Book Review: “Tower,” Bae Myung-Hoon

cover of “Tower” featuring a large tower in the center, surrounded by small squares showing various scenes from within the tower; the cover is a mixture of purple and red hues

I went into Tower rather blindly, and was tickled by what I found. Beanstalk is a 674-story building with 500,000 residents and exists not only as a building, but also a sovereign state. It’s referred to as a “modern-day Tower of Babel” by detractors. Each story is about a part of Beanstalk and they are all interconnected, down to the dog that we are introduced in the first story, “Three Wise Recruits, The Version Including the Dog,” which is worth buying the book to read on its own. Even though I agree that this story was 5 stars, I don’t agree with another reviewer that the rest are 1 star.

In “Three Wise Recruits, The Version Including the Dog,” a professor of the Beanstalk Tacit Power Research sets out to examine the flow of power within Beanstalk, and much to his surprise, uncovers that not all is as it seems. This story was absolutely brilliant.

“In Praise of Nature” was something of a miss for me. It’s about “a guy who hasn’t gone out of the building once for more than a decade [who] sit[s] around praising nature.” K, a writer who has terraphobia, has control of a robot in a house in a town called Frigiliana, Spain, and uses said robot to view the landscape he is so terrified of actually setting foot on. Even though I understand the sentiments expressed (“One could not say it was wrong of K to write about a round world while living trapped in a square one”), something felt missing from the piece. The story written by K in the back of the book was a snooze-fest.

“Taklamakan Misdelivery” was one of my favorite stories. It’s the story of two star-crossed lovers, one of whom goes on to live and work in Beanstalk and one of whom decides to join the military in order to be able to go live in Beanstalk after he completes his tour. (Beanstalk, “despite sitting on foreign territory, [denies] visa-free entry to even that foreign territory’s citizens.”) The pilot’s plane is shot down in the Taklamakan Desert and his chances of being found are close to zero, as he was on a covert mission and the Beanstalk Defense Forces aren’t supposed to be in the area. His lover, working from inside Beanstalk, decides to use the postal system in Beanstalk to amass an army of people who work together by using images of the Taklamakan Desert on the Internet to hopefully find the downed pilot.

“The Elevator Manuever Exercise” is noteworthy because it mentions a book written about level 520, which you can read in the appendix of the book. The fact that the author did this absolutely tickles me (there I go, using that word again). “The book literally just talks about Level 520 but, wow, to think that such a moving story could come out of that one floor–this meant there were over six hundred more such worlds in the rest of Beanstalk.” This story was unremarkable otherwise, despite setting up a unique power play between “h-wingers” and “v-wingers,” or “horizontalists” and “verticalists,” referring to how people place importance in the levels of Beanstalk.

“The Buddha of the Square” is a series of letters between a brother-in-law and a sister-in-law. The brother-in-law gets a security guard position within Beanstalk, and is then told that the actual position involves taking care of an elephant to be used as riot control. (“The higher-ups say the only solution is to do exactly what people used to do two thousand years ago: shields, clubs, and elephants.”) I feel like this story could have been stronger, but it was interesting to have it written in the style of letters, although that made the reader feel a bit distant from the actual actions being described in the letters.

“Fully Compliant” focuses on the war between Beanstalk and the neighboring territory of Cosmomafia. It follows the story of Sehriban, a Muslim resident of Beanstalk who is a Cosmomafia informant and has been waiting on an order to attack for going on seven years. I really wish that the author would have used a made-up religion rather than paint the Muslim residents as terrorists, as that is a dangerous and over-played trope.

I would have loved to see more of Café Beans Talking, a “regular coffee shop… [that] was originally a freight distribution center shared by local horizontal labor unions.” That’s the barista in me, however. In reality, a hundred more stories could be written about the tower, but the ones in this collection that stood out were the first story, a clear 5 star story, and “Taklamakan Misdelivery,” which struck me as something very real. I really appreciated the interconnectedness of the stories, and it is evident that real time and care were put into this fictional world. It’s easily one of the best books I’ve read this year.

“Someone once told me that good-humored people never become writers. That people who nurse grudges and write them down when nobody is looking instead of immediately talking them out are the ones that become writers.”

Bae Myung-Hoon

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