s bureaucracy. The matter-of-fact narration renderst the murderous and conspiratorial events eerie and chilling rather than dramatic. As a result, they linger in the imagination after the novel is finished. The ultra-rich company chairman attempts to intimidate with his hugely spacious office, conspicuously wasting space in a country where it is scarce, but his meeting with the narrator is anticlimactic too: the chairman is a condescending bore with a taste for cheap whiskey. Murder is just a job, the narrator reminds us, and human beings can be reduced to statistics, statistics that can tell us things we don’t even know about ourselves.

The narrator’s talk of business cards, and conspicuous digressions on rock bands Nirvana and Metallica may call to mind Brett Easton Ellis’s American Psycho (1991), and may suggest to the reader that this is that novel’s Korean counterpart. But while Ellis ramped up the gore and violence, and used a sledgehammer for his satirical message, Im is more distanced and ambiguous: our narrator doesn’t carry out the violence himself, he just plots out the perfect crime. Im suggests that we are all complicit in an unfair system and asks whether any one person or group has sufficient power or authority to change it.

Im imbues the novel with his experiences during the 1997 IMF crisis, when mass unemployment, social upheaval, and a massive increase in the suicide rate rocked the country. His lived experiences provide the novel with authentic-seeming and fascinating details of the mundane textures of everyday life: cramming English vocabulary for a forthcoming TOEIC test, posting fiction to a bulletin board, and playing Starcraft in a PC room.

Who is culpable for the evils of society when they seem to be dispersed across many individuals and institutions may not be an entirely new theme, but the mass of authentic details make this a fascinating read for those interested in Korean culture, and the pithy, epigrammatic style is highly readable. Im poses the deeper questions eloquently if not exactly subtly. Though devoid of suspense and violence, the novel’s thought-provoking conclusion is its most chilling moment.


John A Riley is a writer and university lecturer based in Daejeon, South Korea.