If there is one universal truth it’s that we all have to work. From off-the-grid farmers to the children of wealthy socialites, no one is exempt from some form of labor. Some people find fulfillment in their jobs, but it’s much more common for an individual to have simply made a truce with the concept of employment. The sad fact of the matter is if you want to survive, you’re going to need money. And the way to make money is to work. But what happens when the money you’re bringing in isn’t enough? What do you do when what you’re capable of achieving is constantly getting overlooked? These existential capitalist fears are at the center of K.J. Kwon’s new novella The Bully.
In The Bully, a young man from a small town lands a plush gig at a highly regarded marketing firm in Seoul. At first, things look pretty rosey. His boss seems kind, and the work looks like it will be both creative and rewarding. But things start to fall apart when he decline’s his boss’s sexual advances. Soon, he’s missing deadlines and making major blunders in presentations, all carefully orchestrated by his vindictive direct report. Unfortunately for this young marketing associate, gaslighting becomes the least of his worries as he begins to be haunted by an otherworldly presence. Is his boss somehow behind it? Or are the grueling hours and endless due dates finally taking their toll?
Toxic work environments can feel like a nightmare, and K.J. Kwon’s The Bully takes that traumatic situation to a supernatural level.
Terms like “Kafkaesque” have been used so often to describe fiction that its meaning has all but dissolved. And yet, the term fit’s Kwon’s book to a tee. The Bully’s protagonist struggles forward in a world of constantly shifting deadlines and priorities guided by an increasingly illogical set of rules laid out by manager Dabin. She is the quintessential “psycho boss” who hides her cruelty from higher ups with soft smiles and quiet reassurances while gathering a pound of flesh from her subordinates behind closed doors.
It’s not just Kwon’s villain that fits the Kafka-style archetype either. The loose, dreamlike descriptions leave the reader in a kind of setting purgatory. Is our hero still at the office? Or, has he traveled home at some point? One moment he’s sitting at his desk; the next Dabin is closing the door to her office behind him. It’s as if the character is forever simultaneously in two places at once—a feeling many in the workforce know well.
While the focus of The Bully is supernatural, it’s what Kwon has to say about modern work culture that is truly terrifying. A person needs money to live, and they get that money through employment. Once that structure is set into place, a worker’s boss has complete control over their lives. As long as they care about their job, there’s nothing they can do but obey. Of course, when you’re not in a toxic situation it can be hard to understand why someone wouldn’t just leave. But it’s never that easy, is it?
Lovers of the macabre are well versed in the frights that ghosts and demons can bring. But K.J. Kwon’s The Bully shows us that the 9-to-5 can be just as petrifying.