2019 Sejong Writing Competition

Winning Entries :: Essays :: Adult first place
The Terrifying Cycle of Isolation in O. Cuniculi

When the nameless protagonist picks up a stranded rabbit in Hye-Young Pyun’s O. Cuniculi, he does so only because this adoption has an expiration date: he will abandon the rabbit when his temporary work in the city ends. This is the ethos that permeates the world of O. Cuniculi, where relationships are temporal and facile, where people are nameless and their actions weightless. The most devastating part of this world is that it purges any possibilities of a change. The man who desperately yearns for connections still chooses to abandon the rabbit at the end, and thus Pyun shows how this nightmarish cycle of isolation continues.

It is ironic that the man’s superior describes their job as being “a bridge between cities (8)” – the world depicted in O. Cuniculi is one where there are no bridges between people. Like the anonymous protagonist who is simply called “the man,” Pyun does not assign any names and instead labels characters by their job positions, like “section leader” and “superior.” This anonymity does not give the characters universality as it does in fairy tales or fables, but instead highlights the collective lack of individuality and personhood. For instance, when the man’s section leader changes to a different person, he is still called a section leader: without a name, this change is unnoticeable in the language. People are not ony nameless, but rootless. The man arrives at the city as a “stranger” (15) and quickly notices that everyone else is there temporarily. Pyun thus shows a world that is both transient and indifferent to individuals, and in such a place, isolation is the norm.

Still, in the beginning of the story, the man desperately wants to connect with others. When he finds the rabbit stranded in the park, he feels relief “at the thought that he was not the only one in this world with eyes red from exhaustion.” As the man takes the rabbit home, Pyun beautifully captures this moment of connection: “the slow rhythm of its breath and the twitch capillaries beneath its thin skin captivated the man” (7). The man does not just feel sympathy, but empathy and commonality in this helpless, abandoned rabbit. The man’s struggle for connection is also shown when the man visits his superior’s apartment every day. He first feels “bothered” (12) by his superior’s mysterious disappearance, then increasingly finds it "intolerable" (15) that he has no one to talk to in the city. When he kicks and yells at the door, “I know you’re in there! Open up!” (p11), his declaration reflects his desperate yearning for a relationship.

Yet, the city eventually engulfs the man, as he ultimately resigns and takes part of this culture of indifference and isolation. Part of his resignation comes from the nihilistic realization that this is a world that does not allow any changes. When the man’s section leader is replaced, “everything stayed the same” (16), just like the time he purposely fudges his assignment to see if his error causes any consequences but “nothing came of it” (8). Even when a killer stabs and wounds people with a knife, he remains anonymous – vaguely identified as “a single man in his thirties or forties” (13) on the news – and soon even the brief fear and paranoia in the city fades: “in the end, nothing happened, and the commotion… quieted down” (15). In a world that is indifferent to names and individualities, actions also do not leave a mark -- they are meaningless.

Pyun first signals the man’s transformation when he teaches a young recruit and realizes “he was saying the same thing his own superior had told him before his transfer (17),” even repeating his superior’s hunting dog metaphor. Then he follows his superior’s footstep by not showing up to work. A strange thing happens: just like he did at his superior’s apartment, someone starts to knock on his door every day at the same time. But now the man is on the other side of the door, refusing to open up to the stranger who desperately wants the connection. He finishes this cycle by abandoning the rabbit, and the man watches as the rabbit – just like the superior -- “vanished into the bushes as it knew what it was supposed to do (20).”

While Pyun never explicitly states what is at the root of this widespread indifference, we see a hint of it when she describes the widespread abandonment of rabbits. Pyun describes that families abandon rabbits because they realize essay rabbits are not affectionate or educational, “not so much pets as freeloaders” (6). In short, caring for rabbits does not constitute a fair transaction. This logic for abandonment becomes more chilling when applied to people: you are disposable when you cannot prove your worth. Pyun adds that there is a larger social element as well to this response: “with the economy always uncertain and hard times never far off, even family members could look disposable” (6). There is a parallel that can be drawn to the contemporary Korean society that is seeing a rise in the “Honjok” culture. The term combines the word “hon” (alone) and “jok” (tribe), and captures the growing tendency in the young generation of Koreans that live a more solitary life instead of a communal one. While there are positive side to the increased sense of autonomy and independence, Pyun shows what happens when this individualism is taken to the extreme, especially in a lens of consummerism that sees relationships as transactions. In such a world, both indiviudality and community break down.

Pyun’s heightened, nightmarish vision of the modern world -- a world “full of abandoned pets” (20) -- serves as a powerful warning for what happens when relationships are measured only through its use. The city that banishes the impracticality in relationships become sterile and inhumane. Pyun inversely points out that it is only through the net of connections and social world that human life can truly flourish.