Body doubles: Review of ‘Cursed Bunny’ by Bora Chung

Since Bora Chung prefers to report events rather than evoke experiences, her characters do not really feel human although they are allegedly human.

Published : May 04, 2023 11:00 IST - 6 MINS READ

In many of the stories, a hapless protagonist, usually a woman, has to deal with a terrifying and uncertain situation.

In many of the stories, a hapless protagonist, usually a woman, has to deal with a terrifying and uncertain situation. | Photo Credit: Getty Images/iStock

At one point in the movie  High Fidelity, John Cusack’s character holds forth on the art of making a good compilation tape. It is, he tells us, “a very subtle art” with “Many dos and don’ts.... You gotta kick off with a killer, to grab attention. Then you got to take it up a notch, but you don’t wanna blow your wad, so then you got to cool it off a notch…. There are a lot of rules.” The art of putting together a good short story collection is also subtle. However, for a collection of speculative short fiction such as Bora Chung’s  Cursed Bunny, in which each story is quite weird, it is unclear what the organising rules could be, because the weird take pride in their being, well, atypical.

Cursed Bunny
By Bora Chung, translated by Anton Hur
Hachette India
Pages: 256
Price: Rs.599

Still, even speculative fiction has its rules, except that the rules of the story-world are discovered as one reads the story rather than their being laid out in advance. Done correctly, this makes the story something akin to found art, where an ordinary and familiar object is rendered anew.

For example, poop. What could be more familiar or more ordinary or less arty? Nevertheless, in “Head”, the first “killer” story in Chung’s collection, a woman discovers that her poop has begun to become, well, sentient. Or more accurately, her poop starts out sentient, and then slowly acquires a body.

What would you do in such a situation? The rules of this world are quite simple: “[Y]ou poop, therefore I am”. And like us, the unfortunate protagonist in Chung’s lead story attempts to figure out what this rule implies and tries out various solutions, but unlike us, she has Chung’s remorseless imagination to contend with.

“Head” sets the tone for the remaining nine stories in the collection. In several of them, a hapless protagonist, usually a woman, has to deal with a terrifying and uncertain situation, one that questions what it means to have a body. Thus, in the story “Embodiment”, a woman’s womb acquires an agency no human womb has ever had. In “Scars”, a boy is offered as a sacrifice to a cave monster and his body loses its human connection, but not his mind.

I found the titular story “Cursed Bunny” a thorough bore. It was as if Chung had started out wanting to turn a tall tale into a modern fable, but ultimately ended up with a  Tales from the Crypt episode. Similarly, the fairy tale, “Ruler of the Winds and Sands” read like bad fan fiction in places. In contrast, the decidedly sentimental “Goodbye, My Love” worked for me, despite its familiar trope (namely, Local Area Man Falls in Love with Android).

Cover of “Cursed Bunny”

Cover of “Cursed Bunny” | Photo Credit: By special arrangement

Poker-faced

Read in sequence, the stories began to acquire a certain sameness. Perhaps it is because we humans are very good at seeing patterns. Also, unlike mix-tapes or anthologies, a collection of stories is the work of one mind. If all of us can imagine patterns in any arrangement, it is also true any single mind can only imagine in patterned ways. In short, authors are doomed to repeat themselves.

This is really only a problem with speculative fiction because the genre values novelty and unexpectedness. One solution is to find new bottles.  How something is told can be as innovative as what  is being told. Raymond Queneau’s  Exercises In Style makes this point in 99 different ways. Stylistic virtuosity in a short story collection—Donald Barthelme’s  Sixty Stories comes to mind—can help keep tedium at bay.

This collection stays away from such virtuosity. If Chung’s style were a card player, it would be poker-faced. She has a surgeon’s relish for bodily fluids. Otherwise, the stories are sparse on geographical and cultural contexts, characters are unnamed, physical descriptions are mostly dispensed with, plots inexorably escalate, and all her sentences put in a full day’s work. Chung prefers to report events rather than evoke experiences.

This reporting—telling, not showing—of events makes sense for the same reason that police reports strive to stay clear of poetry. What is happening or has happened is strange enough; there is no need for embellishment.

Highlights
  • In many of the stories, a hapless protagonist, usually a woman, has to deal with a terrifying and uncertain situation, one that questions what it means to have a body
  • Although the collection belongs to the genre of speculative fiction, it stays away from virtuosity
  • In Chung’s stories, the characters are allegedly human, but they don’t really  feel human

Chung is dealing with a similar situation. Her humans are strange. Or to use the correct psychological term, “uncanny”. In the story “Goodbye, My Love”, Chung has the human narrator tell us: “I wonder whether the concept of the ‘uncanny valley’ can be applied to behaviour as much as it does to appearance.”

This question is perhaps the key to this collection. Roboticists and animators are aware of the difficulty of making something artificial look lifelike but not  too lifelike. Designers refer to this difficulty as crossing the “uncanny valley”. We are okay, it seems, with the purely artificial—toasters, crutches, electrical switches.

“Read in sequence, the stories began to acquire a certain sameness. Perhaps it is because we humans are very good at seeing patterns.”

We are okay, it seems, with the purely human—laughter, language, upright gait. But between the fully natural and the fully artificial lies a bridge of ambiguities. As we cross this bridge, we begin to get uneasy as something that belongs to one category begins to slide, in behaviour and appearance, into the other—ChatGPT, false teeth, synthetic organisms. In Chung’s stories, the characters are allegedly human, but they don’t really  feel human. Their struggles aren’t quite human, their responses aren’t quite human, and their relationships aren’t quite human.

Polite fictions

Chung’s stories remind us that contrary to popular wisdom, the point of speculative literature is not necessarily about affecting surprise or estrangement. Rather, such stories reveal what we would rather not know: the world is uncanny. It has always been uncanny. We knew that as children. We are only surprised to the extent we have forgotten our childhoods. “Reality” is the polite fiction we use to cover the scatological smells, textures, terrors, and intractability of the uncanny. “I need to use the bathroom” is so much more considerate to our educated feelings than “Life is what happens from one shit to the next”.

Chung, however, is disinclined to be content with polite fictions. This is her challenge. It is also her achievement.

Anil Menon is the author, most recently, of the short story collection The Inconceivable Idea of the Sun.

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