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On “Pocket Money” by Mi Jin Kim

February 2, 2022 by Laura Preston

Mi Jin Kim’s story "Pocket Money," which appears in A Public Space No. 30, is placid, plainly told, and yet it hides all kinds of violent sorrows. To borrow a line from Joy Williams, the story has a “clean clear surface with much disturbance below.” It’s best to read it slowly, once or twice or even three times.

I’ve read a bit of Kim’s work by now. (Most of it is yet unpublished, though I’m sure this won’t be the case for long). Her stories largely take place in Los Angeles's Koreatown. Among the characters who skulk about her pages, many are men, most are solitary, and food is a common preoccupation. Her characters nurse acute cravings, not just for flavors, but for the somatic and psychic experience of eating. They obsess over the sounds of foods, and their smells, their temperatures, their packaging and residue, how foods are carried by peristalsis through the gullet and bowels. Love between humans is rarely expressed in this world; the most emphatic love is lavished on snacks, on cold pop whispering in an aluminum can, on a chip bag opening with a puff of air, on freezing, flaming shots of liquor. (In another recent story of Kim's, “The Prince,” in Crazyhorse, there’s a description of a KFC meal that moves me deeply). Everyone walks around with private, ferocious hunger because everyone is trying to live. I suspect that when Kim writes, she’s relishing words in a similar way. But she’s not interested in prime rib, yuzu caviar, and sea urchin foam; she’s savoring the everyday fare. Stark, simple words are like those plain hard candies that when sucked on long enough start to fizz. When you get to the scene in the bathhouse, don't miss the “we” in the second paragraph. That “we”! It’s so good I can’t stand it.

In the Mi Jin Kim universe, morality is frighteningly relative, and I like “Pocket Money” as preliminary instructions for reading her work. The final line strikes me as an improvised road map, jotted hastily on an envelope: “It was a body hanging from a rod, or kelp in dark water—that depended on how you saw things, and who you were.”

—Laura Preston

You can read "Pocket Money" by Mi Jin Kim here.

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