This portion of the novel that we’re currently reading, The Man Who Walks Dogs (전민식의“개를 산책시키는 남자”) by Minshik Jeon, turns into a fairly slow slice of life. These next few chapters don’t show our narrator Dorang Im doing more with his dog walking job. Instead, he spends a lot of time working at his restaurant job, reading at the library, and dating his co-worker Mihyang.
He calms down a bit and ends up hanging out regularly at the library where he graduated from high school. He uses their internet access, email and reads literature. He is surprised to get an email from an old co-worker who describes how strict security has gotten at his old workplace. Sensors have been installed at each door and personal use of email has been restricted. This seems to be a subtle theme that comes up regularly in the story, but it’s too soon to tell how important it may be. Rumors are going around about Dorang’s involvement with a slush fund that the email writer finds unbelievable. Reading fiction at the library makes Dorang mentally rant about and lust over Jinju again.
There isn’t as much drama in the next chapter or so, though there are still some unsettling details that come to light in passing, such as the rape of a girl in the alley near the library, Dorang’s ruminations over the death of a childhood friend or his drunken night with a girl in his school. But none of these details add up to much as far as the plot is concerned.
Jinju comes up, but she’s always an unreal figure haunting Dorang’s world and frustrating him. He still talks about her only briefly and in generalities, and we never hear too many details of what went on with her at his former job. She primarily serves to stimulate his lust and his resentment for ruining his life. He wonders if he was really as in love with her as he thought even as he sends her email expressing his longing to see her, but she never answers him. It does come out that she pumped him for information he didn’t think was sensitive and disappeared to Algeria with it!
Now I’m wondering if we have an unreliable narrator, which is especially easy to create with 1st person narrative. Was that woman in the park at the beginning of the novel actually Jinju, or was she just a woman who reminded him of Jinju? Maybe it was just some woman running in the park. He thinks he sees Junju’s photo in a convenience store and fantasizes about killing her, mentioning bodyguards. Since most corporate employees don’t have bodyguards, at least not in America, is he mistaking some celebrity’s photo for her? Is he seeing her places because she’s there or because her betrayal makes him see her everywhere? It’s kind of hard to tell.
Here’s more discussion on point of view in writing to ponder these questions further:
At first, his coworker Mihyang constantly reminds him of Jinju. His memory of Jinju diminishes as he dates Mihyang, however. They eat meals or drink soju together, hanging out at work and bonding over literature. He asks her out to a vampire movie and karaoke, but Mihyang doesn’t know the songs and makes him do the singing. They seem to have a good time, and the time he spends with Mihyang makes his life seem almost normal again. Even he admits she comforts him in his troubles some, and he wonders if he is in love with her.
Then one day Director Mongmong approaches him at work to tell him the pug was pregnant and offer him a job washing dogs. This scene was nicely portrayed, with a rainstorm in the background while Dorang is washing pans. Dorang is kind of incensed that this man, whom he doesn’t recognize at first, speaks so informally to him. He’s sure that must mean he knows him, but he can’t figure out who the guy is. Even after it is revealed that Director Mongmong met him a few months earlier at the pet center hospital, Dorang still resists calling him about the job even though it could solve his financial problems. He is upset with the language the man uses with him for quite a while. However, Dorang does admit to himself that the pug’s pregnancy was due to his own negligence.
After some time passes, he gets some kind of communication from both Director Mongmong and Samson Company. The word the novel uses is 문자, but none of the definitions of that word that I found make much sense here. Did he get a text message or something? But he apparently needs to answer them.
The next segment shows the outcome of the Samson text and starts one of the most dramatic sequences in the novel. It mentions the milonga at the very beginning. Here is a basic description of this musical term related to tango:
Like many other cultural details such as song and book titles that come up at times briefly in the novel, this reference is never explained. Here we see Dorang meeting with Samson in a high-class bar where a saxophonist is playing, but I’m not sure if he’s just playing a song that evokes a man and woman dancing for if there is actually a man and woman dancing the tango in the bar. The scene is fairly long and intense, with some interaction with other men and a woman in the bar, including a scuffle between Samson and someone at another table. None of the other patrons are named, are just generically referred to as a man or woman, which makes it hard to figure out why people are reacting the way they are. Ultimately, Samson pays Dorang to check out the family of a woman’s husband to determine if there’s any fraud involved.
The next scene is even more intense and offers an interesting juxtaposition with the former one with Samson. This scene was also very long and was particularly challenging because the actions and speech were not tagged, so it was hard to know who was saying or doing what. Dorang gets caught naked in his sleeping bag with Mihyang in the restaurant’s imperial suite. For some reason, they decided it was safe to act that way there, but their manager catches them. The situation is already awkward, but Dorang realizes now that the manager is in love with Mihyang! The manager blames the incident on Dorang and threatens to go to the police and accuse him of sexual assault. Dorang punches him, but Mihyang stops him as the manager says Dorang’s true colors are finally coming out. The manager calls her a bitch and him a filthy bum. She apologizes to Dorang that this caused him to lose his job. Besides the fact that Dorang is simply a walking disaster at this point, acting too recklessly to protect himself from ruthless people, one has to wonder what might really be going on around him.
Structurally, these two scenes offer a great parallel. They both show Dorang with an employer in some swank location where there is a love triangle on some level, some concern about an unsavory boyfriend and a potentially wronged woman and a physical fight. The second scene amps up the intensity of all of those elements and shifts them around a bit, but they are present in both segments. But again, it’s hard to shake the feeling that this character is going to come to a bad end. As an author, if you stack the deck too much against your character, there ends up being no way to end the story gently.
After Dorang is fired from the restaurant, he takes that investigative job from Samson checking out the husband of Eunju Lee for fraud. Dorang pretends to be a relative, even taking her last name, when the three meet for drinks. Later, Eunju and Dorang continue drinking at a different location. She talks a bit about how hard it is to find a truly good man. Dorang can relate after his experience with Jinju. They notice there is some chemistry between them, and Dorang accidentally slips into informal speech with her a few times, which she questions him about. After that evening, he is supposed to get calls from her once a week to discuss the matter, but he doesn’t hear from her for weeks. When he finally tries to call her, he gets a wrong number message. Samson sets him up with another job helping a student who got in a fight at school.
Dorang tries to get another job. He dusts off his only suit and gives out his resume to potential employers. He explains about his experience with the spy, but they notice something is missing on his resume. When he explains why he doesn’t have a certificate of residence, they are uncomfortable. This is apparently causing him difficulty in getting work. Desperate, Dorang decides it’s time to get in touch with Director Mongmong, whose message he saved. This seems like a good place to stop in the story for this post. We’ll see next time how he gets back into a job with the dogs.
It’s hard to know who some of these characters are. Is it a language problem or a comprehension problem? At my current reading level, either could be the case. I’m not sure how Dorang was originally connected to Samson or if Eunju Lee is the same person as the “Samson woman” who appeared earlier. Eunju could be since both women talk about economics.
Another recurring theme in the novel is romance gone bad. Dorang has a bad time with Jinju and later Mihyang, and Eunju has her problems with her husband. It is interesting that both of the times Dorang gets threatened with the accusation of sexual assault that it is men making the accusations! The women aren’t really involved: the woman in the next apartment isn’t even in the room, and Mihyang was in a consensual situation. That’s a rather unusual dynamic to see at work. But overall, Dorang has been referred to the police or been threatened with police action about four times in the novel, twice with the dogs in the park and twice with these women whom he was not assaulting. It’s a very unsettling pattern. We’ll see next time if the story does indeed turn into a tragedy or somehow our protagonist ends up escaping his problems as we reach the novel’s conclusion.
Part three of a four part series.