2019 Sejong Writing Competition
Winning Entries :: Essays :: Adult third place
third place, adult essay division
Lost and Never Found: The Insidious Costs of Conformity in Pyun Hye-young's O. Cuniculi
Hye-young Pyun’s short story, “O. Cuniculi,” is marked by a peculiar absence—the absence of proper names, concrete settings, and dramatic actions typically associated with fictional narratives—but it is this very absence and banality that marks its subversiveness. “O. Cuniculi” follows an unnamed man in a Kafkaesque universe where he gathers data and creates reports in an office. His mundane existence—“doing the same work everyday, looking up the same information, and writing the same reports”—is only briefly punctured by a chance encounter with an abandoned rabbit in a park. But even his seemingly coincidental encounter with the rabbit is tinted with the eerie aura of dystopia: having been an extremely popular fad among children years ago, rabbits were bred and purchased by vendors with shocking frequency and carelessness. Once these children and their parents realized that “there was nothing fun, easy, or simple about raising rabbits,” they were disposed without second thought. Through these parallel narratives of abandonment and wandering, the man and rabbit’s fates are inextricably woven together. Both born out of the systemic desire for mass-production and easy consumption, rendered nameless and anonymous within the vast expanses of the monotonous city they inhabit, the juxtaposition and entanglement of the man and the rabbit he finds are stark reminders of the invisible sacrifices of extreme efficiency and modernization—of what is precisely lost when the reification that is concurrent with capitalism bleeds into human relations and subjectivity.
The protagonist of “O. Cuniculi” is defined primarily through his work, which inevitably dictates what he does and who he meets in his daily life. His temporary position (much like the rest of the story) is marked by ambiguity and when pressed to describe his position more specifically, his superior tells him that “‘To put it roughly, you’re a bridge between cities,’ and said he was working to ensure the cooperation and unification of two countries long at odds with each other.” The description undoubtedly recalls the geopolitical situation on the Korean peninsula, where the remains of the Cold War are still presently manifested in the division between North and South Korea. But beyond this temporary overlap with the real world, the section leader’s description is striking for its reduction of the protagonist into a “bridge,” an object devoid of any subjectivity or feeling and valued for its practical function and use. Despite this noble description of his job, the reality is far less romantic. Day in and day out, the protagonist gathers data and synthesizes it into numerous reports. Even the protagonist is unsure what the point of his reports are, and when the section leader asks him to revise them, he merely “move some information here and widen the margins there” though the leader never seems to notice his superficial revisions. The task that presumably ascribes some kind of value and sense of self-worth to the protagonist is invariably reductive, shallow, and empty.
But the monotony of daily routine is not limited to the protagonist’s work: the story is interrupted by a brief sensational incident in which a serial killer goes around stabbing people in public with a knife. The story is immediately picked up and disseminated through the media, which publicize the killer’s videotape announcing his intention to attack again. Yet for all this sensationalism and public coverage, no concrete actions are taken. The incident is endlessly discussed, with various experts analyzing the killer and police merely warning citizens to be careful, but for the protagonist, the most frightening part of the killer is the glimpse into his apartment: “The man thought the room looked familiar: from the color, style, and placement of the furniture to the white, featureless wallpaper. It looked exactly like his apartment.” While “home” has long held connotations of authentic identity, individuality, and the comfort to express both, the identification between the killer and protagonist’s homes strips away such pastoral notions. Instead, this resemblance evokes fear—not of the killer himself, but the fear that one has something in common with the killer and that in this homogenizing world, the romanticized ideals of individualism and personal subjectivity may just be a myth after all.
The random identification with the killer elicits a curious response from the protagonist: “For the first time, the man was eager to talk to someone…. But the video filled him with fear, and he realized he could be a victim of that randomly brandished knife, that his body could rot away inside his small room, undiscovered by anyone, and that he had no friends in this city.” Desperately yearning for human connection, to find some semblance of individuality, he tells his section leader about the similarities between his own apartment and the killer’s. Though the section leader vaguely reassures him that all apartments in the city look alike, his words only reinforce the pervasiveness of conformity. Gradually, the numbing effect of time erases the protagonist’s initial fright and horror and he once more disappears into the safety of routine and meaningless work.
Ultimately, the story concludes in a cyclical fashion: beginning with his arrival and ending with his departure from the city, with both events precipitated by the protagonist’s job. He leaves just as he arrives, with no personal belongings, no friends, no evidence of a life lived among others. The only ceremonial act he performs is releasing his rabbit into the wild. Despite expectations of protest, the rabbit readily enters the outside world without a single glance backwards. “O. Cuniculi” illustrates an untraditionally dystopian world—dystopian not because of any great apocalyptic event or frightening technology, but because of an all-encompassing homogenizing impulse that renders everything meaningless. Lacking a singular and clearly defined villain, we are left to ponder the origins of this aura of emotional suffocation and ubiquitous oppression of individuality. In the end, “O. Cuniculi” highlights the intangible costs of systemizing the interchangeability and disposability of living beings—that we, too, are the abandoned pets of the world but entirely of our own making.