The stories in Caroline Kim’s collection The Prince of Mournful Thoughts all relate in some way to Korea, Koreans, or the Korean diaspora. Each story has a unique viewpoint character. The wide range of stories are often quite personal, the principal conflicts primarily having to do with familiar or other personal relationships. The pieces are also scattered through time; the eponymous story takes place in the early 19th century, itself being a frame story for one in the 18th. “Therapy Robot” seems to be set in the near-future, perhaps late 21st century. Many time periods in between these are represented, including both the modern day and the Korean War. All together in a single cohesive form, the stories allow us to see the many different aspects and struggles of the Korean people and their descendants, without reducing them to a monolith, and indeed exhibiting the struggles of individual characters in unique, effective manners. A rural Korean woman deals with her desire for and lack of children, a prince is driven to extremes by lack of love from his father, a middle-aged woman engages in a tryst with a younger man as she contemplates the untimely death of her husband. Each of these characters and many more are written and explored exquisitely by Kim’s hand.
To further highlight the adeptness with which the individuals’ stories are told, let us take a look at some of the various lenses Kim utilizes. In quite a bold choice, the very first story is written in purposefully incorrect English from the very first line, “The doctor say he no can help me.” This quickly establishes the identity of the protagonist. It is almost as if he is relating the story to us aloud. Still, the style does not impede comprehension of the narrative in any way, and many tender and painful moments are felt clearly, with no loss of emotional weight due to the self-imposed limitation of this particular style. We are pulled along by the simple prose, and into the more complex story and thoughts of Mr. Oh.
The only narrator that is not Korean is that of “The Prince of Mournful Thoughts.” An epistolary story, it is an excerpt of a memoir written by one Jeremiah Davies, a traveler, who in said excerpt is relating the story of Yi Young Dal, who had, in his younger days, worked in the royal court. And so, even here, though filtered through and translated by one narrator, the true narrator is still Korean. I find Kim’s use of perspective here, and throughout the collection, to be both interesting and engaging.
Apart from these two noteworthy examples, it is also important to get a feel for the more typical style of writing in the collection. “Not Usual for Korean” follows a college-aged young woman and her family, dealing with the relative unsuccessfulness of her brother. Throughout the piece, we see important insights into the protagonist. Her relationship with her family, of course, but also more mundane things, such as her fascination with Cézanne, and her relationship with her boyfriend. The character of Evan, said boyfriend, is fascinating by itself. There are many significant details to him, that he plays the electric viola, and when asked to “Can that shit, you freak,” by a floormate down the hall, responds simply with “I’m sorry, friend.” Kim clearly puts in mountains of effort to create beautifully realized characters, even when they are not the focus of the story.
The Prince of Mournful Thoughts is a unique collection. The Korean themes and through-lines are clear, and each story works wonderfully together with the rest to achieve a general commentary on the Korean diaspora. Still, each one of these stories holds its own individual thoughts and ideas about the wider world, and each one works well on its own. While perhaps intended to work as a book primarily about Korean experiences, the themes and struggles of the characters, while resonating particularly with the particular audience, are also universal. Each individual character is emphasized as their own person in a sea of persons. Each navigates their culture or cultural mix in their own unique way, and each comes to their own thoughtful conclusions on the world. As each story ends, we are left with an impression of the protagonist. The story ends, but the character does not. Each still lives on in the mind, their own complete person in our thoughts. In essence, though the broader arc of the collection is centered around a culture and its diaspora, Kim does not neglect the individual, and makes them shine on the page, each beautifully unique.
The Prince of Mournful Thoughts and Other Stories, by Caroline Kim. Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania: University of Pittsburgh Press, October 2020. 222 pages. $23.00, hardcover.
Philip Clapper is an avid writer and even more avid reader living in Charleston, South Carolina. A recent graduate cum laude of Winthrop University, he double majored in history and modern languages. The abstract to his research on medieval medical practices was published in Winthrop’s 2021 Undergraduate Scholarship and Creative Activity.