I enjoy books that live between categories, the platypuses of the bookstore, and City of Ash and Red is that type of book. Classified as a thriller, it could also appeal to literary readers or speculative fiction fans. Whatever shelf you want to put it on, it's an anxious nightmare of a novel.
I made the mistake of reading this while on a trip to Boston, which either made things worse or was just the perfect moment to tackle it, seeing as the book begins with a man on a journey to a country called only C. A virus going around has everyone on edge, which means our protagonist is subjected to an uncomfortable interrogation at the airport within the first few pages.
Every time I fly into another country I am sure I will be dragged into a white room and forced to answer questions I'll fail to understand, and that's exactly what happens to the nameless protagonist of this tale, who has been transferred, for vague and mysterious reasons, to a new city which looks like a demented dystopia festooned with garbage and people in hazmat suits.
Much will be made by critics about the themes of immigration, alienation and communication inherent in the book — but in simple terms imagine if, after a Duolingo course, you ended up in Mad Max's hood and there's rats and you lost your passport. It's a bad situation, and at first you'll feel sorry for the protagonist. But the more you get to know him, the more you'll hate him.
People will surely talk about Kafka, but Gregor Samsa was never this disgusting, despite turning into a giant bug. Nevertheless, good literature does not require nice characters and Hye-young Pyun (with translator Sora Kim-Russell) expertly drags us through a nightmare, even if we wish we were in the company of someone with even a smidgen of heroism. In fact, the neat trick City of Ash and Red pulls is that almost every page is riddled with unbearable disquiet which keeps you going despite the "wishy washy, introverted, insecure and passive" protagonist who tumbles from one bad situation into another. There are rats, disease, murder, scavenging, rape and literal trash fires.
And you won't be able to stop reading.
Hye-young Pyun's previous novel, The Hole, won a Shirley Jackson Award. I've seen that book described as the Korean version of Stephen King's Misery. In the case of City of Ash and Red I've taken to calling it High-Rise if J.G. Ballard took on a whole neighborhood instead of just one luxury apartment building. It's a good book and it's a nasty one. Due to its platypus status, though, it might be easy for potential audiences to miss, with speculative readers thinking it's too smarty-pants because literature in translation always has that aura of caviar, and literary readers imagining that dystopian books are trashy. But whether you want to believe this is a grim look at the human condition or an exciting bit of weird fiction, it's worth a read.
Silvia Moreno-Garcia is an award-winning author and editor. Her most recent novel is The Beautiful Ones. She tweets at @silviamg.