Wednesday, March 13, 2019

The Plotters, by Un-Su Kim

Doubleday, 2019
translated by Sora Kim-Russell
292 pp

Expect the unexpected in this book, which is anything but your standard gun-for-hire novel.

Bumping off someone in the South Korea of this book is the domain of the titular (and anonymous) plotters, those behind the scenes hiding in the shadows. Everyone who is powerful enough has access to a plotter to take care of his or her business.  Once a hit is ordered, the plotters work out how the job will be done and then hire a contractor  to do the actual dirty work; the contractor then hands off the work to an assassin.  The person making the hit has absolutely no clue as to who's commissioning him  --  he does the job, picks up his money and waits for the next assignment.    That is, of course, if he follows instructions to the letter and doesn't mess things up. If that happens, well, let's just say that it's not a good thing.

The "assassination industry"  really came into its own after the overthrow of some thirty years of military dictatorship. As we're told, unlike those previously in power,
"...the newly democratic government couldn't use the basement on Nansan to beat the crap out of loudmouthed pains in the ass.  And so in order to avoid the eyes of the people and the press, to avoid generating evidence of their own complex chain of command and execution, and to avoid any future responsibility, they started doing business on the sly with contractors.  And thus began the age of outsourcing."
The Plotters follows the story of Reseng, whose adoptive father known as Old Raccoon,  is the head of one of these assassination syndicates.  Adopted at age four, Reseng was taken to live at his father's "labyrinthine" library, aka in the industry as "the Doghouse," which was always "crawling with assassins, hired guns, and bounty hunters."  While the business was going on in the background, Reseng preferred to curl up in a chair and read, having taught himself early on to read by matching the Korean alphabet to pictures in books, since Old Racoon had decided he wouldn't learn anything by going to school.    It is notable that his hero was Achilles, and also notable that from his hero he learned that no matter what, you have to protect your weak spot, an idea which carries throughout this novel.    Eventually Reseng learns the assassin trade and becomes very efficient at his job, but after years in the profession, he comes to realize that he himself might be the target of someone who wants him dead.  That's enough about plot for now.

If you're thinking that this book is just another killer-becomes-prey sort of thing, so why read it, don't even go there. While there is plenty of action throughout the story that will make thriller readers happy, the main focus is really on Reseng, whose inner reflections offer more of a philosophical side to the man.  I only got through the first chapter and realized that this was no ordinary thriller, even as he has his victim in the crosshairs. As he watches the elderly man deep in the mountain woods, talking to his plants, playing with his dog, he stops for a moment to ask himself whether or not to pull the trigger, thinking about how once the job is done he might be able to "change his a pizza shop across from a high school, or sell cotton candy in the park."   But he doesn't shoot because "Now's not the right time."  He wasn't sure why it wasn't the right time, only that "there was a right time for everything,"  but this wasn't it.  Not only does he not pull the trigger, but he is actually invited inside by his victim to warm himself by the fire, shares a meal and listens to the old man's story about his grandfather before they both fell asleep.  It was this very scene that had me realizing that I had something very different in my hand, with worries about it being your standard hit man story all dissolved before I even got to the second chapter, and many more surprises were in store.

Aside from Reseng, there are a host of other unique characters all beset with very human problems, including a fellow assassin who didn't follow the plot, a quirky crematorium operator, a cross-eyed librarian, and a  woman who advocates for assassination in cases of abuse.  It's the kind of book where I was laughing one moment, horrified the next, but when all is said and done, the author remains primarily in the inner life of the main character.   It is, in fact, the people in this book who make it successful and to his great credit, the author rises well above mere genre (although some of the trappings are definitely there) to make this a very human story. And while not perfect (it starts to read like a movie in the last half or so) it is also one of the most literary crime thrillers I've read, complete with history and social issues, and despite its faults, it is nicely written.   I'd seriously read anything this author has written or will write in the future.

There are some great reviews out there with much more to say than I have here (listed below), but seriously, I've been up all night with no sleep so it's amazing I'm still coherent at the moment.  I will say that I have a bone to pick with whoever wrote the dustjacket blurb because they gave away way more than I wanted to know before I'd even started the book, which was seriously disappointing.   Bottom line: it's a definite yes, and this is coming from someone who likely would not pick up a novel about a hit man by choice.   This one I'm recommending wholeheartedly.

from Criminal Element
from The Guardian
from Korean Literature Now