It’s hard to know what City of Ash and Red is really about, until the end, when you realize that the vagueness was the point. In it, an unnamed man works as a rat killer in his home country; when he is transferred to a branch office in District 4 of Country C, his life is plunged into chaos. Country C is consumed by a mysterious disease, its bureaucracy is unraveling, and its streets are full of garbage. Clouds of pesticide and antiseptic poison the air. Meanwhile, in his home country, his ex wife is brutally murdered–and the unnamed man becomes the primary suspect.
You’d think a novel about a man desperately trying to survive murder charges and a plague in a hostile foreign country would be tense, even thrilling. Unfortunately, City of Ash and Red is lethargic and confusing instead, not so much emotionally distant as entirely absent. It’s an admirable literary experiment in detachment and ennui, but ultimately a failed one. I didn’t enjoy this book at all.
You can read my full review below.
City of Ash and Red by Hye-Young Pyun (translated by Sora Kim-Russell)
- publisher: Arcade
- publication date: November 6, 2018
- length: 256 pages
Danger warnings are more common than actual danger. And yet when danger does finally strike, it does so without warning. That was why the man thought nothing of the quarantine notices and infectious disease prevention regulations posted all around the airport. He knew that the more caution signs there were, the less danger he was in.
–from City of Ash and Red by Hye-Young Pyun
Depersonalization, dehumanization, dissociation. Authoritarian governments, guerrilla warfare, gig economies. In a world where full personhood feels more precarious than ever, it’s not hard to see why authors are leaning into namelessness, facelessness, and purposelessness.
The protagonist of City of Ash and Red, Hye-Young Pyun’s second novel published in the U.S. after her award-winning thriller The Hole, is unnamed, referred to as “the man”; most of the people around him are also unnamed, or given only generic first names. Similarly, Pyun eschews place names in favor of placeholders: the unnamed man’s home country is simply called his home country; the country where he goes to work at the beginning of the novel is Country C, the city where he lives merely one of 16 unnamed major cities, his neighborhood known only as District 4.
The man, a rat killer, is transferred to work at an office in Country C. An unnamed, mysterious plague is spreading rapidly when the man arrives; it’s possibly just the common cold, but possibly much worse. Garbage coats the streets. Billowing, opaque clouds of antiseptic are constantly sprayed from trucks, convenient cover for every time the man needs to run away. The man doesn’t speak Country C’s language. (What language? It’s impossible to know.)
The man has a dog in his home country, whom he forgets to make arrangements for, despite knowing that he’s leaving for a 6 month to 5 year stay in Country C. He calls a former coworker and asks him to take the dog somewhere, anywhere; this coworker also happens to have just divorced the man’s ex-wife, also unnamed, and the two men loathe each other and this shared history. When the coworker goes to let out the dog, he finds the ex-wife in the man’s apartment, stabbed to death. The man is the suspect. The man has vague memories of a fight, of holding a dull knife, but he’s certain he didn’t kill his wife before he left for Company C. Or is he certain? And is she even dead?
All of these unknowns are bold and brave choices on the part of Pyun, who is terrific at evoking a sort of banal, bureaucratic dread. But despite its daring, or perhaps because of it, City of Ash and Red simply doesn’t work. It’s overburdened and muddy, so concerned with its own experimental concept that it forgets to tell a real story.
Pyun’s detached writing style (as translated by Sora Kim-Russell) throws up a pane of thickly frosted glass between the reader and the events of the story, making it impossible to fully care about what happens, because it’s nearly impossible to even know what’s really happening.
Tension builds and is abruptly punctured; the best and most vivid part of the novel, in which the man remembers his marriage to his ex-wife, which ended when he raped her, is followed almost immediately by the worst and most deadening part, in which the man lives in a sewer. Or maybe it’s a park? Maybe both? Who knows. I sure don’t.
There’s still plenty of thought-provoking stuff on offer in City of Ash and Red. Pyun writes particularly well about work, marriage, and the ways complacency in both can irrevocably and negatively affect our lives.
But thematic ambition can’t save City of Ash and Red from being a pretty awful reading experience. Even at a relatively short 256 pages, it feels interminable, and painfully bloated.
I don’t recommend City of Ash and Red, but I’m still looking forward to reading The Hole, and I’ll still be seeking out Pyun’s future work. This novel is a failure, but a very, very intriguing one. ★★☆☆☆
Reviews and books you might also enjoy:
- The Body Myth by Rheea Mukherjee
- Alif the Unseen by G. Willow Wilson
- Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer
I got my copy of City of Ash and Red from the library and was in no way compensated for this review.
I publish book reviews every Tuesday and Thursday.
*note: This review has been edited to reflect that Pyun is Hye-Young Pyun’s surname, not Hye-Young. I apologize for the error!